Image by Dan4th Nicholas used under CC BY 2.0 (cropped)

I suspect more than one reader of Mythcreants has wondered why we don’t just stick to the technical advice and avoid all that political stuff. Why are articles with wording exercises and obscure weapons intermixed with long rants on gender equality and unjustified violence?

It’s because our primary focus is storytelling, and you should no more separate social justice from storytelling than you would neglect spices in a blog about cooking. That’s because…

Storytelling Relies On Cultural Analysis

It’s difficult to overestimate the influence of culture. It shapes whether we see our world as a chaotic realm in need of order, a synchronized pattern of occurrences that are meant to be, or the random events of a meaningless universe. It dictates not just what we think but also how we think. When we face a problem, culture helps determine whether we solve it by punching numbers in a computer or by negotiating with everyone who has a stake in the outcome.

It also sets rules for how we interact with each other. In one culture an anonymous writer is a malicious trickster, and in another culture the same writer is a humble contributor that forgoes credit. In one culture it is rude to accept food without turning it down three times; in another it’s rude to push food on people who don’t want it. Even within a country, these rules are incredibly diverse. It should be no surprise that cultural misunderstandings complicate many of our conversations, and cultural differences drive many of our conflicts.

A storyteller is charged with depicting many people relating to each other in an astounding variety of ways. How can a storyteller with no understanding of culture hope to craft interactions that feel genuine? They can’t. They can only depict echoes of themselves, mixed with caricatures that reflect their shallow understanding of everyone else. Their poor imitation will only pass muster for those with the same perspective as them.

An understanding of culture is also needed to craft conflicts that are thoughtful and meaningful. Without knowledge of the differences that divide us, it is challenging to make two people vehemently disagree unless one of them is definitively wrong. Storytellers with poor cultural analysis must resort to cartoonish villainy.

Let’s say the storyteller works in speculative fiction. Now the bar isn’t to merely depict characters and their conflicts but to dream up entirely new societies operating under fictional rules. These fictional cultures are shaped by a variety of strange environments, and then the characters are shaped by the cultures, causing them to clash over cultural differences. Nothing requires an understanding of something like recreating it convincingly.

Cultural Analysis Requires Critical Distance

Just as an understanding of culture is required for strong stories, it is impossible to fully understand a culture if you accept its entire narrative as truth. What we call “myths” are only known to those outside a culture looking in. A culture never knows its own myths, because it labels them under “facts.”

It is incredibly beneficial to have first-hand experience participating in a culture. The more cultures you have experienced, the better. But to equally embrace all elements of a culture is to exempt it from objective analysis and let it color your stories without your active intent. If you believe a cultural narrative that men are inherently less introspective than women, then your male characters won’t be self-aware. This won’t be because you set out to make them that way, but because you set out to depict men, and your idea of men includes this limitation.

Even worse, the more cultural narratives you believe without active analysis, the less capable you will be of depicting another culture. Trying to create another culture without examining your own is like handling a white shirt after picking berries. The berry juice will rub off, and your shirt won’t be white anymore. You can’t wash your hands of berry juice if you can’t even tell the juice is there. Similarly, you can’t depict a culture that views men as more self-reflective than women if you don’t understand that it’s a cultural viewpoint.

It is inevitable that we will cripple ourselves in this manner occasionally, even when we try not to. When we do, we won’t know it without assistance. Without critical distance on the subject, we can’t evaluate the cultural fingerprint we’ve created with our stories. But we can still listen to feedback from others and maintain objective distance when we do so.

Critical Distance Reveals Troubling Patterns

Once you have critical distance from cultural beliefs, it is impossible to miss that some cultural beliefs are beneficial and some are destructive. Not all cultural patterns fit in either category; many have both strengths and weaknesses. For instance, a cultural focus on individualism might give members the liberty to pursue their own happiness but hinder their ability to understand and cooperate with others. But with enough objective distance, it is impossible to miss cultural practices that hinder the welfare of society as a whole or that inflict suffering on specific groups of people.

As an example, in American culture automobiles represent freedom, independence, and prosperity. But their flaws are great: people who are old, young, poor, or have disabilities are locked out of transportation; cars require enormously expensive infrastructure and tie up excessive amounts of land for parking; they pollute the atmosphere; and they cause tens of thousands of deaths per year. Nonetheless, it has been difficult to move away from cars or even fix their flaws because of a cultural narrative that states they are the only legitimate form of transportation.* Understanding society-wide problems like these will help you give your stories meaning and your worlds depth. However, they aren’t as ingrained in storytelling, because they usually involve larger, more abstract social constructs like economics rather than interpersonal relationships.

Americans also follow a cultural narrative that emphasizes personal sins as the cause of misfortune. As a result, many people with diseases are blamed for having them. It is assumed that people who are obese got that way because of sloth and gluttony, people who are addicted to substances are ridiculed for poor decision making, and people suffering from chronic depression are asked to provide a reason for it. The narrative of personal sin leads to the harassment of those with obesity, the punishment of those who are addicted, and a lack of sympathy and support for those with depression. However, if you’re doing well, this narrative might not harm you. Because it operates in the social sphere and has disproportionate impact on a minority of people, it is an issue of social justice.

