Star Wars & Story Wars: Changing the Narrative

Long ago, I watched the first Star Wars film. The dazzling science-fiction spectacle is set in an alternate universe but Star Wars tells an old and eternal human story — about the battle between good and evil. It is a familiar narrative. The bad guys are faceless stormtroopers. The good guys are human characters, waging a courageous battle against a powerful enemy. Good triumphs over evil. 

Here, on Earth in the year 2021, the battles that are most actively waged are not Star Wars but story wars. The world over, we are fighting big battles over stories of what happened in the past, what is happening now, and what will happen in the future. And there are fierce battles over which stories can even be allowed to be told. 

In the US, the fiercest political fight is not on the state of the environment or the economy but over what can be discussed in schools about race and history. In my native India, textbooks are being rewritten by the government to offer an alternate narrative of the past. In the US, statues of Confederate generals are being pulled down. In India, statues of Gandhi are being toppled and those of his assassin are being raised up in places. In both cases, this is a fight over the story of the past that projects an alternate script onto the present state. 

Stories, after all, are important. They help us make sense of the world. Yet, the fight we are caught in is less about the stories that we ourselves believe rather than about imposing our stories on others. Why? Because collective stories matter. They mobilize people. Stories can keep people in chains because there isn’t a narrative of hope. Stories can liberate people because we believe that great change is possible if we act. Rewriting the stories of the past is an effort to change the narrative of right and wrong in the present and also invoke future possibility. 

In “The Dawn of Everything,” anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow offer that we “are all projects of collective self-creation”. “What if, instead of telling the story about how our society fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?”

Historian Yuval Noah Harari states that stories have been indelibly part of the human journey: “Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the stone age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.”

Not surprisingly, the richest and most powerful people in the world are trying to write narratives about the future. Elon Musk and Bezos are building rockets to fly to space. A narrative is that our planet is doomed and we must find ways to get out. The doomsday narrative is a common tale. A bevy of tech gurus and thinkers are waving red flags about how AI will soon eclipse human intelligence and enslave us. Others are waving the flag of impending doom from environmental collapse trying to get nations to change course. There are counter-stories that climate change and the COVID outbreak is a myth, that they are conspiracies that seek to control us and take away our way of life.  Conspiracies envision secret stories told in the shadows. Out of sight, the bad guys are plotting evil and must be destroyed before they destroy us. The clash of narratives seems intractable. So, what can we do? 

The thing is that we can’t really convince those with alternative narratives about our own chosen stories. This is because stories are not really about facts but beliefs and desires. If we mistake our stories for absolute facts, we’re then locked in righteous battles. If we see stories as containers of meaning, values, and hopes, there is an opportunity to weave connections between narratives and find a way of acceptance. 

In places of great diversity and relative harmony, like Singapore and Mauritius, there is an honoring of diversity, people celebrate the holidays of others. It is not that a Christian believes in the Muslim beliefs or a Hindu adopts Christian rituals, but there is still space to respect and honor the people who practice an alternate faith. There is a meta-story of shared humanity that transcends the mirco-story of our own identities and rises above the hurts and transgressions of the past.

In Germany, Rwanda, and Cambodia where genocides that taken place, people have found a way to acknowledge the past so as to move towards the future in peace. Acknowledging what happened creates space for healing. If the horrors of history are buried and untold, there are more likely to return to be replayed again. In acknowledging them and seeing them, we release the ghosts of the past. 

This path here is neither about fight or flight, winning or losing. It is about engaging and finding common ground that we can live with. We can do this if our battle is not seen as one of good and evil, if our adversaries are not mindless stormtroopers. If we peel back the mask of our adversaries, much as Luke did with Darth Vader in Star Wars, we often find that they are human figures with fears and aspirations, much like us. In seeing them fully, our stories about them then change. It is possible to write a new story together.

A critical challenge of the future, then, is to do better to author shared narratives that we can all work to bring into being. Without this, we will continue to wage our wars of stories all the way to the stars, as we seek to escape a world where we can no longer live together.

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Are We Wired For Conflict or Coded for Collaboration?

Are people inherently good or bad? Are we wired for kindness and collaboration or selfishness and conflict? A book I am reading, named Humankind, makes a case for our goodness. It contrasts the fictitious and popular Lord of the Flies narrative about a group of English schoolboys stranded on an island who viciously turn on each other with a real-life but a lesser-known narrative of a group of Tongan schoolboys who were shipwrecked on an isolated island but found a way to survive in harmony for a year until they were found. 

Art by Lyndon

I believe that both of these tendencies –for conflict or collaboration — are within us as part of our nature. Humans have unleashed great violence and horror on others and have also demonstrated the kind of extraordinary collaboration. What accounts for the swing between these two poles? Is it just chance? I don’t believe so.

I believe that these behaviors manifest in response to circumstance and socialization. Stress and threat tend to generate a fight or flight response. Yet, these are not the only choices we have. We can also engage constructively ( Social systems also play a role in elevating or reducing our threat response.

