Episode 1: What is Narrative Change? with Jee Kim and Romain Vakilitabar
Listen to the episode here:
Read the transcript here:
[00:00:02] Jee Kim (JK): It's interesting to kind of see the ways in which narratives are quite powerful reinforcers of both norms expectations, images, stereotypes, that define not just a culture, but also, you know, folks, the folks who maybe in the margins of that culture as well.
[00:00:33] Jennifer Gottesfeld (JG): You're listening to The Other Story, a podcast about the stories we live by. Each episode, we'll examine a dominant narrative in our society and ask how it came to be, how it might be changed, and the role the entertainment industry has played on reinforcing or deconstructing it.
[00:00:51] JG: I'm your host, Jennifer Gottesfeld. Today I have with me two incredible narrative change thought leaders, Jee Kim and Romain Vakilitabar. Jee is currently a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he's examining the power of worldviews and paradigms. Jee previously ran the Narrative Initiative, an organization using narrative thinking to help make social justice and equity common sense. Romain is the founder of PathosLabs and PopShift, a space that convenes behavioral scientists, issue area experts and television writers to explore ways to effectively integrate equity perspectives into the content and to consider their roles as engineers of cultural norms in today's society. Thank you guys so much for being here with me today to kick off this podcast series.
[00:01:38] Romain Vakilitabar (RV): Exciting. We're excited too.
[00:01:44] JG: So let's start out with a basic question to ground in, which is when we talk about narratives and use the language of narrative change, what what are we actually talking about?
[00:01:53] JK: When I talk about narrative and narrative change, it's really with an eye towards how do we get to how people think and make sense of the world? What are the kind of belief systems that allow people to interpret phenomenon in the world and then act upon their interpretations. So it's really a way to kind of go a little deeper than may be articulated at the surface. And also, I think narrative and stories, as part of that, are incredibly useful because, you can't really go up to someone and ask them what their worldview is and then try to change their worldview or their mental models from a conversation, you have to figure out how to access and move people and tap these deeper models, not by the front door, but rather, by the way they manifest most visibly, which is in narratives and stories. So that's what I mean when I talk about narrative.
[00:03:02] RV: A lot of this I've learned from Jee actually. I'm a big fan of yours. So it's an honor to be in on this call with you. But when I think about narrative change, I think about how our world is essentially an amalgamation of imagined ideas, and the one truth really is that here we are living this life. Everything around that is total construction from the idea of nations, to the idea of culture, to the idea of power dynamics that obviously influence how we live and how we interface with one another in the world. So narrative change for me is how do we think about some of these imagined stories that have become our our reality? How do we think about them and how do we also have the chance to influence them for the better? So I think narrative change is such an important thing that I wish more people talked about.
[00:04:29] JG: So those are both wonderful and also very theoretical sort of examples of what narrative changes. I'd love to take us into the more tactical and practical of what does it actually look like to do narrative change work? What are the ingredients, what does it look like on a broad scale in action?
[00:04:51] JK: I appreciate the Jenn, your consistent push to ground that very abstract thinking or this very abstract thinking into the reality of how people live and and translate into social change.
[00:05:10] JK: So I think some of the tools that are probably most obvious and available to us are communications tools, media and communication tools, especially with with Romain's expertise on how new media is proliferating and becoming ever more powerful. But I think when you brought a narrative to be not just about stories, but actually kind of point also to the bigger ambition of how people make sense of the world and interpret the world, you start realizing that narratives are embedded actually everywhere.
[00:05:48] JK: A friend of mine who has a sister with disabilities put it to me once, you know, when she and I see a curb cut, we may not even think about it. But for her sister, a curb cut or a lack of a curb cut signifies or communicates a narrative around what that city or our society values or doesn't value. So and she shared this with me a couple of years ago. And it was a very strong example of the way in which things like urban planning and the built environment are actually embodiments of societal narratives and how we do value certain things and may not value other things as much. So I think certainly in the work of communications and media, it's very present and obvious. But I think it's also there in things like public policy design and urban planning. And as we were speaking briefly about before, things like libraries are, of course, the communication of society's values and the narratives that we choose to promote around kind of collective space and community building. So I think it's once you start digging and kind of pulling the thread, it's it's it really kind of broadens and opens the aperture quite widely.
