On the shelf in my living room, amongst a collection of kachinas, are several clay figures. They are storyteller dolls, a traditional Pueblo motif. The figures show an adult with children gathered around. The adult is passing on the stories of the culture, a powerful symbol of the responsibility of those who tell tales to the next generation.
A recent article about the Stanford rape set me to thinking about storytellers and culture. The article raised an interesting point—that the woman was a victim not only of the rape but of the insistent narrative that drives the hook-up culture on campus, a narrative that encourages young people, men and women, to engage in behavior that is risky and personally very damaging because “everyone does it.”
It struck me that one reason we’ve experienced such a rapid cultural decline is because we have lost the importance of storytellers. Young people today don’t hear competing narratives. They really don’t know anything other than the hook-up culture that the media and the arts relentlessly promote. They have no idea that there is an alternative because their experience has been scrubbed clean of it. And we as a society have let that happen, in part perhaps because we too have been beguiled by the narrative and in part because we have not rejected it by our presence or with out pocketbooks.
Once upon a time, storytellers were the custodians of culture. In ancient society, history and culture were passed from generation to generation not only in behavior and customs, but in the tales that reinforced them. Stories reminded us of ideals and heroes and passed on in subtle form the shaping of the culture through the ages. If they reflected the darker side of life, it was usually with an eye toward something better if difficult to achieve.
Were those tales perfect? Not at all. But generally speaking, they preserved the valuable and left room for improvement.
Parents in particular seem at a loss these days. A friend recently bemoaned the sorts of things his 13 year old daughter saw on a popular cartoon series. When I reminded him that there is an “off” knob on the TV, he shrugged . “What’s the point? She’ll just hear about it from her friends and at school.”
The point is that she will have heard from her father that it isn’t acceptable. She will know that there is another way of looking at things. One of my most vivid memories from my teen years was the day my mother found Catcher in the Rye amongst my books. She perused it, and commented, “Some pretty rough language in that.” That led to our talking, not just about the book, but about language and the power of it and the reasonable limitations on it--the power of the storyteller. Mom wasn’t afraid to tell me something was unacceptable and she wasn’t afraid to talk about it. She didn’t accept the social meme that Catcher in the Rye was a great book. She demanded something more of her storytellers than simple social acceptance, and she taught me to do the same.
It astounds me that a society that gets its collective knickers in a twist over trans-fats can’t manage to get in an uproar over the damage, quite personal, that literature, music, television and movies inflict every single day. Parents who swoon at the thought of their children being exposed to non-organic food don’t bat an eye that they are constantly exposed to media that, in large part, seems aimed at changing the very foundations of how we think about ourselves and about others, a narrative that seems to say that anything goes unless, of course it involves traditional morals and values, especially if religious.
Maybe it’s time to take control of story telling again.