SIRENS 2018 Keynote: History, Storytelling, and Narrating the Future #Sirens18 #Sirens2018

This is the base script of the keynote I gave at the Sirens 2018 conference in Beaver Creek, Colorado. It’s missing my FUNNY AND GENIUS asides, but this gives you the core message. It seemed to make people happy!

Go forth, friends!

NOTE: I opened with an extemporaneous anecdote about my Spanish book tour, and how so many women journalists were asking me questions about whether or not I still believed in a hopeful future. It was then that I realized how much young people, in particular, were craving hope right now.  So I wanted to talk about hope, and how we can change the world for the better no matter how dark it gets.

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So, it’s been another special week out there in the wider world, but…

I’m still here.

We’re still here.

I say this to myself every morning now. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. Maybe it’s the breathless pace of the news cycle; the burden of knowing more of what’s happening in the wider world than any previous generation.

Whatever the reason. I’m here. You’re here.

And as long as we’re here, we can help create what comes after us.

As both a science fiction writer and someone with some historical training, I think a lot about the future. Mostly by looking at the past. I’m still not sure if that gives me an edge, or if looking backwards for too long will sour my grim optimism for the future of humanity.

I grew up in the 1980s, the era of Central American wars, liberation movements across Africa, the Cold War, the ascendance of Reganomics, the AIDS crisis. The rich got richer. The poor got kicked out of public health and welfare institutions. It was a dark time; I knew it even as a child. It forged my interest in war, resistance, and dark science fiction dystopias.

But even then, I fervently believed we had improved upon the past. I believed we could keep improving. Logic, I figured, would overcome our baser, socially warped programming that led us to fear of the other, the hoarding of wealth, and Ayn Rand. What I realized, decades later, is that humans aren’t swayed to change themselves, their beliefs, their attitudes, their societies, based on logic. We are creatures of pure emotion.

It’s been found that people who have damage to the part of their brains that process emotions can no longer make decisions. Oh, certainly, they can tell you logically what they SHOULD be doing, but they have difficulty deciding what to eat, what to wear. Apple or banana? If you have no emotional reason to choose one over the other, you will find yourself unable to decide.

Smart negotiators understand this. If you’ve ever tried to argue with someone on the internet, bringing with you all the facts and figures and thinking that will win over the other side, well… you’ve seen this phenomenon in action, too.

There’s an anecdote about a hospital in the 1800’s before the adoption of germ theory where in one wing of the maternity ward, midwives did all the assisting with birth. In the other wing, these young hotshot male doctors assisted with birth. It turns out the wing with the male doctors had a 40% higher maternal death rate than the one with the midwives.

When the head doctor dug further into this, he had this wild idea that maybe women were getting sick because these young doctors generally came to visit the maternity ward right after their anatomy classes, where they were cutting up corpses. And of course, you know – nobody washed their hands between corpse class and the maternity ward.

One would think the numbers would speak for themselves, but the young doctors were absolutely irate about this. How could this doctor even IMPLY that these rich pricks were UNLCEAN IN ANY WAY?? It took years to change this practice, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, because young rich white men were horrified at the idea that they were in some way harboring germs on their bare hands and murdering their own patients.

Logic doesn’t rule. Emotion does.

And the best way to evoke emotion is to tell stories.

The theory goes that what we call awareness is simply our ability to form stories out of stimuli. This is why most of us don’t have any clear memories until we’re two or three years old. We are not truly conscious until we learn how to construct a narrative.

We find ourselves connecting seemingly random events every day. I was out of milk, so I drove to the store. It turns out my best friend was at the store too! She invited me to dinner. At dinner I learned about a new job opportunity from one of the dinner guests. I got the job and that’s where I met my partner. Amazing! The world really does connect us all in mysterious ways!

But the only thing that actually connects any of these events in any spooky way… is you. You experienced them. You gave them meaning. To anyone else, viewing from outside, seeing you bump into your friend, or another guest at that dinner, those interactions had little to no meaning. We created the meaning. We crave meaning.

