How can storytelling promote change? Interview with Lane Beckes

Lane Beckes is  Associate Professor of Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience at Bradley University. Lane studies social processes at the intersection of cognition, emotion, and neurobiology. His research interests include social bonding, empathy, emotion, and prosocial behavior. Read a previous interview with Lane in Museum Questions here.

Lane, over the past few months I have heard, and been moved by, many stories of racism. However, we all know that not everyone is reading the same stories. Since storytelling is one of the roles that museums can and do play, can you talk about how storytelling can promote societal change?

Stories help us build our models of the world. They help us define how we should and can live. Our culture is built on stories about who we are, how we should live, what we value, what we care about. Because we are so social, humans are very prone to conform to cultural values and beliefs, and these stories we tell ourselves as a culture.

We have a natural predisposition to believe the stories we are told when we are young, and form a social identity around these stories. As Americans we have stories we tell around George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the Tea Party– stories that create a national identity that root us within a group.

Right now we have an interesting and challenging dynamic: because of the way mass media works, we have two social identities that anchor the political landscape of America, two different stories being told.

Currently we have a lot of stories we like to tell ourselves that reinforce systemic racism. For example, the mythology of the individual: if you don’t succeed at something, it’s your fault. Everyone has a chance in America. These stories allow us to ignore the structural differences that exist for people who come from different demographic or socioeconomic groups. Mythology around individualism and freedom allows us to justify the negative impacts of racism, and the structures of our society, on people of color. John Jost refers to this as system justification (see,

For example, when people talk about police brutality and its impact on black America, someone might ask, “What about black on black crime”? That’s an example of using a story to justify the current situation. It’s a story created by conservatives to put forth a counter narrative to the idea that black people are oppressed.

Stories like Black on Black crime, or the narrative of the “Welfare Queen”; these are strategies used since the 1970s to divide people on race. Fictional characters like “Welfare Queen” or “Gangster” are stories about mythical people used to represent the Black community and why it is not successful. It puts ownership of racism in the United States on Black people – “It’s just that you haven’t pulled yourselves up by boot straps.”

What are some ways that museums might use storytelling to lead to positive change?

It’s difficult to come up with a story as powerful as the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth – that story is engrained in everything. Individualism is a core value in America.

Empathy is one tool we can use to get people’s attention. When you tell real stories that have an emotional impact they can sometimes break through – especially if they aren’t specifically things that people have been inoculated against. Inoculation in social psychology refers to the idea that giving people weak arguments for a specific position actually makes people less open to future instances of a similar, but stronger argument.

We have a real challenge right now, because people are exposed to so much partisan coverage of the world that it is very difficult to open them up to other perspectives. All forms of media coalesce around one of two different political subcultures, and these subcultures inoculate people from one subculture against the perspective of the other. So whenever a conservative hears something about Black Lives Matter they have a reflexively negative response.

Liberals also dismiss many conservative arguments out of hand due to inoculation. For example, many white working-class conservatives argue that it is inappropriate to call them out on their white privilege when they feel they have very little privilege in the first place. This represents a misunderstanding of the term privilege, but liberals often dismiss any arguments that follow because of that misunderstanding. If people slowed down and listened empathetically, what they would realize is that many of those people feel that the world is stacked against them and they perceive liberals as fighting for minorities and demonizing conservatives, particularly rural white people. Many of these people have borne a cost due to globalization’s impact on American industry, seen the demise of rural economies, and experienced a declining quality of life. An empathetic approach may allow for a discussion of the nuances of racial privilege that not only informs the other person, but acknowledges how many of the same systems that oppress minority communities also impact less affluent whites. Being able to connect on a human level can unveil the mythologies of the independent person, the idea that we live in a pure meritocracy. By connecting with the human story, we often are able to challenge our own beliefs and open ourselves to alternative ways of understanding the world, some of which may point the way toward shared interests as opposed to ideological opposition.

How do we frame stories so that people in a different subculture can hear them?

It may be impossible to reach some people. But generally people from one subculture are not trying to penetrate the real radicals of the other. Radicals are impervious to any sort of message.

Successful stories do two things. First, they provoke empathy. For most people, stories that have an empathetic component, in which they can see the humanity of others, are the most powerful. When we share a story that touches us personally, we can see the other person’s perspective better.

Second, they are factually clear and truthful. These days people will poke holes in anything not well thought through.

