Friday, February 6, 2009

Political Storytelling

Politicians around the world have used storytelling to win the hearts of people who listens to their speeches. In this regards, Caren S. Neile, Ph.D wrote an interesting article titled Spinning on the Stump in the Toastmaster magazine last November. Here is an extraction of the said article:

One of the late US President Ronald Reagan’s favorite stories concerned the meeting of two men, one from the USA, the other a Soviet citizen.
In my country,” said the American, “I can walk straight into the Oval Office and say that I don’t like the way Ronald Reagan is running the United States.”
I can do that with Gorbachev, too,” replied the Soviet.
Having heard about Soviet repression, the American was incredulous. “You’ve got to be kidding!” he said.
Not at all,” replied the Soviet. “I can walk straight into Gorbachev’s office and say, “I don’t like the way Ronald Reagan is running the United States!”
In our cynical age, you might readily agree that politicians make great storytellers. After all, a common definition of “storyteller” is liar. But even the most jaded observers of politicians know that storytelling has long been a powerful tool for persuasion.

On May 13, 1901, Winston Churchill, who went on to become Prime Minister, gave a speech to the British Parliament in which he argued against increased government funding for the British Army. The language is a bit flowery, but the story stands out loud and clear:
The government of the day threw their weight on the side of the great spending Departments, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Churchill’s father) resigned. The controversy was bitter, the struggle uncertain, but in the end the Government triumphed, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer went down forever, and with him, as it now seems, fell also the cause of retrenchment and economy, so that the very memory thereof seems to have perished, and the words themselves have a curiously old-fashioned ring about them.”

Mahatma Gandhi, a lawyer, became a famous proponent of non-violence as he led the successful Indian protest against the British occupation, or Raj. In a1919 speech he said:
I am talking the other day to a member of the much-abused Civil Service. I have not much in common with the members of that Service, but I could not help admiring the manner in which he was speaking to me. He said: Mr. Gandhi, do you for one moment suppose that all we Civil Servants are a bad lot, that we want to oppress the people whom we have come to govern?” “No,” I said. “Then, if you get the opportunity, put in a word for the much-abused Civil Service.”

While these techniques may seem relatively benign, there are numerous ways in which political storytelling can seriously mislead and manipulate listeners, with often horrific results. Both Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and its predecessor, the Weimar Republic, reworked old German fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty” to reflect their anti-Semitic agenda. In many countries, women’s rights are curtailed due to cultural beliefs and local folklore saying a woman’s place is in the home. And because the prevailing storyline of the American South for 350 years was that Africans were less than human, slavery was considered perfectly moral.

In connection with the general election in Indonesia on April 9, I felt that we should try to learn from history. Storytelling, like any other powerful tool, can be used by the power elite and the opposition – for good or for evil. So, it is our obligation as voters, to recognize when it’s being used.

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