[00:07:11] RV: Yeah, and you mentioned that these are the things that society values, and I totally agree with that. And I also think that it's a manifestation of who are the loudest voices, and I feel like it's less so maybe a value system and more so an amplification of some voices and maybe an intentional dilution of other narratives or needs or values and yet this this work is to just answer your question practically, I think it's cool because it can be amorphous, right? There are so many different ways in which you can practice narrative change from an individual standpoints to interpersonal and institutional. F or me, I think it's about creating a shared imagination as far as what's possible. And I think that that's important because if we can't imagine it, then we can't construct it, we can't create it. And I think in you know, a lot of our work is really focused on moving forward rather than narrative change as it relates to redefining our pasts, because we all know that our our past has been the story of our past. Our history has been co-opted by by some and many people have been left out of those narratives.
[00:09:02] JG: Speaking of bringing it into the practical, maybe turning our lens towards the entertainment industry and thinking about, I'm curious, what has been the entertainment industry's impact on narratives and narrative change?
[00:09:16] JK: It's so atypical because I like to exert what I call last place privilege, to speak at the end of the after I get a chance to kind of digest what the smart people around me are saying.
[00:09:32] RV: Jee, I can I can give you the the the privilege of coming in second this time around.
[00:09:38] JK: Please. Please. Thank you. I accept that privilege wholeheartedly.
[00:09:48] RV: You got it. Well, there's one story that that really inspired my work. And it's the story of how in the 1980s, the rates of of drunk driving and deaths caused by drunk drivers was at an all time high and in people far and wide. We're trying to figure out what they could do to mitigate the sudden uptick in deaths caused by by drunk drivers. And it wasn't until a professor of public health at Harvard looked at what was happening around the world and found out that in Sweden, they actually had a relatively low rates of deaths caused by drunk drivers. And upon investigation, he realizes that it's because in Sweden they have a concept that exists nowhere else in the world, and it's the concept of the designated driver. And so this professor of public health has this light bulb moment and decides that if we could popularize this concept of the designated driver in the United States, maybe it could have a positive impact. And so he tries for a couple of years to no avail, until he has the chance to interact with that, to meet with the writers of Cheers, the popular sitcom of the 1980s, as well as the writers of The Cosby Show. And he pleads the case for them to just introduce without much context or explanation, the term designated driver and their scripts. And they do so. And over the course of a week, almost 30 million people are exposed to this new term. And unbeknownst to those 30 million people, it change their behavior. And what we saw was a reduction of deaths caused by drunk drivers up to twenty five percent shortly following the introduction of that of that term in the scripts. So that's one case study that I love. I love it so much because it's it's concrete and it shows the power of of a smart individual who has an insight coming together with a television writer or two who are willing to to engage and think about how entertainment can play a role in altering human behavior for the better.
[00:12:34] JK: I love that example. And it also reminds me of the importance of how narratives only gain traction when they feel accessible or familiar. Someone can introduce a narrative to you that is aspirational, but if it doesn't feel accessible and familiar, it won't stick, but if you've been introduced to it multiple times through some of your favorite sitcoms, then suddenly it's not a foreign concept. It is a it is something that your favorite character has kind of embodied or referred to. And suddenly it's that much easier to kind of grok. So I love that example.
[00:13:20] JG: And actually that would be a great segue into what are some of the dominant narratives that we are seeing right now that are being reinforced or perpetuated in our media.
[00:13:30] JK: As I was thinking about this conversation and I was reading about the Amazon worker unionization attempts and the way in which this concept of an essential worker, which really entered our discourse a year or less than a year ago and is suddenly very common parlance, has helped animate the idea that how can you be an essential worker and not be able to make ends meet. So I think the the pandemic has as also kind of brought some of these justifying most of the economic system into crisis. And it's kind of begged for reimagining of new narratives and new systems.
[00:14:18] JK: I mean, cognitive linguistics linguists have pointed this out time and time again of the way in which human beings hold multiple contradictory beliefs at the same time. And the more kind of accessible or kind of culturally familiar way for me, I think is in US culture, the way in which we have both deeply embedded at the same time, a rugged individualism, a Marlboro Western expansion and the rest of it, and kind of barn raising image of, you know, you know, we're all in this together. We help our neighbors. That collectivism and individualism, I think, exists in most, if not all Americans simultaneously. And both are deeply embedded. And the question is, how do you activate what I would say are better angels to help make sense of phenomenon and to guide our behavior?