The George Floyd story is a perfect example of both empathy and clarity. The Black Lives Matter movement exploded because this story lead to an awakening in a bunch of white people. The story was so human, and it was so clear that what happened was murder. And the video clearly demonstrated a scene that people could not poke holes in. This goes back to the issue of inoculation: When you think back to historical examples of police violence that did not ignite this fire, those examples allowed people create a counter narrative: it looked like someone was charging the police officer, they were a criminal or a thug, etc etc.

Because people got a chance to easily empathize with George Floyd, they realized this was an issue they needed to get involved in and care more about.

Breona Taylor’s story is another example. People can imagine themselves being in her bedroom sleeping, and the police start shooting up her house and she dies. There is no moral ambiguity. Everyone agrees that these things are wrong. Typically if we can get into someone else’s shoes it’s easier to move on something we might have been rigid on before.

What other kinds of storytelling are you seeing right now?

Right now the left has adopted the politics of outrage. Liberals traditionally believe in two of what Jonathan Haidt calls “moral foundations’ – fairness, and care/harm; the right embraces these principals to a different extent but also three others – loyalty, purity, and authority.

These values shift with the political landscape, and one of the things I’ve noticed recently on the left is an increasing value for what looks like purity. For example, the idea that if you represent anything perceived to counter to the well-being of women or people of color, you are a pariah and should be cast out. That becomes problematic for a lot of different reasons. Similarly, people who consider themselves followers of Bernie Sanders would just as soon cast you out if you don’t believe in things like universal single-payer healthcare.

This emphasis on purity puts people in an awkward position of having to follow rules that are being rapidly created and changed. And it causes a lot of tension within that community.

What’s interesting about the stories being told on the left right now is that while they are tapping into emotions, the emotion they provoke is really righteous indignation – the sense that people have been wronged, and the impulse to fight back against that. There is a place for that, especially for people who have been traditionally oppressed. But it runs the risk of being divisive even among people who are allies. One example is a story of someone who dressed up in an ethnic costume when they were 20. That may have been insensitive and stupid, but is it right to totally dismiss these people?

If you are trying to push an ideological agenda, that’s a great way to send a message, because it gets certain people riled up and ready to act. But if you are trying to open people’s minds to other people’s perspectives, this is a frustrating tactic. It’s not being empathetic so much as it’s being really angry, which closes people off. It’s good at rousing up a certain side of an issue, but bad at getting people to see across divisions. It evokes an ideological impulse rather than a humanitarian impulse. Whether such tactics are effective or simply divisive is difficult to say, and only time will tell.

What ideas do you have for how museums and museum workers might use storytelling to support anti-racist initiatives and other equity-based initiatives?

The first step is telling the stories not only of our heroes, the mythologies of our heroes, but also telling the stories we shouldn’t be proud of, for example, stories of people who were oppressed by the early United States. Historic sites focusing interpretive efforts on telling the stories of slaves is a good example of this work.

When we focus on minorities, we tend to focus on individuals who have risen above to create something great. This reinforces individualism which gets in the way of talking about needs and responsibilities as a community. We talk about the great people, but not the ‘normal” people, and how world or social forces or events impact the individual within a system because of the way their community was impacted.

Museums can tell stories about individuals who clearly faced challenges of systemic racism. Someone who couldn’t get a house in the neighborhood he wanted to live in, for example. Those kinds of stories can also be used to put a spotlight on systemic effects – the way society is structured to limit individuals’ ability to get their needs met or survive.

One of the best things you can do is to connect these stories to opportunities for action. Let’s say you have an exhibit that focuses on a Black artist, and highlights some challenges she faced throughout her career. Provide something for visitors to do to address racism right there in the exhibit, like write a letter to a local representative, or sign a document committing to doing one or two things in the next period of time. Public commitments of action improve the likelihood that they are going to take action.

Ultimately, the challenge is to change the system, which involves changing our laws and culture. We won’t solve this overnight. But asking people to be engaged and mindful and active makes a difference long term.



3 thoughts on “How can storytelling promote change? Interview with Lane Beckes

  1. Loved this! I think that reference to John Hight should be Jonathan Haidt. He has a TED talk called “The moral roots of liberals and conservatives.”

  2. Fantastic interview. So clear. Even as a moderate liberal, if that places me in dangerous territory on the political number line, I find endless liberal outrage unproductive and frustrating. Paul Theroux’s Deep South is one of the most eye-opening books about poor, mostly rural cultures — black and white — in the south. Jobs dried up after the onset of globalization and NAFTA, and they saw foreign aid going to many places in need around the world, but none coming to their little communities. Many poor and middle class people felt — and still feel — unheard in this country.

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