These two sides — our individual capability and collective social systems — are both elements that are not pre-ordained or random but can be deliberately cultivated. How we respond is dependent on awareness and self-management, which I have written about at length in earlier blog posts. The evidence is that we need to start to build this kind of social and emotional development at an early age and for all, as part of the fabric of education. This development matters every bit as much as anything else we might learn in school. 

Creating social systems that engender fairness, equality, and collaboration is also possible and essential. That said, all societies haven’t opted for choosing the common good in equal measure. The stark contrast between Scandinavian countries that are high on social cohesion and wellbeing stands in contrast with other technologically advanced and affluent but unequal societies like the US. There is a choice made based on our values and consciousness that in turn hinge on our own personal development and socialization. If we are grounded and happy, we will want it for others as well. If we believe that conflict is unavoidable, we focus on building our capacity for war. It is good to remember that the peaceful Scandinavians and Mongolians of today were once the vicious Vikings and Mongols who violently decimated other societies. These people are biologically the same. What changed is the social construct they operated with. Changing the social construct is a choice. 

In the midst of the Vietnam War, John Lennon pleaded that “all we are saying is give peace a chance.” Yet, the societies that are peaceful don’t leave peace to chance. They make it a strategic priority that is supported by public policy and social practice. Goodness then is not a gift of birth or the result of random chance. Rather it is a choice that we can make, a choice for good.

Art from Deep Roots Sangha notice board

Wars of the Worlds — the Internal and External

Art by Lyndon

Our world is caught up in perpetual waves of conflict. And this seems to be the case from the very start. Ancient founding stories of the world in Greek and Indian mythology tell of battles between gods that preceded the arrival of humans. These struggles for territory and power are often framed as battles of good and evil, of the assertion of rights and righteousness.  

As humans, we continue this pattern. We are locked in arguments over who are legitimate peoples and who are intruders. Who is oppressed and who are victims. Who has wronged whom. We all have sides and a strong sense of what are our side’s rights, and much righteousness for our side of the story. 

When we zoom out things appear more muddy. The Greek gods were often egotistical and ruthless. Human heroes of liberation are also often tainted. Lincoln led the battle to end slavery but also was responsible for expanding the wars against Native Americans, conducting mass executions of Native peoples (the largest executions in US history), and appropriation of their lands. Churchill may have been a war hero but was responsible for a great deal of oppression of people in India and Africa as an agent of the British Empire. 

The absolute and clear claims to lands or righteousness are readily disputed. In looking at the span of history, it is clear that humans have migrated across the globe, fought wars of conquest, and committed genocide to exterminate and evict other people. Many parts of the world today are no longer inhabited or dominated by people who were there earlier. A litany of aggression, suppression, exploitation experienced can be readily recited by all sides. The score is often settled by virtue of power. And for those who have been defeated, the score remains to be settled. When we crush others, we can only expect that they will also seek to respond by the means they have available. The cycle of retribution follows. Are we doomed to endless power struggles — winning by bullet or ballot, fighting with pen or sword, attacking with words and weapons? Is there a way out?

Street mural in Greensboro created in the wake of the George Floyd murder

It is notable that Jesus and the Buddha who lived in times of tumult chose not to fight political battles. Jesus lived under the occupation of Romans and advised people to give to Caesar what was his. The Buddha, who lived in the midst of warring kingdoms that tried to recruit him as a representative of their righteousness, said that those battles were not his fight. Jesus and the Buddha saw liberation as an internal struggle. 

The Bhagavad Gita (the Song of God) is a core Hindu text that is centered at the scene of a battle. In the book, two sets of cousins face-off ready for a bloody war. This book set at the scene of a war was curiously Gandhi’s favorite book. This is because the battle playing out in the book is an allegory for the battle raging within us. It delves into various forms of yoga — the yoga of service, the yoga of devotion, the yoga of mind and body control (the type of yoga popular in the West), and the yoga of knowledge. The word yoga means yoke or what’s joined together and the book is about self-realization and union. 

Art by Lyndon

The insight is that we can’t create peace in the world without creating peace within ourselves. The inner and outer are indelibly connected. 

A teacher asked her students, what do you get when you squeeze an orange. The answer they offered was orange juice. The teacher then asked, “So, what comes from you when you are squeezed.” The answer is: if you are angry, it is likely to be hate and violence. If you are peaceful, it is likely a calm response. If you are filled with love, it is likely love. We express externally what exists within us. 

Jesus said that the kingdom of God is within us. If the kingdom of God is peace and justice, we have to find peace within ourselves so as to create it in the world. Cultivating this peace within us is the real battle we must wage. In Islam, there is the concept of the lesser jihad and the greater jihad. The lesser one is fought in the external world, the greater one is within ourselves.  

If we can create peace within us, we can liberate ourselves from the desire to dominate others or seek revenge for the harm we have suffered. Jesus called us to turn the other cheek. This was not an expression of weakness but of great strength to not respond in kind. It takes much inner work. The exercise of yoga — in its broader manifestation — is the discipline of building this capability.
To reframe Gandhi’s famous axiom, We have to be the peace we wish to see in the world. If we create peace within us, it is the kind of change we bring into the world. This is the only path to peace.

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