This is why I started blogging. I wanted to take all of these events I was experiencing as I traveled, and came into this awareness of who I was after high school, and create meaningful narratives out of them. What was I learning? How could I tie these events I experienced to my understanding of the greater world? I actually started my essay writing my writing long emails to friends from Clarion, this weekly or monthly updates that I spun into narratives. I switched to blogging after awhile because I worried that maybe I was spamming their inboxes too much. So I switched to a blogging platform and honed my storytelling there. These stories I made about my experiences were telling ME who I was. It was creating MEANING from all of these random experiences.

We must create these stories – whether written, spoken, or simply as narratives in our heads –  because at its most basic level, our stories ARE who we are. They ARE consciousness.

This is why, when you argue with someone’s story of the world and “the way things are” or “the way things have always been” they defend that story so violently. They have lived with these stories for so long that attacking them feels like an attack of the self.

There’s a fascinating series of studies that presents two groups of students with static images. These are simply random black and white images of what we might call television static, speckled nonsense patterns on a piece of paper.

One group of students is primed to think about a time when they lacked control over a situation. Another group is asked to write about whatever they want.

When both groups are shown these same random images, the group that was primed to evoke the feeling of being out of control is more likely to believe they see patterns in the random noise than the other group.

Why?

It turns out that when we are fearful, anxious, and stressed out – when we feel we have no control over our lives – our brains are more likely to find images in random noise, from correlations in stock market information that isn’t there, see conspiracies in unrelated events, and even develop superstitions.

The more out of control we feel, the more we want to assert structure to the universe around us. The story is the structure. The story is the emotion.

Control the narrative, you control the emotion, you control the future.

Every time we change the world, for better or worse – we do it by tapping into primal human emotions. My day job is in marketing and advertising, so I’m especially conscious of this.

Anti-smoking campaigns were a failure when they focused on the harm smokers were doing to themselves. Smoking, drinking, drugs – many of us view these vices as a vacation from our otherwise exhausting and frustrating lives.

What shifted the smoking conversation in this country was focusing on what it did to the people around you, especially your own children. I remember this shift happening in my own household, when my father stopped smoking inside after intense messages about how secondhand smoke would harm his children.

To change the world, we have to tap into emotions.

Fear works great. Fear of harming your children, sure, but also….

Fear of an Other; fear of immigrants, of your neighbors, of your government. Insurance companies, the media, the government, fear is the stick they wield. Fear of death. Fear of leaving your loved ones with nothing. Fear of losing everything you worked for. Fear of a loss in status.

What I didn’t understand for a long time was what emotion we could use besides fear to motivate people. I went into marketing and advertising because I knew how to write, I understood storytelling, but I also wanted to learn how to change the world. How do you change peoples’ ingrained behaviors?

Advertising teaches the tools of persuasion. It teaches us how to rewire our habits. Toothpaste existed for a very long time before it became a habit. What advertisers understood was that they needed to provide a trigger that compelled people to brush their teeth, and a pleasant payoff when they did it.

Ads invited us to roll our tongues across our teeth, notice the slimy film that builds up there, and brush our teeth. Peppermint was added to the formula so that we had a nice, fresh, tingling sensation afterword that made us feel clean, fresh, healthy, and confident.

A new habit was born. A lot of toothpaste got sold.

This trick – a trigger, a habit, a reward (generally an emotional one), is why people like me constantly check Twitter. It’s why Facebook continues to thrive. The hit of serotonin we get when we see we have a like, an email, a comment, taps directly into our primal pleasure center.