[00:15:15] JK: Going back to the top of our conversation about kind of how narratives travel through and help form how people make sense of the world. It's like I said, the built environment, its policy, but it's also interpersonal, I think, very importantly, right, we trust our friends and families and our neighbors to help create consensus in ourselves and in our communities of what's happening in the world. So I also think of it not just as a narrative dissemination and communication, but as narrative immersion. How do we kind of create a surrounds that is kind of held not just in the media that we consume, but also in our associations, meaning our our neighbors, our communities, our civic associations, the ways in which, you know, unions, for instance, or social clubs or places where people made sense of the world together is for me, an example of not just dissemination, but actual immersion into a narrative that helps you make that narrative even more durable. And I think the analog, of course, of the political world is where, you know, churches have been such a key vector of disseminating narratives because they are places where people still have that strong social bonds and people congregate regularly and rely upon each other to interpret the world and to inform the direction of behavior that was just quickly looking it up.
[00:16:54] RV: Yeah, you were talking about church. I thought that was really fascinating in that, like, these narratives thrive in a sense of like communities like these narratives thrive when they're socialised in a certain way, confound a confined space with groups of folks. And I was like, huh? I looked at the etymology of of community because I was I was just thinking, as you said, that communicates in community probably come from the same place. And I thought it says community and communicate come from the Latin phrase communis, which refers to common opinion or the generally accepted view, which I think is really interesting, where groups congeal based off of a common opinion, a generally accepted view, and so, yeah, well, what I think is interesting and I think what the threat and what the opportunity is of that is, is now we're given the technologies that are available to us will define communities once again based off of this, you know, generally accepted view that we all share. And I think, you know, less so it's going to be about who's in our physical orbit, who's, you know, our neighbors, who's in our neighborhoods, who's at our schools, and more. So who shares that that idea with us. So that's why I really think that. We really have to hit the ground running in terms of thinking about the importance of narratives, in terms of creating communities that are more pluralistic and kind and equitable and tolerance.
[00:19:05] JK: And, of course, as you were speaking of it, it's dawned on me that churches and synagogues and temples are not just houses of worship. They are, in fact, houses of stories write the Bible and the Koran are some of the most profound animating story books there are in human history. So they are actually edifices of narratives that are used to interpret the world, convey a set of values, translate those values into into civil life. Right. Like the Koran is actually a guide to civil society in many ways. Like it's so it's interesting to kind of think about places of worship as really kind of containers or kind of concentrations of narratives.
[00:19:56] RV: I think one of the things that we're seeing, and I state the media more generally beyond just entertainment, but I think a narrative that we're seeing right now in the media, generally speaking, is the distance between us and them. As it relates to political difference, as it relates to imagining a more tolerant kind of future, I think the media landscape is such where we feel like we have so little in common with individuals who may have different identities, whether that's a political identity, whether that's where they're based geographically, whether that's a different racial identity, sexual orientation, identity. And I think it's becoming harder and harder to reconcile that distance, largely because of how the media landscape is portraying and how I think obviously how echo chamber and bifurcated different streams of of information are becoming so that's one of the things that I think is becoming dominant. And I think there's great opportunities in that. But I think there is also great risks in that, too.
[00:21:28] JK: It goes to something that immediately came to mind for me, and in that there is, I have often conceptualized narrative and narrative power as having at least two dimensions, but a worthwhile delineation of one being around definitional power, the ability for narratives to define like, you know, what is a black person, what is a woman, what is a Native American? And it does. We are in a place where there's a great deal of polarization because of the way in which this has been wielded. And the other way in which I think about narratives are their reproductive power, which is their ability to promulgate less visible narratives about, kind of, it could be norms around family relations. Or as you pointed out at the at the beginning of this conversation, Romain, around the nation, state and national identity. And if I can share one anecdote that it reminded me of, I was in Israel actually doing some narrative and culture landscaping and speaking to a number of filmmakers and actually some folks who are connected to the Ministry of Culture there, which was under some attack actually by kind of right wing populist political leaders who were kind of calling the kind of film industry unpatriotic and not dissimilar to the kind of way in which the what was a kind of more mainstream film industry here, as Bucha has kind of been under criticism from all sides of not being representative, et cetera, et cetera. And what some of these Israeli culture makers and industry folks were sharing with me was that there was they were having good success and gaining popular support for the Ministry of Culture and for these kind of governmental programs.
