Creating Technology for Social Change

How Fictional Story Worlds Influence Real World Politics

Last time, I shared with you the first of a series of occassional field reports and thought pieces from a team I have been putting together at MIT and USC to reflect on what we perceive as a potential continuum from engagement with participatory culture (especially fan communities and practices) and public participation in civic and political activities. As we described last time, this work is currently at a conceptual level as we gather examples of groups which are using elements from popular culture to provide a bridge into real world social and political concerns. Eventually we hope to do more indepth case studies working with organizations and their members to identify best practices that may be increasing young people’s civic engagement and from there, develop materials which may foster even greater public participation. This reserarch has been funded in part by the Center for Future Civic Media at MIT (funded by the Knight Foundation) and reflects my involvement in a new John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation initiative focused on youth, new media, and public participation.

This time, Flourish Klink, a Master’s Candidate in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, shares some of our current thinking about “fictional story worlds” which offer resources that these groups are deploying to think through and intervene in complex real world problems.

The idea may seem radical at first — breaking with the largely rationalist drive of most contemporary activism. We have had less trouble accepting the premise that works of realist literature — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Grapes of Wrath — can become the focal point for movements for social change than we have buying the idea that fantastical realms may do so, even though there is a long history. As someone who has spent much of my life in fandom, I have long seen examples of science fiction inspiring fans to rally support around NASA and manned space flight, say, or more recently, slash fans being moved to actively engage with issues of concern to the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transsexual community or to join fights against censorship and for free expression.

But what has intrigued me the most in recent years is the way fan communities, especially around fantasy texts, are inspiring activism around human rights issues. The green politics often implicit in Anime has sparked growing awareness of environmental issues while J.K. Rowling’s background in Amnesty International helps to explain why the Harry Potter books are leading young people to be concerned with repressive governments and human dignity.

The temptation is to evaluate such movements through a focus on the author’s implicit or explicit political commitments, yet we may also explore how fans have used these popular platforms as raw materials for their own public engagement, seeking inspiration there for ways they might work through complex real world issues. It is this focus on fandom as a site for exploring and engaging with social concerns that is the central focus of this second installment in the series.

If you know of any groups who are doing interesting work which fuses participatory culture and public participation, please contact me at We are trying to identify as many examples as we can at this stage in our research.

How Fictional Story Worlds Influence Real World Politics
by Flourish Klink

Once upon a time, a hare saw a tortoise ambling along, and began to mock him. The hare challenged the tortoise to a race, and the tortoise accepted. When they began, the hare immediately shot ahead. After running for some time, the hare was very far ahead of the tortoise, so he decided to sit down and have a rest before continuing the race. Sitting under a shady tree, the hare soon fell asleep. The tortoise, plodding on, overtook him, and by the time the hare woke up, the tortoise had already passed the finish line. The moral of this story is that slow and steady wins the race.

As they read stories like this one, out of Aesop’s fables, children are primed to seek meanings and morals in the stories they read. What we are taught as children follows us throughout our lives. As teens and adults, we continue to look for meanings in the stories we read. “That was such an inspiring book,” we say, or “that movie was so depressing. It really made me feel like there’s nothing I can do to fix this messed-up world.”

Sometimes, we are inspired to emulate aspects of our favorite stories. For example, when reading The Lord of the Rings, a fan might be inspired by Frodo’s willingness to embark upon a long, perilous and dangerous journey, even before he really knows what it will entail, and even though every part of him wants to take the easier route:

A great dread fell on him, as if he was awaiting the pronouncement of some doom that he had long foreseen and vainly hoped might after all never be spoken. An overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled his heart. At last with an effort he spoke, and wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice. ‘I will take the Ring,” he said, “though I do not know the way.”

Frodo’s self-sacrifice and bravery might inspire us to take a chance – to try something new, perhaps. One can imagine that a person might read about Frodo’s choice and decide that they, too, can take a journey to a dangerous place for the good of mankind – and sign up for the Peace Corps. Or, on a smaller scale, someone might just decide to start serving the homeless and mentally ill, overcoming her cultural revulsion against and fear of people less fortunate than herself.

This kind of inspiration really relies on you “buying into” the story’s world. It doesn’t matter whether Frodo is saying heroic things if you find Lord of the Rings boring and Tolkien’s style dry as dust. In some sense, if you really care about a story, the characters in it become figures that live in your mind, role models, if you will.

Now think of a different situation. Imagine that, instead of our fictional do-gooder being inspired by Frodo’s speech, she is inspired by a persuasive person. Perhaps she goes to a lecture about the issue of homelessness in her town, and at this lecture she meets a woman who runs a soup kitchen and who convinces her to overcome her nervousness at volunteering there. How is this situation different from the first? How is it the same? Is the first situation even realistic? Is the second situation? These are some of the sub-questions we’re struggling with in our civic engagement research.