We’ve seen this formula used well for evil, or, at best, nothing super good. But we’ve also seen it used to reduce rates of drunk driving – the mothers against drunk driving campaign, where mothers shared the stories of children who’d been killed by drunk drivers humanized what many saw as an individual vice. Seatbelt campaigns – very similar approach. It wasn’t just save yourself, but – protect your kids; and it was backed up by some gory images of crash test dummies in accidents with and without seat belts. Pro tip: use logic to BACK UP your emotional appeal. Emotion first, bullet points second.

Now, how do we harness these same techniques to promote a better world, a more progressive world, one where, to paraphrase NK Jemisin, there’s “no voting on who gets to be human”?

We do it one story at a time. We do it by embracing change. We do it through holding onto and promoting hope.

Change is the only constant in our lives. Octavia Butler built an entire religion out of this fact in her Parable Duology. She set her novel in what could easily be our present: the last gasping days of the disintegrating United States as it sank into authoritarianism.

It’s a dark duology about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. And yet from this darkness, emerging from the ruins of a gutted civilization, a young woman founds a pacifist philosophical and religious order that transforms those who follow her.  From the ashes, a savior. In even the darkest times: a ray of hope. A glimmer of light.

The knowledge that there is a better world that comes after.

Because it is our stories of hope that have sustained us through each period of darkness, after which we emerged into brilliant flashes of light, and someday, perhaps someday, that brilliant dawn.

It’s stories of hope that made us believe we could fight for marriage equality. I remember an interview with someone who was at the Stonewall Riots being asked if they ever believed they would see marriage equality in their lifetime and they said HA HA absolutely NOT.

And whatever happens next, it doesn’t take away from that great victory.

My mother doesn’t believe so much in hope anymore, and that’s informed her activism, or lack thereof. “Why are these women marching?” she asked me during the women’s march, “like that’s going to change anything.”

Eating up stories of despair, believing the world can never change, that fighting for change is hopeless, is how regressive regimes grind us down. It’s how they win.

It is hope that helped us make sweeping policy changes that protected the most vulnerable among us, and extended the rights of citizenship to all people, no matter who they love.  That hope and that future are not dead, but they are set back once again, in that long and ancient war we have fought and written about as futurists and fantasists and dug into and examined as academics and historians. The long war between the light and the dark, between our better selves and our darker natures.

Our hopeful stories, our ability to tell different futures, and look back at the truth of what came before us, will sustain us through this darkness as they have in the past and as they will in the years to come. That is not to minimize what we will face; we won’t all survive it. But it is a reminder that there is a future, however dark, to push through to the world on the other side.

Each generation has its moment to discover who it really is. We have found out who are friends and colleagues are at their very core, and it has shaken many of us (yes, especially white people). But as with every story of war and suffering and hope and despair we will also discover who the heroes are.

“The real hero is only a hero by mistake,” said Umberto Eco, “he dreams of being an honest coward like everyone else.” (I sure do!)

Each of us can be a hero – on this timeline – in our own way.

We can do it by telling another story. By surfacing another narrative. Not one of fear and anger,  and cruelty, but one of radical kindness and hope that inspires action.

So, the habit:

Our trigger – thoughts about the future. Our habit – my habit, certainly – telling myself that it’s the Robocop future all the way down. The pay off? Nihilism. Staying in bed. Drinking too much.

Ok, that’s me again.

What I found is that I needed a different habit to replace how I thought about the future, one whose payoff got me out of bed, got me back to work, got me to the gym like a damn adult – and spurred me back into action.

The trigger – thinking about the future. The habit: imagining the Star Trek future that could come after this. Socialist America! Eating the rich! Healthcare for everyone! Abolishing ICE! No more security theater. The payoff: getting out of bed and getting to work toward that future.

Because, remember, the stories we tell about ourselves create who we are at this fundamental level. They are at the very core of who we become and who we perceive ourselves to be.

It’s why those days where we sit around berating ourselves about how dumb and worthless we are can be so dangerous.

But it also means the days we talk ourselves up hold extraordinary promise.

