2009-05-14: Transformative Fiction
Listening to a local NPR station today, I heard the Director of the Population Media Center of Vermont interviewed. He talked about the issues the organization is addressing (detrimental environmental effects of the population of humans on the planet), the excessive impact that developed countries, well, specifically the US has due to our superconsumption, but also the impact that populations have worldwide: world population increases in the developing world will have impact similar to several times what the US does on its own. Environmental harm is also compounded by social inequity in these areas, and health issues go hand in hand.
To address this, they have done study which shows that empowering individuals to be able to make choices to have fewer children are by far and away the most successful ways to reduce population growth and improve people's lives. So they've developed a very interesting secret weapon to help encourage this: Soap Operas.
The characters in the soap operas are easy to identify with. They go through experiences that are like those of the viewers in important ways. And the Institute has found that the dramas change people's attitudes and behaviours.
It's got a good goal, and it's well-meaning, so I support it. But I realize that if this was pro-religious, I'd feel much more skeptical. Propaganda is such an ugly word, but this does show the power of fiction to shape how we see the world. Good to remember, good to be inspired by, and good to be careful of.
2009-05-16 13:01:28 Alex F
I went to a recent talk on this held by the British Psychological Society. It was by Albert Bandura, one of the grand old folk of the discipline (apparently, he is cited more than Freud!), whose social learning theory is the underpinning for this particular methodology.
It was an interesting talk, but it provoked in me some of the same thoughts you've posted about.
Firstly, all the programmes they put in place are sanctioned by the government of the country. I can see how tactically this is probably sensible. Yet I can't shake the feeling that an unintended side-effect is to draw artists, funds and viewers directly into activities designed only to support existing policy. What space for protest drama?
Secondly, there seems to be an underlying narrative across the dramas. As they are intended to be empowering, they need to show, in the main, that acting 'right' leads to success. If you do persevere with finding a job then you will get one. This endorses the "Just World Hypothesis" and suggests that failure is down to poor choices.
These two features make me uneasy. My experience of valuable socially conscious drama - it certainly wasn't invented by the PMC, even if they have productised it to a degree - has generally been through dissenting voices: those that point out failures at the individual and the institutional level. Take The Wire as one well-worn instance. This enterprise seem to act against this: taking up resources that would otherwise be open to pushing such messages, and colonising mind-space to shift people into thinking that every problem is solvable within the existing frameworks.
This all said, my only exposure has been a trawl through the website and a one hour talk, so I may be missing the nuance here. Moreover, they're definitely doing palpable good as a public communication service for things that do need to be acted upon. I do worry that they may be neutering other, vital forms of change.