[00:23:44] JK: And the way that I think the idea here in the US has had less success. And part of the reason why is because the there is a certain percentage of the tax revenue that's collected for the Ministry of Culture that must go back out to support the production and distribution of Israeli films. And so and then at the end of each film, actually very similar to Europe, largely in lottery funds in Europe. But at the end of each film, very prominently displayed is kind of produced or brought to you by, like, you know, the Ministry of Culture. So there is this strong kind of narrative, if you will, of an association between the government, national culture, national production, cultural production and identity that kind of has lent itself, I think, to kind of some protection from the type of fracturing, as you're describing around that that we're seeing in US society that has been kind of mitigated in some cases because of the way in which the film industry is positioned inside of society. That was a very interesting thing to witness.
[00:25:04] RV: That's fascinating. The double edged sword of that, right, where you're getting the funding from the government. So, would it may be a conflict of interest, right, if or would it be? Yeah, would it be problematic if you're using that funding to tell a story that may be criticizing the government, but at the same time, I I love that in Europe. I heard this interview. I think it was Kristen Stewart, actually, she was describing this role that she played in I think it was in France, and the interviewer asked her, you know, what's the difference between your projects in the United States versus this one in this French film? And she said that in the United States, film is a business and in Europe film is an art. And I find it so interesting and it makes so much sense. If the government can support these content creators, then it doesn't have to necessarily be a business that generates the return for the investors as much as it needs to be here. And so, yeah, I think that that's that's a really interesting story about Israel and their Department of culture and I really wish there was more of that here in the United States now, you know.
[00:26:47] JG: It's interesting to talk about the the narratives that we know and can talk about in an academic sense, but I'm curious, what are some tools that normal people can use to help notice narratives that they might be living out, that they might not realize and how to deconstruct those and like what it what it means to, like, both notice and start to reframe mental models.
[00:27:16] JK: Well, we developed one, and I should say The Narrative Initiative developed because I'm no longer there, but some trainings and workshops actually around what we described as narrative literacy, which is just an ability to read the narratives that in some cases are obvious and in other cases are subtexts. And that literacy is I think we used an example, I think that's familiar and also happens to be comes from the entertainment industry around Jaws, the movie Jaws, and actually have developed this training, which was introducing Jaws, not even by the visuals, which are so striking, but actually by the two notes that everyone now associate with Jaws, which is a profound imprint on our brains, that we all know what they are even without saying what they like, humming the notes. But that that that those the hundreds of story lines around dangerous sharks, kind of human eating sharks really is a constructed narrative and relies upon a kind of deeper narrative of, quote unquote, maanvi nature. And that nature is a threat to be overcome and controlled, which has obviously long kind of historical roots and showed kind of to the to the year and the date of the kind of first newspaper articles that really publicized when when sharks attacked humans, which data and statistically are, I don't know, maybe not even in the top five of, you know, animals that pose a threat to human beings. So I think that there are certainly workshops like that and trainings that have been developed in the nonprofit space. But also I think just, you know, cultural literacy or even kind of media literacy, which I don't know how how much it gets teach these days can provide very powerful tools. I was thinking about the way in which the like for Bertolt Brecht, the playwright, this idea of creating space between the audience and the play is an important way to kind of catalyze reflection around kind of really the kind of themes and the devices and the narratives that are in play and as you know, in his theater pieces. So I think, you know, there's obviously a big role and opportunity for media and entertainment itself to kind of do some of this work on literacy.
[00:30:15] RV: Yeah, that's brilliant. I am deathly afraid of sharks. I would love to learn how to, like, mitigate that fear because I, I just like, dip my toes in the ocean and that's like, good enough for me. But but yeah, I think that that's totally right. I think it's all about I think people are so media illiterates and especially is like media is getting more sophisticated, it's really hard to decouple, you know, your sense of reality from the sensationalized reality that is portrayed for you. And I think that that lack the lack of ability to decouple those two worlds is really problematic. And I think that's why we're seeing conspiratorial belief systems on the rise. And I think yeah, I think Obama even said it's the epistemological crisis of our area not being able to discern fact from fiction. And I think he said that it undermines, you know, this marketplace of ideas that defines democracy. So I'm not here to offer any any answers because I don't know, but maybe just to accentuate how important it is for us to really figure out a way to better understand how these narratives may be influencing our world.