Author Steven Erikson once described a theory of reality at a panel I was on. He said his approach to worldbuilding was to create several characters and show the world through their eyes, because in our own lives – reality is this thing at the center of a circle of human observers, and we are all standing there describing what we see. Together we come to a loose consensus about what it is we’re looking at.

Reality is what we can agree on.  It’s the stories we tell as we stand in that circle.

We can tell a story of human greed, that our neighbors are out to take all our stuff. Or we can tell the story of human compassion and collaboration, that our neighbors want to help us; that kindness is a benefit and not weakness.

What we choose to write about, to speak about, to purchase, to recommend – stories about violent matriarchies, benevolent patriarchies, anarchist utopias, capitalist dystopias, cannot help but take a position on which narrative wins out. Hierarchy is good. Capitalism is bad. Binary gender is natural. Bisexuality is natural. Or not.

Freedom of information is bad. Freedom of information leads to terrorism. The state is benevolent and should be trusted to protect its citizens. The state is corrupt and must be abolished.

Intentional or not, our work – what we write about, whether as academics or novelists – expresses a certain set a values. It’s informed by the questions and expectations we have. When I was working on my Master’s degree, I was shocked to find a document that asserted that 20% of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the militant wing of the African National Congress in South Africa, was composed of women. I thought that was astonishing, in part because… well… how many movies or books about resistance have you consumed where one in every five fighters was a woman? How could this be true, I thought, if I’ve never seen it? But there it was, stacked up in the archives like it was no big deal.

I knew then that I needed to write about it.

Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which argues that some of the world’s most happy and successful people choose careers which are driven by a personal mission. These missions don’t spring full-formed from their brains at age twenty or thirty. Instead, they are missions that they explore, define, and refine in the first decade or two of their careers. They come back to their missions when they feel they have achieved a significant goal or milestone, and adjust it as necessary. It is this mission, then, that drives them forward when the grind gets them down.

As human beings, we need to believe that our lives have meaning. What drives us when we despair? More often than not, it is our personal mission. And if we don’t have one, it can be easy to get stuck in a rut and lose focus and purpose… and get dragged down by someone else’s fearful nihilistic narrative.

Trolling reality – because that’s what trolling has evolved into – is both a political force, a moneymaker and a game. Getting people to cry on camera, to talk about how afraid they are, to leave the internet, to stay home in fearful silence, or, to flee from their homes altogether, to sow confusion and promote terror, is actually the end goal of this game.

It inspires a community of professional trolls to keep at it. Fear is the desired result. Public pain and misery triggers the jolt of serotonin that is their reward. Habits, right?

So I can hear the concern, now. Ok, Kameron. I have this hopeful narrative. I’m speaking up about better future. But the trolls aren’t just people yelling on the internet any more. They bring guns and send bombs.

Well, sure. Also I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I could die of carbon monoxide poisoning in my house.

All of us have different situations. But this is what I think whenever I’m invited to speak at an event like this, or whenever I pick up an unknown package on the porch:

I could die on a plane. I could die from taking too much insulin. One of my aunts learned that she had a brain tumor a few years back, and was dead three months later. I could have a blood clot, or an aneurysm.

Death is coming for all of us, eventually. Yes, we are all going to die! Yes, I think about getting shot or bombed or SWATed or whatever. But that’s been my reality as a woman speaking publicly since, like 2004 when I started my blog.

The truth is it wasn’t so much what I was saying that people didn’t like – it was that I was allowed to speak publicly at all, as if there was a test one had to pass, a lofty measurement or set of traits or a bestseller list, or some gender requirement.

But  the alternative, for me, is to be quiet, and to die quietly, hit quietly by a bus.

And that just sounds very… quiet, to me. I like being loud.

But I get that everyone’s mileage is going to vary.

Just remember that as long as you’re still here, I’m still here, you’re still here, we win.

