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'Soul Of A Citizen': Stories Of Impact Will Push Us To Fix The Oil Spill, Homelessness, And Other Big Problems

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While I was on a recent radio show, a student called in from a campus "Rally Against 1070," that challenged Arizona's draconian immigration law. The rally was a great idea, part of the public outcry that's needed. But I wish they'd called it something like "Rally Against the Show Us Your Papers Law." Headlining it with a bill number gave people nothing to respond to emotionally.

Over nearly forty years that I've spoken out on various causes and written about citizen movements, I've come to believe that people work for justice when their hearts are stirred by specific lives and situations that develop our capacity to feel empathy, to imagine ourselves as someone else. New information--the percentage of people out of work or children in poverty, the numbers behind America's record health care costs, the annual planetary increases in greenhouse gases--can help us comprehend the magnitude of our shared problems and develop appropriate responses. But information alone can't provide the organic connection that binds one person to another, or that stirs our hearts to act.

Powerful stories can break us beyond our isolated worlds. "They link teller to listeners," writes Scott Russell Sanders. "and listeners to one another." They let us glimpse the lives of those older or younger, richer or poorer, of different races, from places we'll never even see. Showing us the links between choices and consequences, they train our sight, "give us images for what is truly worth seeking, worth having, worth doing." Stories also teach us, Sanders suggests, how "every gesture, every act, every choice we make sends ripples of influence into the future."

This means that we are more likely to challenge homelessness if we hear the testimonies of individual people living on the street. We will work to overcome illiteracy after gaining a sense of what it's like to be unable to read. We need to know how many thousands of gallons are leaking out each day from the Louisiana oil spill--that gives clues to the magnitude of the disaster. But we're more likely to act on it if we can envision what actually happens as the oil begins to poison the shrimp, oysters, crawfish and pristine beaches we've long taken for granted. Psychological studies of those who rescued Jews during the Holocaust found they differed from their peers in their ability to be moved by pain, sadness, and helplessness.

Concrete stories can help us engage the world's troubles without becoming so overwhelmed that we despair of ever being able to change things. As psychologist Joanna Macy reminds us, "Information by itself can increase resistance [to engagement], deepening the sense of apathy and powerlessness." Stories about particular individuals and specific situations usually have the opposite effect. By giving seemingly overwhelming problems a human face, they allow us to act from a sense of loyalty to specific people, communities, or places. Responsibility in this view becomes not an abstract principle but a way of being and connecting.

Of course our culture has plenty of false stories. So we need to ask whether the examples that stir our hearts--or those of our political opponents--are accurate or whether they're manipulated inventions, like the talk of government "death panels" or Obama as Manchurian Kenyan. A recent Harris poll found that 45% of Republicans believed Obama was not born in this country so had no right to be president, and 57% believed he was a Muslim. That's a stunning indictment of Republican elected officials who know that those beliefs are absolute nonsense, but (with a few exceptions like Lindsay Graham) have been conveniently silent on them, perhaps because they like stirring up the Tea Party base.

But that doesn't negate the need to get beyond arcane policy prescriptions to tell the examples at the core of the issues we care about. It just means we need to ensure our stories are accurate. We could even say that whichever side gets their stories out to frame public discourse will likely win any given political battle.

Stories motivate through a sense of connection, whether we encounter them first hand or retold by others. A Long Island teacher named Carol McNulty felt inspired to take a stand after watching a video of a brown-eyed girl, in a documentary called Zoned for Slavery. Though only fifteen, the girl had worked for two years making fifty-six cents an hour sewing clothes for the Gap and Eddie Bauer in a maquiladora, a factory inside a free-trade zone in El Salvador. Her eighteen-hour days left little time for eating, sleeping, or even going to the bathroom. She had to buy her food from the company store. Attending high school was out of the question, though she said shyly that she'd like to someday. The factory bosses prohibited workers from talking with each other, and when some of the bolder ones tried to organize, they were fired.

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Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, and The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen's Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,winner of the 2005 Nautilus Award for the best book on social change. See (more...)
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