I knew I had to write something in response to A. O. Scott’s Sunday New York Times piece about all the movies out right now which give an insider’s perspective on industries that we find fascinating. Moneyball and Margin Call were two of the films that inspired him to write about our perennial interest in lifting the veil and seeing what’s really going on inside baseball and Wall Street.
I don’t think the irony was lost on Scott that we like to turn to pieces of fiction in order to get the real story. And some poststructuralist scholars might tell you it’s as good a place as any to look for the truth. But I don’t think that Scott went as far as he could in establishing the tremendous power that commercial storytelling has in influencing individual attitudes and, if it’s enough of a cultural juggernaut, public opinion. We may not care to admit the degree to which our knowledge of the Holocaust, for instance, is dependent on Hollywood’s depiction of it, but often these well-produced, tightly scripted fictional narratives can do more than entertain us for a couple hours, they can fill in the blanks in our knowledge. Just think about how much you learned about global pandemics in Contagion, cancer in 50/50, the founding of Facebook in Social Network and Jim Crow in The Help…
Although the connection between fictional media and public opinion is not always causal or directly linked, many scholars acknowledge that popular culture influences public opinion and in turn, the social and political landscape. Communication scholars have determined that media influence increases as the public’s direct experience with an issue decreases. Cultivation theorists, in particular, have found that information communicated to viewers via media like television can influence the audience’s perception of social reality in a subtle and cumulative fashion. (You’ll find more on this topic in a recent report I co-authored about primetime TV’s depiction of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs.)
So how might this have a civilizing influence on us? If you’re looking for a bit of good news today, I’d suggest you immediately check out Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker goes to great trouble to provide evidence demonstrating just how good we have it these days, and his opinion is that things will only get better. Humans will continue to exhibit a growing preference for life over death and happiness over suffering, and we will develop a better understanding of the way in which our fate is tied to others, whose quality of life will have a direct impact on our own.
He lists a few factors that have proven key to this positive transformation: the state monopoly on force, the spread of commerce, the empowerment of women and the role reason plays in moderating our more destructive impulses. But he also adds to this list the invention of the printing press – the technology of mass media, if you will, which allows storytellers to communicate compelling tales about people and issues you never would have thought about otherwise. He mentions novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oliver Twist but he might as well have mentioned Roots, The Grapes of Wrath or Philadelphia or a host of other books, TV shows, movies and songs even (remember “We Are the World?”) that invited humans to contemplate the plight of other people. It’s great to know that our longing for escape to fictional landscapes actually makes us better humans upon return.