It is well known that people who are involved in the high arts are more likely to volunteer in their communities. However, the reasons for this correlation are not clear. Are people actually inspired to volunteer by high arts? Is it only high arts that can inspire people to become more civically engaged, or can popular culture do it, too? Or is there a more complex situation underpinning the NEA study and these questions?

As Anna ably chronicled in the last post in this series, there are plenty of civically engaged organizations which, to a greater or lesser degree, have formed around particular pop culture texts. There’s a wide variety of ways that these organizations activate popular culture. Some of them grew organically out of a fan culture; others were concerned with a particular issue and then decided to use a story to make that issue more compelling. Some started off as very tightly focused on one issue – for instance, Racebending began life as a protest against white actors being cast in Asian roles in the movie The Last Airbender – and eventually branched out into more concerns. Others have always cast their net a bit wider. Still others began as tightly focused and continue to be tightly focused, such as Verb Noire, an e-publishing company dedicated to publishing fiction about groups that have been historically underrepresented in sci-fi and fantasy. What all these organizations have in common, however, is that they mobilize stories to encourage people to become more civically engaged – and in many cases, they were inspired and mobilized by stories.

There’s a lot more complexity in the way that these organizations deal with the stories they refer to than might initially meet the eye. In Textual Poachers, Henry refers to fandom as a mix of “fascination and frustration.” Never is that more clear than in these organizations. Some of them, like Verb Noire, are dealing directly with aspects of their fandom that they don’t like. Other organizations have to negotiate complex and differing understandings of their core story: the Harry Potter Alliance’s “What would Dumbledore do?” campaign relies on a perception of Dumbledore as a positive or “good” character, which not all Harry Potter fans share. Some, like Racebending, are dealing with multiple instantiations of a single story and their slight variations, drawing inspiration from some but not all of these versions.

Then, too, relatively simple fictional worlds often provide a starting point for hard thinking about the nuanced real world – hard thinking that goes beyond just “I want to be like Frodo.” For example, the Harry Potter Alliance is doing this sort of hard thinking about the issue of witch hunts in Nigeria. In these witch hunts, parents are persuaded to ostracize and abuse their disobedient children, calling them “witches,” in the name of performing an exorcism. The pastors who perform the exorcisms frequently charge a great deal of money for the service; if the parents cannot pay, they are told their only option is to completely ostracize or even kill their child. The children who survive often have suffered horrific wounds and incredible emotional trauma, and they are left alone in the world, if they aren’t lucky enough to be taken into an orphanage or shelter.

Naturally, witches and wizards are an important part of the Harry Potter books – and the persecution of witches and wizards is an important part of the Harry Potter books. In fact, Harry’s aunt and uncle subject him to fairly horrible neglect as a result of his wizarding talents. On the surface, there would seem to be a very direct correlation between the witch-hunts in Nigeria and Harry Potter’s childhood in the Harry Potter books, a correlation which the Harry Potter Alliance might rally around.

In reality, however, this correlation was only the start of the conversation. Rather than simply seeing the similarities between Harry’s life and the life of a persecuted African child, members of the Harry Potter Alliance also looked for the differences. They discussed, and are still discussing, how the cultural differences between Africa and the developed West might be clouding their understanding of the issue. They discussed the differences between the witch hunts in Nigeria and persecution of Wiccans in the United States (and came to the conclusion that Harry Potter fandom’s typical claim – that the books don’t lead to witchcraft – is, on some level, complicit with the idea that it is wrong to be Wiccan). And they discussed the ways that cultural flows between churches in the United States and churches in Africa may have contributed to the increased number of witch hunts that are taking place today. In fact, the conversation is still continuing, as they struggle with the question of how to make an intervention without behaving paternalistically towards the African groups involved.

This sort of discussion can take place because the Harry Potter Alliance exists in the context of participatory culture. Rather than receiving information from a central source, group members have access to a social network and to easy email communication with organizers: there’s plenty of opportunity for group members to become engaged in debate about the organizations’ understanding of the stories they’re focused on, and the organizations’ actions. This increased communication can sometimes lead to unending debate, it’s true: in some more decentralized groups, it can be difficult to come to a decision. When making choices quickly is important, there’s nothing like centralized authority. But sometimes, like when the Harry Potter Alliance was thinking about witch hunts in Africa, a longer, slower thought process is appropriate, leading to better decisions. To quote a story with a moral: “slow and steady wins the race!”