[00:32:05] JK: I wonder and I'll put this to you and Jenn, as you know, professionals and media and entertainment, is there a generational gap in that situation in the sense that. I also see younger generations being more. Cynical in some ways, but also self aware of the narratives that are being fed to them and suspicious of kind of how they consume media. I don't know kind of what the breakdown is of QAnon supporters by age, but I'm going to assume that it's older people that are out assume the same. I don't know. I mean, maybe it's maybe it's generational. Maybe there are some generational differences as well, because it also just seems like for younger people growing up in insanely media saturated environments, they do have an awareness of what's being transmitted and a higher level of suspicion to some of the messages that are being communicated.
[00:33:19] RV: Yeah, I really, really hope you're right and I think you are, I think you are, because I think the QAnon example really rings true to me in the sense that, yeah, a lot of a lot of the folks who are falling down the rabbit hole are. I think tend to be older. From what I've gathered that said, I mean, YouTube is one of the perpetrators of creating this, the slipperiness of some of these rabbit holes where and who's on YouTube. I think YouTube is definitely also. Way more viewers are younger, so I'm unsure, I mean, I'm hopeful that that's the case. And I think, like, maybe growing up in a media saturated environment makes it so that younger folks are a little bit more able to to discern, but they're also spending more time on the platforms that are creating a lot of the problems to begin with.
[00:34:26] JG: This is something that, Romain, you mentioned a little bit earlier, but around who gets to tell the stories and the control of the narratives and who who gets to tell them and how they are proliferated, I think is. It's an interesting question to sort of unpack, especially as we're talking about this, because, you know, thinking about generations, I sort of look at. The generations before the iPhone and the Internet and YouTube as maybe not being quite as aware of narratives, but when I think about that, I actually think that's probably the white people and that most of the other people who weren't experiencing the privilege of the dominant narrative recognize that there were some, you know, narratives, that it wasn't natural law and that over time. As we get more and more exposed to that truth. It gets to the extremes, so it used to be in the past that everyone was sort of just like ignorant, particularly if I believe the white population. But then but now it's like these extremes. There's the group that, like, is very susceptible to taking whatever narrative and like running with it versus a different group. It's very hyper aware that things are very much constructed in the way that we see the world is constructed by media, by different powerful entities. And so there's thinking about about narrative in that sense. And curious just your thoughts, especially as it relates to what we were just talking about.
[00:36:08] JK: Yeah, I appreciate that question in this conversation, I think maybe to connect it to one of your earlier questions, Jenn, about kind of how how this gets kind of trained and more popular, as I was reflecting on kind of my own experience as a first generation immigrant who came to this country not speaking English, the but it was the best training you could have and understanding kind of constructiveness of narratives and dominant cultures, really, and the way in which norms, stereotypes are communicated through narratives, representation and entertainment industry, and always an awareness that those are kind of outside of yourself and kind of put upon you from from outside. So in some ways, just being a non-native speaker, I think in any culture starts can start kind of developing this kind of understanding of the constructiveness of narratives and then being in a position where you're not part of that kind of part of a dominant culture, whether it be by language or power or wealth or gender or sexual orientation. Also kind of dissenters you essentially and gives you an awareness of how narratives travel through and populate kind of cultures and societies, I think is a is is another way that I put it. I mean, this is, of course, what Dubois called double consciousness, the experience of African-Americans in this country, of kind of always knowing that there is a kind of dominant consciousness that must be related to because it's what structures the economy and and access and and social power. But you inhabit another consciousness of your own, which is that of a kind of more marginalized or disempowered community. So I appreciate that question. And I think it's interesting to kind of see the ways in which narratives are quite powerful, reinforcers of both norms, expectations, images, stereotypes that define not just a culture, but also, you know, folks, the folks who maybe at the margins of that culture as well.
[00:38:35] JG: So I'm curious what you're seeing that you're excited about in this space and and I guess in tandem to that, why you believe this work is important yourself?
