A HAPPY REUNION
A few weeks back, Golden Fleece had a reunion. What is Golden Fleece, I hear you say?
It was the name a group of 30 DC organizational storytellers called themselves back in 2002-3. The name, inspired by the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, stuck as the shorthand for our regular meetings over a period of 5 years to explore ideas for change that narrative offered.
Some of us were from the peforming circles. Others who were organizational consultants. Some were working at the World Bank or NASA. What a creative lot we all were. Evidence of that is just to look at the books we have written, Steve Denning, Seth Kahan, Madelyn Blair, Paul Costello, Lynne Feingold, Patti Digh, Kelly Cressap, Alicia Korten, and others with books still in progress. (Rob Creekmore) Looking back now, it was such a hive of innovation, featuring so many different personalities, large and larger, creating a safe space to invent.
We even helped to stage one day conferences at the Smithsonian on Organizational Storytelling and later our own Conferences. There was a lot of excitement around the challenge of taking narrative into corporate board rooms, convincing the number crunchers that graphs and annual reports didn’t quite cut it anymore. Back then, stories were seen as soft and mushy, too subjective to replace hard data. We sounded like heretics in exile, pleading with the world, why won’t you believe in stories? World Bank Leader, Steve Denning’s first book “The Springboard” ( my favorite) was the first and most passionate defense of story to these corporate sceptics.
Catching up this month, we could bask in the glory of having helped convinced corporates from the Pentagon to Panasonic that story is hot, story is the only way, story is the future. What was on the fringe is now mainstream. “Welcome home exiles,” we said, for the heretics have became the gurus of the new orthodoxy.
The reunion was a way to see how far we had come. Most had moved on to other things, of course, incorporating stories into their practice as a matter of habit. It was no big deal anymore. Stories have won. Everyone is using them. And yet, like unashamed enthusiasts, we all renewed our faith- what we felt back then, we still feel now. Stories are Us. We were vindicated by the future we helped create. Wow. Jason, your journey is over. We found the Golden Fleece.
Except for one dissenting voice.
A founder of Golden Fleece, once the chief enthusiast and trainor in narrative method, confessed that he looked back with mixed emotions. Rejoicing, yes, but also with regrets. Stories were destroying the world, he said. And what can we do about it?
For him, looking back, Golden Fleece was a once in a lifetime flourishing of narrative creativity. It felt like Vienna must have felt to Freud in the 1920’s. But what happened to Vienna in the 1940s? Something went horribly wrong. The creatives fled for their lives.
From exile, they could ponder- what they had invented and what had happened to their world. From insight to blindsight to hindsight in only 20 years. In the face of fascism, they saw their new task was to use their critical understandings to undo the damage that some of their ideas had unleashed on the world. Hitler may have burnt Freud’s books but he used Freud’s ideas. Terror is the ultimate psychological game. We story creatives, like them, never got around to developing any methods of narrative criticality. We were in the business of promoting the power of stories, not protecting people from them. It did not seem necessary because we were so devoted to doing good, like all enthusiasts. We fervently believed our own story.
The dissenter of course was me. I did not want to sound critical or unappreciative of what we had done. Stories have power. That is what we were claiming. But we could not guarantee that their power was always for the good. I was sharing the experiences of my own journey.
Now, when faced with 2020/4 Election Denial or Covid and Climate Skeptics, or Black History revisionism, or Russian aggresssion, or NYC congress members lying themselves into office, stories have been weaponized to distort and degrade people’s sense of what is true. No one is sure who to trust anymore because the liars have stolen the best stories.
Nightly news networks are devoted to spreading the lies, a franchise making millions out of the disenfranchised. Why? Not because they can. No, its a question of economy. Lying is a better investment prospect than the truth. The Truth will make you free, said Jesus, not rich. Rupert Murdoch understood that.
Even our story about stories has started to sound off key, like a myth or a fetish. While Bernnie Madoff was telling his Ponzi scheme to steal money from the rich, we are teaching the power of story to get rich, in all our innocence. When Russia loads propoganda with every rocket they fire on Ukraine, here I am still promoting a story based peace program for Israel and Palestine.
Is it time for a pause? Should we now move ourselves back into exile, the place we started from, and take a measure of the damage that “story as lies” is doing. That to me is our urgent challenge.
I had never heard myself or anyone else coin the phrase of narrative criticality before, but for some in the room, it stuck. What actually did it mean? Perhaps we have all been to see Oppenheimer, and the word “criticality” shows up among the Los Alamos scientists. Did I even know how I was using the term. The NRC defines criticality as
“The condition involving fission of nuclear materials when the number of neutrons produced equals or exceeds the nuclear containment. During normal reactor operations, nuclear fuel sustains a fission chain reaction or criticality. A reactor achieves criticality (and is said to be critical) when each fission event releases a sufficient number of neutrons to sustain an ongoing series of reactions.”