One of the reasons no one can silence me is not just my profound stubbornness and indifference in the face of rage mobs, nor my ability to be able to find the signal in the noise. I stay in this game because I get 1,000% more fan mail than hate mail. I get fan mail of the “You changed my life,” variety.

People who came out to their parents because of something I wrote, folks who found the courage to leave an abusive partner. Folks who moved across the country. Changed jobs. Went back to school. People read things I write and it gives them hope and inspiration and comfort, too; comfort that they are not so different. They are not alone. That the world can be really different.

And it’s that love, that profound love, that will keep me here, that will keep me speaking, that will keep me carrying on, long after the hate speech has been buried in an explosion of fragmented pixels.

Love. Radical kindness. A rejection of nihilism. These are the alternative narratives we must surface and share.

I take storytelling seriously because I understand that storytelling is how we make sense of the world. It is, quite literally, how we build the world. What we dream, we create. What we imagine, we make truth. It is how we can share the same world with billions of people and thousands of other cultures and yet all see this world and our place in it so differently. Story is also how we can begin to change our own view of the world. As Ursula Le Guin said in her National Book Award speech:

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art – the art of words.

Resistance begins not only in art, but in the passionate pursuit of the truth. The truth that there is no monolithic way to be human, now or in the future. That how we organize ourselves has changed significantly over the hundreds of thousands of years we have been on this planet. That we don’t have to be ruled exclusively by fear.

My mom often apologizes to me for the women of her generation. “We thought we changed it all,” she says, but you kids still have to deal with the same shit.” But I’m more optimistic than that. What I see is every generation making incremental progress. Three steps forward. Two steps back. Five steps forward after that, then six back, ooops, damn, okay, get back up, keep going!

Fall down seven times. Get up eight.

Nihilism is the greatest enemy of change. Nihilism tells us that we are all going grubbing back into the darkness from whence we came, and that nothing we do here matters. Nihilism keeps the old abusive systems puttering along. Nihilism convinces us that nothing changes, when in truth – the world is changing all the time.

People like us are just as equipped to change it as anyone else.

As long as we are still here, we are still part of building that narrative.

Someone once asked me why I write and I said, “I write to change the world.” That’s not bullshit. I believe that. You, me, all of us in this room, we are each of us an integral part in a greater whole.

What stories are we telling? With our research, our writing; with the thoughts we share, both ours and those we spread across our social and personal channels.

Every reality is shaped by story. Greed is good. Rich is good. Capitalism is good.

But I come at this world every day now armed with a different story. Compassion is good. Kindness is good. Socialism is good. Looking out for each other is good. Hoarding wealth is obscene. Greed is despicable. Capitalism is a crime against 90% of human beings on this earth.

Say a thing often enough, loudly enough, and you start to change the narrative all around you. Take a look at the news. At the talking points. Who is setting the conversation?

I no longer seek to react to the horror around me. Instead, I state boldly that no one gets to vote on who is human, that each of us is entitled to good health, that unions are a public good, housing is a human right, higher education should be free, corporations must be heavily taxed and regulated, and the government should be afraid of the people – people should not be afraid of the government.

I state these things as truth, without apology.

I speak my narrative. And I force the wider world to defend itself from a narrative of pure human decency, where each and every one of us has no more or less value on this earth than another.

Because the truth is human beings can create incredible things when they work together. When they see each other as human.

We can create incredible things.

We spend so much time fighting the darkness that we forget there’s another way to go about it. Building the future isn’t just about fighting the darkness. It’s about bringing the light.

BRING THE LIGHT.

Radical kindness. Empathy. Humanity. A positive, progressive vision of the future THAT INSPIRES ACTION.

That is the revolutionary future we can assert, promote, and protect.

That is how we’ll win. Not by simply fighting what we hate, but by protecting what we love.

(C’mon, you didn’t think I’d get out of here without a Star Wars reference??)

So, while I’m here, and you’re here… for as long as we’re blessed to be here…

Let’s go build the future.

One story at a time.

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