There is no story without social justice implications. Every culture has social justice issues, and every one will have narratives to justify the harm, deny the harm, or dismiss the people who are suffering. If the culture recognized its own problems, they wouldn’t be there. A strong storyteller understands culture well enough to see through the justifying narrative and recognize the harm.

Storytellers Can Influence Those Patterns

Once you understand the harmful narratives that are a part of any culture, it is impossible to ignore the role that storytellers have in perpetuating them. It only takes one popular story to make a noticeable impact on widespread beliefs. For instance, the movie Jaws is famous for creating fear and hysteria regarding shark attacks. While the reality is that shark attacks are rare, the movie depicted a shark that not only attacked people but also remembered individuals and sought revenge on them. It led to the widespread, inhumane slaughter of sharks for sport, decimating their numbers. Even today fear of sharks deters people from swimming in the ocean.

Jaws is just one story. When many of our stories emit the same cultural narratives, their influence is inescapable. Even if they express ideas that run counter to what happens in day to day life, confirmation bias will make it appear as if they match. Let’s say you’ve read a lot of books recently where female characters were emotional, and it’s given you a small bias toward thinking women are emotional in general. Every time you see a woman exhibiting emotion, you’d probably think, “She’s being emotional because women do that.” However, when you see a woman who isn’t emotional, you might think, “She must not understand the issue because she isn’t getting upset.” Even if the women around you weren’t emotional at all, you could believe they were. Then if you wrote a story with female characters, those characters would be very emotional, spreading the bias further. This self-reinforcing cycle occurs without our conscious awareness or intent, and it is the reason our popular stories depict so many of the same stereotypes.

And just as a diamond purchaser who has never heard of blood diamonds can’t choose to avoid them, someone who isn’t aware of destructive messages can’t write stories without them. Luckily, once a diamond purchaser knows that some diamonds financially support violence, they can make an informed purchase of certified or antique ones. Similarly, storytellers who have gained critical distance take with it the power to alter the cultural narratives they produce in their work.

Positive Cultural Impact Becomes a Moral Imperative

Human suffering can be measured in many ways, but many of them are too abstract to be compelling. So I’ll just say this: it is a statistical inevitability that destructive cultural patterns will cause the deaths of innocent people.

People with diseases will die because they didn’t get the help they needed. LGBT youth will commit suicide after intense bullying. Women will be killed by their boyfriends and husbands or starve themselves trying to achieve “beautiful” thinness. Black people will be shot by police. Prisoners will die during torture. And that doesn’t even count the times when a person consciously chooses to pick up a weapon and go murder someone because of the negative cultural narratives about them.

The effort we must take to counter negative messages is trivial in comparison. For instance, labeling a single-occupancy bathroom for all genders instead of for specifically men or women could prevent a trans person from being beaten up when they leave. So why wouldn’t you? It’s just a bathroom label. As storytellers, we just have to spare a little thought to the patterns in our stories – which we should be doing anyway, to create the experience we want our audience to have. The effort means little to us and a lot to someone else.

Creating Positive Impact Makes Stories Better

Besides leaving society a little better than how you found it, being mindful of your impact will also benefit your story and its reception.

  • Your story will appeal to a wider audience. Those who have disabilities, are from an ethnicity or race in the minority, are queer, or are otherwise outside what’s considered default might be minorities when counted alone, but together that’s a lot of people. The more your story aims for positive impact, the less people will be turned off because you unintentionally insulted them or didn’t have enough to offer them.
  • Your story will have a longer lifespan. Culture changes quickly, and in the last century it’s changed in the pro-social justice direction. What seem like minor problems to us today will be large ones in the next generation.
  • Your story will be more interesting. The stereotypes that are damaging are also boring, because they’ve been done so often. Breaking negative cultural conventions will make your work more fresh and memorable.

Who doesn’t want their story to be a memorable classic that appeals to a broad audience?

It’s Easy to Create Positive Impact

Cultural analysis is a skill that must be built over time. It requires pursuing knowledge over many years. Even then, we’ll never completely understand culture or agree about it.

But you know what? Social Justice 101 is an easy course! Here’s a simple guide to getting started.

  1. Write your story as you normally would.
  2. Switch around the genders of your characters.
  3. While you’re doing that, make a character or three gay or trans.
  4. Change some characters’ names to ones that don’t scream “white people.”
  5. Make some characters heavy, old, or otherwise conventionally unattractive.
  6. Give a character a disability that doesn’t hinder them, because they adapted to it years ago.

You may need to switch some pronouns or modify some physical description, but you’ll get better results with less effort if you do this after your story is written. If you do it before, you run the risk of writing all the destructive cultural narratives about your swapped characters into the story with them.

The result? Imagine an employer looking over the resume of a woman named Lakisha. Resumes with African American names are 50% less likely to get a response than equivalent resumes with white names. But instead of looking at the name “Lakisha” and subconsciously putting it at the bottom of the pile, this employer looks at this name and thinks, “That’s the name of the character that slew dragons and brought peace to the galaxy in the book I read last week.” Because you gave your character a different name, someone got the job they deserved.

Here at Mythcreants we instruct readers about storytelling. That means helping our readers hone their cultural analysis. A storyteller that blunders into sending messages they didn’t intend has skill inferior to one that weaves intelligent commentary into their work. A story that is culturally aware is better, both creatively and morally.

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