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Transcript Arlene Goldbard: Bottom-up Self-Censorship, Top-down Consensus Reality

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storycon.org H2'ed 7/13/14
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R.K.: So, we don't have much time left so I want to get a couple things in. You're doing a lot of consulting and lecturing all over the place, you just mentioned you gave a talk at Harvard. Why do people bring you to speak and what are their goals? What do they want to get out of it?

A.G.: You know, that's a question I have been thinking about a lot lately because I think there's two answers. One is that most of the people who bring me to speak have heard me speak somewhere else. Because they've had an experience in which I said things that validate something that they know deeply but haven't been able to bring to a complete articulation or haven't heard validated, and so it feels like an opening out experience and I guess inspiring is the word that people say to me the most which I like very much.

I like to inspire. The other reason they bring me, which I'm not so thrilled about, is that an adjective I get a lot is provocative. While I do definitely want to be thought-provoking and feeling-provoking I'm worried that in some places provocative means let's hear this as a far out point of view and then we can all go back to consensus reality. So I'd like to be able to find a way to continue to be provocative and open people's thinking to the idea that things that provoke their own thoughts and feelings can be shared, not just sequestered into kind a of spice or seasoning, but in the actual main course of life.

R.K.: This consensus reality, that's a really fascinating concept to me. To me it seems that consensus reality is very top-down, it's kind of put out there and then, but it takes this decentralized self-censorship that you describe to embrace it and own it and accept it. And it-

A.G.: Absolutely.

R.K.: It also seems to me like art, it can be very much the answer to disconnecting people from consensus reality. And you talked about that in your book a lot.

A.G.: Yeah. You'd have to be able to envision an alternative, right? If you're embedded in the consensus reality, so for example you just have these kind of default settings in your mind, these people are experts, they know so much more than me, what do I have to say about this subject, this topic of climate change or whatever, however complex it is, income inequality, these things that I am living through, I just don't understand it, what's on TV.

That's an expression of the consensus reality. The alternative reality is to recognize that there is a lot of different experts, that they are about as failed in their predictions of the future as a coin flip would be. That there is no material reality to the idea that you don't have something valid to contribute even on the biggest and most complex challenges of our time, and the way that people tend to realize that is when a challenge is brought home to them in the form of stories. In the form of something that engages, not just their mind, but their body. Their feelings. Their spirit at the same time.

R.K.: Now story is a concept that you keep coming back to. You have named that as the future paradigm, the Republic of Stories. Talk to me about story and where that fits into your view of change and making this a better world.

A.G.: Well because I am really interested in the Golden Rule, I am really interested in the notion that there is a very simple underlying principle that if it were enacted it would transform everything. For example, if our policy makers had to actually live under the condition that they prescribed to the least tax payer, they would be prescribing different conditions. So because I'm looking for ways to get people to treat the Golden Rule not just as an abstract principle out there but a real guide to living... then how does that happen for us, you know?

We experience ourselves as suffering in isolation but when we connect to other people we see that something that is happening to us is not a private trouble but an expression of a public issue, a public dilemma. It can only be a story. I can't imagine any other way to get to that. There's no substitution that will convey that to people in the powerful way that they need to receive it. So for example, many of the people I work with use a very simple modality called the Story Circle to do organizing.

You get people into manageable size groups, eight or ten, everyone in the group gets an equal amount of time, two or three minutes to tell a story on a theme that's agreed upon. Let's say our theme is income inequality. All stories that people choose to tell are acceptable. No one can contradict, comment on, or add to anyone's story.

There is a moment of silence between them and when the eight or ten stories are told, the group breathes on them for a moment, and then reflects together there on what can be extracted from them in terms of common wisdom. I have never seen a story sharing like that disintegrate into

a polarized shouting match, or 'forget this I'm leaving' kind of thing that our conventional public political discourse always winds down to at this moment in history.

And I've always seen the sharing of stories illuminate something that can't be illuminated by simple explanation or definitely can't be illuminated by numbers, by statistics and bar graphs. So just using the core modality of sharing our stories in a situation of true receiving, true equality, deep listening, and opening the possibility of reflection, which doesn't happen very much in most of our organizations and institutions, just by itself I think that can make a difference.

R.K.: Okay. You have this list of six skills that were needed to actuate the Arab Spring and all six are artists core methods and essential habits of mind. You mentioned a couple of them like imagination and empathy. You also have in that list improvisation, and an interesting one is awareness of cultural citizenship and the aspiration to inhabit it fully. Talk about that.

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