War and Peace and Story

By Caren S. Neile (response to September 11).

I founded the Storytelling for Social Action Discussion Focus Group and agreed to serve on the HSA Board in order to promote awareness, conversation and action on the role of story in social issues concerning the public and the planet.

Seen in this light, the terrorist attacks and their aftermath could be the most important things to happen to storytelling since the talking stick, or at least since the first Jonesborough festival. No more can the public relegate story to the “children’s table” of culture. If we do our jobs, people may soon begin to ask if there’s a storyteller in the house almost as often as they call for a doctor.

As I write these words, six weeks have passed since the horrific attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and about three since the U.S. unleashed its military forces upon Afghanistan. And here we find ourselves in the midst, fellow storytellers, of the quintessential war of stories.

I am sitting at my desk leafing through a picture book titled The Blind Men and the Elephant.* In this version of the well-known Indian legend, six blind men each understand a different aspect of the elephant to be the creature’s essence.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The first man approaches the elephant’s side and pronounces the animal “very like a wall.” The next feels the tusk and determines the elephant to be “very like a spear.” The third grabs hold of the tusk and says the creature is “very like a snake.” And so on. The story ends:

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

Since September 11, I have given a lot of thought to this simple tale of multiple perspectives. That’s because directly following the attacks, President Bush stated that those who support America are “good,” and that those who do not — those who perpetrated the crime and presumably those who support the perpetrators — are “evil.”

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, these black-and-white concepts of good and evil first appeared in the Old Testament. Despite the Enlightenment — the 18th-century ideological revolution that was the blueprint for our secularistic, scientific-minded Western society — we are still deeply shaped by our religious roots. They are the foundations of the stories that are the foundations of our understanding of the world.

The goal of the Enlightenment was universalism: the idea that eventually, all cultures would come to adopt the same values, that is, the same stories. But which stories? Those of the West, of course. To many people, that may sound perfectly reasonable. After all, we’re on the side of freedom, humanism, knowledge, tolerance, progress and peace, aren’t we? Yet the way I see it, like the story of the blind men and the elephant, ours is just one perspective. One set of stories.

Now it certainly helps to believe that only OUR stories are true if we are supporting an army. Even an ideological army. This is the spirit with which Western missionaries set off to convert the African “barbarians.” Most of us would likely say fundamentalism of any kind is wrong. Yet we too may be practicing a form of fundamentalism if we refuse to acknowledge stories that conflict with our own.

I want to be very clear here, because I recently made a similar point at a public forum and was attacked for it in the press. Let’s return to the story of the elephant. Saxe notes that each blind man “was partly in the right.” We have every right to believe in our stories; that’s what makes them our stories. I am in no way justifying the attacks. I strongly condemn Osama Bin Laden and believe that he and his co-conspirators should be punished for their criminal acts. What’s more, I do not believe that all Muslims support Bin Laden and despise America, although apparently many thousands do. And I do not equate everyone who despises America and supports Bin Laden with the criminals who perpetrated the attacks.

I merely suggest that unlike the blind men, we are capable of holding in our heads two contradictory ideas — or stories — at the same time. We would do well to bear in mind the following: In his speech to the nation following the attacks, President Bush’s story was that Al Qaeda’s goal is “remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere.” Not so coincidentally, this is exactly their story about us.

If we understand this conflict as a matter of conflicting stories, we do not condone terrorism. We do not imply that we do not love our country. But we may be able to question and debate — as human beings — the causes of the attacks, and the thoughts and feelings of the human beings who perpetrated and defend them.

To promote war, we must keep in mind the image of what our enemies did to us. To promote peace, perhaps we must keep in our hearts the image of how they perceive us.

There is a bright side to all of this, which is the basis for the creative application of storytelling for peace-building. The cultural schema, the bits and pieces of knowledge and attitude embedded in story, are partly innate, but they also partly learned. This means that they can be changed.

I am not advocating a propaganda war to replace a military conflict. At their best, stories raise questions rather than provide answers. Instead, I suggest that we share, question, and when appropriate reconsider our own stories and encourage those with whom we disagree to do the same. Yes, this is difficult when dealing with fundamentalists. But if we do not try, we are as fundamentalistic as they.

Those who engage in storytelling with the intent of community- and peace-building encourage all parties to bring their stories to the table. The goal is not to convince anyone of the truth of one’s own story. It is, rather, to exchange competing stories, find common threads, begin to understand and examine the differences, and together weave a new, shared story — which may evolve again as further information and insights develop.

To understand the true meaning of tolerance, we must acknowledge that while all humans reach for stories, the stories we reach for cannot, and should not, be the same. There is no single truth. Which also applies, by the way, to what I’m telling you now. Because, of course, all six blind men were also in the wrong.

*Saxe, John Godfrey. The Blind Men and the Elephant. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Article originally appeared in Words on the Wing: Issue 6, Winter 2001

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