[00:38:50] RV: So, I think it's interesting, I think, you know, the reason I'm doing a lot of work in entertainment is not because I. And a fan of TV and film, I mean, I grew up with our family, never had cable, we had just the standard several channels. I don't even have a television in my home place. But behavioral scientists have really indicated that the best way to. To inspire a new behavior, belief system or attitude is by creating a new sense of what's normative, what's in normative behavior, what's normative attitude, what's a normative belief, and who shapes cultural norms better than. The individuals who are reaching tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people through the stories that they write, so I've been very excited by the prospect of engaging with television writers and in a meaningful way. And I think there's a lot of good that can come from it.
[00:40:04] JG: Yeah, I mean, I think that's what's so exciting about the intersection between the theoretical and the entertainment industry is it feels like a very at least one very clear intersection and a vehicle for what this work looks like and could could proliferate. I mean, I think the designated driver example is a very clear example of what that could look like in practice.
[00:40:30] RV: Yeah, especially as we work with more and more show runners and television writers. You know, like we've been really trying to think about what are the new concepts, what are the new designated driver ideas that we need to broadcast widely or or discrepancies that we should illuminates. I think what you mentioned with the essential worker and the irony of the fact that essential workers are the folks who are least capable of paying the bills. I think that is a really interesting paradigm that, yeah, I think society would benefit from from seeing broadcast more widely or illuminate more widely.
[00:41:23] JK: You know, I think we are in a historical moment where some of the most entrenched, dominant narratives that certainly in my life have have felt intransigent are suddenly kind of up for debate. I think the kind of racial reckoning that this country is having and the dialogue and the conversation that's being had is quite profound. And as someone who spent a lot of time as a racial justice activist, feels like the ground beneath us is moving really, really quickly. And then also on the kind of economic system that we live in, I think, you know, at least as far back as Occupy, but certainly before the kind of narrative that has held the kind of current economic system together, including things like meritocracy and mobility that I think especially younger generation has just experienced as being woefully inadequate based on their quality of immobility and debt and, you know, feeling trapped, that has kind of created and unleashed a massive wave of challenge to the economic system and the myths that have kind of propped it up. That is really for me. When I step back and think about how much the conversation has changed is quite profound. And as a reminder that it's worth being hopeful.
[00:42:58] RV: So well said. And I totally, totally agree with that. There's so much hope in that, yeah, I think I guess there are two different ways of saying it. There's like the fish and water example, but my favorite version of it is this Yiddish saying that -- to a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish. And the reason I bring that up is because I think we're starting to realize, like, we're these little worms that are starting to realize that the world is not horseradish. We're just swimming in a jar of horseradish. I think, like as it relates to these these economic systems, the systems of injustice where maybe our our parents or our our forefathers just accepted that to be the worlds and were intransigent about that. Now, I do agree with you Jee that we're starting to realize that we're just little worms in a jar sitting on a shelf somewhere.
[00:44:15] JK: That's an amazing phrase.
[00:44:20] JG: It makes me think of the end of Men In Black, when you realize that the universe is just in a marble that some people are playing with. Do you remember that? You're like, oh, that's, you know, we're just in a marble.
[00:44:39] JK: Well, since you are both in the entertainment industry, one of the concepts that I most love and want to keep digging into is from a researcher at the BBC who I believe in the 70s was doing research into audiences of the BBC. And, you know, like who's watching the EastEnders versus Dr. Who? And he observed that these audiences and this is 70s or 80s way before fan fanfiction and subcommunities and subadults, but that these audiences of broadcast TV were kind of generating their own worlds of meaning and character, kind of building off of TV shows. And he called them paracosmos, that these are mini miniature universes that fans of TV shows were creating and then finding each other way and the analog days. And I think that the phrase paracosmos, which comes from media and entertainment, is so very relevant today and really goes to these two metaphors of Men In Black and the worm and the horseradish.
[00:45:51] JG: I love that concept.
[00:45:53] RV: Paracosmos is such a more beautiful way putting that.
[00:45:58] JK: It doesn't have the same smell though, that the worm in the horseradish evokes.
[00:46:08] JG: Thank you. Thank you so much. This is really wonderful and really excited that this is the first conversation that I'm putting out into the world. So join us next time on the other story where we'll start to get more concrete and dig into different dominant narratives that we experience in our daily lives. Thanks so much for listening and see you next time.