Alex Kronemer, Co-Founder and President of Unity Productions Foundation, Creator of PBS Documentary Legacy of a Prophet.
What have we done wrong? What have we done right?
Kronemer: Good morning, everyone. Thanks so much for inviting me. It has been such an interesting panel so far. I’ve really enjoyed everything said, and what I’m going to talk about kind of dovetails very well with the two panelists that came before me, because what I’m going to talk about is stories, and the importance of stories. You know, we always ask what distinguishes us from the animals. Are we a tool making animal? You know, that we make tools is that what makes us different? Is it that we organize ourselves in certain ways? And so on and so forth and every time you come up with one of those ideas, someone points out an animal that has the same behavior. But what I would assert is the thing that makes us truly different from the animals is we’re the only animals that tell stories. Animals don’t need stories, because animals have bedrock instincts and they’re enthralled to pheromones and scents and sounds, and they can create hives, and they can go out and do all these complex behaviors, because they have hard-wired DNA instincts to allow them to do that. We don’t have that. If we’re going to organize ourselves into the complex societies that we live in, we need stories of national origin. We need stories of how we’re supposed to get along. If we are going to create laws—and our laws are ones we create, they’re not ones wired into us—we need stories of crime and punishment. Obviously, witness what’s on television, we can crave those stories. I would argue that our obsession with sports is because sports are story telling marvels. Every time you sit down to watch some game, it’s really a story of drama. It’s David versus Goliath; it’s whether this aging athlete is going to come to the forefront or not; it’s down by two scores, are you going to make it, you know?
We need stories. They are a part of our psychology. We dream in stories. Our religion is based on stories. If you took any of the faiths and bore them down to just what the basic idea or rules are, great religious people always say it boils down to the golden rule, do unto others or do not do unto others, however it’s stated. And yet, we require these stories of Noah, and Adam and Moses, and Jesus and Muhammad, and stories of people from other faiths to understand that, and that’s what we relate to. So stories are the most powerful force in humanity, the most powerful force in the world. Therefore, storytellers play an extremely important role. If we roll back to the first storytellers, fifty thousand years ago outside a fire burning outside a cave, telling stories about how human beings fit into the natural world in some way. These were very important stories in order to give people meaning and courage in the world that was very frightening. They played an extremely important role and were the proto religions, which all the other religions evolved from. But around those fires were also people who told stories about people who lived in the valley on the other side, and how they came from ancestors who did something deeply offensive or harmful to our ancestors. Maybe how they intended to do it again. And we have to organize and be ready or maybe even go out and attack, and take their land and destroy them utterly. Those also were stories that were told that began to give shape to how society then grows.
Now, in a time when we’re just dealing with campfires, some of those bad stories were sort of limited. But now storytelling happens on a global scale. We have two storytellers (if you don’t mind my saying that) on the panel with us, and we have someone on the news media and we have a scholar. They’re storytellers because all the information that’s out there ultimately gets organized on filmmaking a story arc, a storyline. It’s the only way we can make sense of the world. We take all these details and we have a story arc that we have an investment in. You were talking about innocence domination [to Dr. Pahl]. He explained how that story arc works. Therefore, then we go out and look at the world and we assemble the information to support that storyline, that story arc. News media does the same thing. They look out and there’s a sense that we’re unbiased and so on and so forth, but people have that arch. They look and they assemble the details around that story arc. At the introductory remarks, it was mentioned, and Muslims in the audience also mention the groups, how many Muslims after 9/11 came out and condemned those attacks, and how that seems to fall on silent ears. Well, it falls on silent ears because that falls outside the prevailing story arc from 9/11. Miss Cosby might have been one of the first journalists to mention Al Qaeda and all of that, but when I turned on the TV that morning, the first two potential perpetrators that I heard a shocked television anchor replying who might be behind these attacks were the Serbs and the Iraqis. The Serbs, because you may remember we had just fought a war in Serbia; the Iraqis because of obvious reasons. And I wonder if it had turned out to be the Serbs or the Iraqis, would we even have a panel that we’re having today? If it had been the Serbs that had been behind this, would people be talking about what’s wrong with Orthodox Christianity? Would we be looking at the Balkans as a place of violence and terrorism? Would we have to have Orthodox Christian leaders over and over again repeat, “We are not responsible for the acts of those few. They do not represent what we do.” I don’t think so. Had it been Iraqis behind it would it have been a state actor? Well, we did actually invade Iraq anyway. But the focus would have been on a national level, you know, we have a bad guy regime, and Islam would not have been part of the conversation, particularly since Saddam Hussein was a secular figure. Because we had this attack that was done –and by the way, for many of you out there, you may not understand what the motivations of Ayman Al Zawari and Osama bin Laden were for those attacks, if you go to your