If we are talking about narratives instead of neutrons, we might say that stories are the fuel for stories. They are told and retold so as to form into a contagious force that energizes a story storm, one that coalesces into a super spreader system. Even when they clash, the conflict melds them into a mutually dependent system. We start defining ourselves by what we are against. A rumor here or a whistleblower there soon grows into becomes a full blown conspiracy, empowered by the contagion of social media. Though we might never had thought of it in these terms before, Stories ARE the nuclear option. We are now at the point of urgency, of Narrative Criticality.
NOT WHAT WE INTENDED
We thought we had found a new power for good, to transform companies into more human places, to change government into a life giving organization. But someone stole our fire. Stories have become a nuclear reaction that releases more stories which then provoke more stories, and there is no end to it. Even before election day 2016, soon to be elected President Trump refused to say that he would accept defeat. We could see this coming from a mile away.
Our political life post 2020 is epilogue to the great deception sealed into that story. The lie will not die, and it still does its damage, like 50 years after Hiroshima, the radiation still does its damage. The power of stories? They can destroy us, slowly or quickly, and all the while, radiate a culture to dangerous levels of toxicity.
We say ourselves and hear others say that we feel deeply troubled with the direction of public life, that we are at a threshold, or in some sort of malaise. And then we lamemt how vast has grown this Kingdom of the Lie.
A third of the nation believes the 2020 election was stolen. Many of them will vote for a candidate, whether he is a convicted criminal or not. For some, the more crimes the better. Many believe Climate change is a hoax and Covid was China’s secret weapon. Another proportion think that Biden is some mafia boss that should be impeached, or he is controlled by the Deep State. Some want to teach that slavery was a good career move, and women have no rights other than to be birth machines. And Justices of the Supremest of Superior Courts, basking in the story of their unearned privilege, now claim that affirmative action stopped with them, and they can invent their own ethics, or don’t need to follow anyone but their own rules for entitlements and gifts.
Stories? What used to get us so excited about how they could transform the world? It feels to me they have become a plague. What is the antidote? Is there one? We never expected this to happen. But perhaps we should have.
CREATE IN AN UNCRITICAL SPACE
Times of enmormous creativity, like the invention of the internet or radium or psyshedelic drugs all explode into non-critical spaces. That is necessary for the free rein of the imagination, and to explore what could be possible. Censorship is the death of creativity. Ask Galileo. Ask your Mom- she never wanted you to go out with that girl who became your wife. ( your first- she liked your third, lets be fair) The glory days of Golden Fleece were not the time to be critical.
It is only after a time can we see what the growing use of stories have wrought. This is that time, a day of Reckoning of sorts. What do we know from here that we did not know from there? We could do the same on many other fronts too.
The internet has proved to be as greater a gift to porn stars and pedophiles as it is to zoom family reunions. It was as much a boon for the free sharing of information as to hack attacks, stealth intelligence, cyber leaks and stealing our identities. Who could have known that back then?
The untrammelled development of nuclear power is another sober example. Full throttle scientific ingenuity will only lead to more and more lethal weapons, as Oppenheimer feared. He wanted Los Alamos closed. But it went on and they shut him down. The threat the weapons were created to quell is replaced by the threat they themselves have become. The power of the atom that could revolutionize the world comes to be a weapon that holds the world to ransom. That is what the power of stories have done. There is something Promethean about our dilemma The monster who stole the fire now torches the world. Who could have predicted that? And yet, we have to face it. What can be done?
This Fall, this heretic is going to put his money, or his time where his mouth is and offer a series of workshops exploring Narrative Criticality, just as 20 years back, we ran trainings in Narrative Creativity.
What skills do we need to develop or reclaim what used to be our gospel, our turf? We even wrote a book on that in 2008 where we saw it all coming. We called it The Presidential Plot: and no, it is not by Special Counsel Jack Smith.
TAKE BACK THE STORY
Call it “Taking back the Narrative” we will gather to ponder- How to equip every citizen to withstand the onslaught of story empires that are becoming more and more totalitarian. If we know how to make them, we know how to break them. This is part of our first amendment rights- the right to speak, not to be conned. The stories we are being fed insult our intelligence. As an audience, our politicians and leaders are treating us like chumps. This is the time for the audience to stage a rebellion. Stop treating us like idiots.
One of our favorite Ted Talks is called the “Danger of the Single Story.” Its theme challenges us to take story out of the space of creativity, personal development and performance, where it thrives, and into the context of power and freedom,where it kills.
If we invented the term “Narrative Crititicality” as part of the inspiration from Nolan’s film Oppenehimer, let’s not waste the chance and give it currency. Let us make it mean applying our narrative critical skills to protect ourselves from deception. Let us learn the way stories hijack our intention through the winning of attention, how they capture our interest without any intention of representing our interests. We know the tools of story power. We use them ourseleves. Time to share the secrets and expose the dark craft, call out the trickery.
2024 is also an election year where billions are going to be spent by the spin masters who have proven to us they mastered the story skills we pioneered. They learned fast and furious enough to now leave us in their wake, and the world at their mercy. It is time to fight back. Take back the story. Can you see the campaign button. I can. Bring it on.