PEACE in Action

Storytelling and Creating a Culture of Peace

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Building a Culture of Peace in Schools and Communities
Storytelling and Creating a Culture of Peace

This is the decade when the UN General Assembly has asked us to create a culture of peace. We're late getting started, and the project is a daunting one. Some people believe, along with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that it may be possible to create a better society, but only if we can start with fresh material—children who have not been spoiled by contact with the depravities of existing society. Sorry, but we have to start with what we have—kids who have already begun internalizing the prejudices and loyalties of the adults around them. No culture of peace can exist among children unless it is matched by a similar culture in the adult society. We have to create a culture of peace for both grown-ups and children at the same time.

Fortunately, the method that works best for children also works for adults: storytelling. Just as Sesame Street can teach kids new social values (at least temporarily), so too popular TV dramas and movies can shape the outlook of their parents. Adults often form intense personal bonds with fictional characters, especially in series that extend over several years. This fact offers us powerful cultural tools to work with, for some dramas actually reach television audiences of over one billion. Today, popular soap operas in developing countries are educating whole populations about health, adult literacy programs, family planning, HIV-AIDS, and forced child marriages. So far, no series have been produced to teach conflict management, which is what we need to promote.

Scriptwriters in Hollywood, unlike those in Africa, India, and China, don't try to influence the values of adult viewers. Instead, they regard themselves as producers of commodities for a market, seeking to satisfy a demanding audience and draw high ratings. While they do influence the opinions of viewers, those viewers in turn also exert considerable influence over them, notably by demanding that the plots turn out in satisfying ways, according to the moral deservingness of the characters. Even child audiences have strong moral judgments about the acceptability of various outcomes.

Thus in an experiment, the communications researchers Dolf Zillmann and Jennings Bryant made a children's movie about a good prince and a bad prince. The bad guy gains control of the kingdom and banishes the good guy. However, the good prince eventually regains power and can retaliate.

Three different endings were produced. In the first one, the good prince punishes his tormentor equitably—neither more nor less than he himself had been mistreated. In the second ending, he under punishes the bad prince; in the third ending, he over punishes him.

The children enjoyed the movie—at least so long as the bad prince got his just desserts. But they were disturbed by both of the other endings. When the bad prince was under punished, the children disliked him intensely and even disliked the good prince too for failing to punish him enough. But when the bad prince was punished excessively, the children pitied him and stopped disliking him. They liked the good prince only when he imposed "fair" punishment—neither too much nor too little.

Adults display the same demand for justice. We want bad characters to get their comeuppance and for good guys to be fortunate in the end. Aristotle advised playwrights that, if they write a tragedy about a protagonist who'll come to a bad end, he should be neither completely good (lest his undeserved bad luck demoralize the audience) nor completely evil (lest the audience gloat gleefully over his miserable downfall). Instead, he should be a middling character—about as good as ourselves, so we will pity him even though he has earned his punishment.

Thus the researchers Zillmann and Bryant, as well as Aristotle, recognize vindictiveness in the human personality. Having judged another person to be morally flawed, most people, both children and adults alike, enjoy watching him suffer. Still, however "normal" this sadistic desire for retribution may be, it is not compatible with a culture of peace, nor is it the mark of a morally advanced personality. Indeed, Aristotle made it clear that the value of tragedy lay in its capacity to lift audiences above their own spitefulness and contempt, transforming their attitude into pity and compassion for wrongdoers —attitudes that are emotionally and morally superior to the blame that people heap on culprits in everyday life.

Stories today, however, rarely aim to lift us out of our vindictiveness—quite the contrary! The most popular TV shows and movies today exploit and reinforce this desire for retribution. Their plots involve the pursuit and punishment of a wrongdoer. Police shows (e.g., CSI, Law and Order, 24, and Numbers) are perfect examples. There's a demand for shows with action and suspense about cops tracking down a criminal to kill or incarcerate him. Such plots never question the social value of punishment or explore the benefits of restoring criminals back into productive, peaceable lives. Their entertainment value comes entirely from the thrilling sport of hunting human beings. Besides these cop shows, there are other dramas, such as war films, in which the protagonist engages in a conflict with a blameworthy adversary over whom he triumphs in the end.

The satisfaction that comes from blaming and punishing bad guys is apparently normal, but it is not optimal. When we blame someone, we exclude him from empathy and reject any feeling of common humanity with him. The more we blame others, the more we experience our world as a hostile place. A culture of peace feels exactly the opposite way. A practical step toward creating a culture of peace is to reduce the production of stories about blame and retribution, and increase stories about redemption, mercy, forgiveness, and the solution of problematic relationships.

The least promising place for creating a culture of peace is in the middle of a battle. After war has broken out, people invariably justify their own side and vilify their opponents. It is impossible to persuade them to cool their rhetoric and discuss the dispute together rationally. Even though it is not possible to interrupt a war, it is sometimes possible to prevent one by getting people to overcome the habit of mutual blaming.

Every conflict that ends in war begins with a preliminary stage of apportioning blame for some unsatisfactory situation. In peacetime, it is possible to teach people alternatives to blaming. Indeed, the most promising way of building a culture of peace, for adults and children alike, is to demonstrate with fictional examples various beneficial alternatives to blame—especially adventurous quests for solutions, which can be just as gripping as plots about punishment.

Blaming cannot be abolished entirely—only reduced—because justice requires accountability. However, societies have existed that did not blame much, just as there are certain individuals in our own society who rarely blame anyone. Even in a court of law, mercy has a place. Though we cannot eliminate blame completely, we can diminish it, replacing it instead with a problem-solving orientation. Instead of finding whom to punish, such stories show how to fix problems. They suggest a future-orientation rather than a rehashing of past mistakes.

Every story needs some conflict and tension in order to be interesting. There must be at least one character who wants something she doesn't have; the story involves her effort to realize her wish. Such tension can be exciting, yet end in a satisfying way by illustrating a brilliant solution. For example, the movie about the good and bad princes might have ended with the bad prince apologizing and the good prince forgiving him. Redemption is a morally satisfying ending that can point out solutions rather than relying on trite formulas of retribution.

We need to reform current storytelling habits. You may consider this unrealistic, but I think it is attainable. A good initial goal might be to shift the content of commercially-produced stories by, say, ten percent. This will influence public policies in subtle ways. Culture does matter, and some organizations already are working toward goals that are compatible with our own. For example, the Center for Disease Control funds an office in Hollywood that provides accurate health information for scriptwriters to work into their stories. Last year they influenced the plots of over twenty hours of prime time television shows. In the same way, information can be woven into scripts about real human problems. Jeffrey Skoll's company, Participant Productions, has shown the way by producing profit-making films with messages about global warming, sexual harassment, nonviolence, and the corrupt politics of oil.

Still, showbiz is an industry, and not many producers work, as Skoll does, for altruistic motives. To introduce truly significant reductions in the punitiveness and blaming of programming, we have to stop regarding cultural products as items for individual consumption and start thinking of culture as an environment that we all share and should protect. Cultural products always are subsidized; they have to be. Our challenge is to find forms of subsidization that restore to us some of the power now wielded by entertainment moguls. For example, we can enact laws allowing everyone to allocate, say, $300 per year of our taxes to a fund supporting artistic productions that we believe in. This will avoid the problem of censorship, while encouraging innovative, inspiring, socially meaningful stories.

A culture of peace is possible. Let's create it!

Metta Spencer is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto, Canada, where she coordinated a program in peace and conflict studies. She is the author of a new book, Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society. She maintains a blog at:

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