bookstore or Amazon, you can buy something called the Al Qaeda reader and it spells out exactly what their idea was. It wasn’t an attack on America. They weren’t out to attack our freedoms or attack us. We were collateral damage in something else they were trying to achieve, and they spelled it out very carefully. They wanted to overthrow the Egyptian government and the Saudi monarchy. And most of the terrorists of that day came from a particular province in Saudi Arabia that historically been at odds with the monarchy, and fighting in civil kind of wars to overthrow their rule. And they reasoned that because the United States has troops and props up these people, that’s the reason they can’t win. So if they did something like in Somalia, America will flee the region, and in fleeing the region, they might be able to do their ultimate goal. So it wasn’t really about us at all. But when those buildings fell, the enormity of that event made that kind of storyline pretty hard to accept. And then central casting couldn’t have done it better than with a guy like Osama bin Laden, if you want to add a religious dimension to it, there he is. And frankly, before 9/11 even happened, there was a prevailing storyline about Muslim s being backward, being fanatical, particularly Arab Muslims, and so the event happened, and this idea of a religious battle, a clash of civilizations. They hate us for their freedoms, it’s about Muslims and so forth became the overarching meta story arc that we’ve been living with for the last ten years and which has had not just an impact, you know, we’re here today talking about Islamophobia, but that’s really a smallest part of all of this. If we think of the wars, if we think of the number of people who have been killed and displaced. Dr. Pahl was talking about all the opportunities for soft diplomacy, but that can’t have happened in the context of that story arc that they’re out there to give us. It’s that what they’re believing then soft diplomacy is foolish, and that’s what the people in the policy making power all said and did an acted on so that we get to where we are today.
So MIT and Harvard did a study about a year or so ago measuring in your brain the impact that these storylines and story arcs have on you, and found that storylines have influenced violence against your perceived group, solidify based ideologies, and create within the heart a desire for retribution against the out group. I thought it was very interesting as you [to Dr. Pahl] were kind of comparing both the same kind of storyline both for Al-Qaeda and for the American both religious and political violence. But it’s the same idea: they’re out to get us. So, I think that what we need to do and what I want to urge people to think about is the ways in which you accept certain storylines and story arcs out there. Think about the ways and the stories you repeat, not only to other people, but in your own heart, and also the stories you tell, not to diminish how important those are. My son who is studying neuroscience always sends me these articles, and he sent one recently that really struck me. Neuroscientists had hooked up people to various MRIs to measure brain activity when they were seeing certain images, images of violence and frightening images and images of people doing nice things and positive things. And when they show you images of someone handing a flower or positive images, they get a reading on the brain activity that’s happening. When they show the negative images, 14 times the amount of brain activity occurs, which you could say perhaps means that a negative impression is 14 times more powerful over our emotions and over our thinking than a positive image. That makes sense; if you think back to our ancestors, it probably was a lot more important to remember where the saber tooth tigers were than the meadow of buttercups. And it may sound discouraging, but to me it sort of gives you a pat, and I’m speaking to all of you individually, because it says that actually you can become one of the 14; that through a good act that through enforcing a positive story or storyline can begin to accumulate in the people around you. Impressions, so maybe you’re the first, or the third or the fourth, or the sixth or the seventh, or the fourteenth that finally changes a heart and changes a mind. So you know, we all like to stand up for our teams and say, “We are number one,” that may be the chant of the champions, but for the chant should be, “I am number 14.” And all of us should strive to be number 14.
Finally, one of the things that our organization, Liberty Production Foundations, does is that it also tries to create peace platforms. Platforms where all of you can, because you know we all make these speeches, and people feel like they want to do something , but then what can you do? Well, there’s something actually that you can do right now that was mentioned in the introduction to my bio, but we’ve created something called My Fellow American. What My Fellow American is, is a website that has a short film that really kind of frames the topic, you know of hate speech versus what people everyday Muslims are doing in a very powerful context. And then it allows people to upload videos mainly from people who are not Muslim, telling a positive story—being one of the fourteen—about Muslim Americans, or a particular Muslim that they had met. It’s very powerful and you have people telling all kinds of stories on this website, and we’re starting to now get celebrities. We have a few mayors who have uploaded videos. We have Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary who is singing a song, and some leading religious leaders, Rabbi Schneider here in New York has uploaded a video. So all of you can (there’s many things you can do, but) one of the things you can do is go to this website, myfellowamerican.us. Tell your circle about it. Upload a video of your own, but stand up and be counted. Be one of the 14. Think about the stories you tell, the stories you promote, because they really do change the world. Thank you very much.
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