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Available from MIT Press
by Brenda Laurel
designed by Denise Gonzales Crisp
edited by Peter Lunenfeld
Utopian Entreprenaur cover
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Culture Work for Peace*

Popular culture is the language in which societies discuss politics, religion, ethics, and action.  Culture workers are committed to working in that language, to make interventions at the level of popular culture.

Culture work is values-driven work.  It is work you are doing because you think it's a good thing to do.  It draws its strength from the shining single value at the heart of humanism: the belief in humanity's power to shape its own destiny through the application of knowledge and thought.  We make the implicit assumption that we can do good, and therefore that we can know what is good to do.

Culture work is a potent way of working for peace.  Changing minds is ultimately more powerful than blowing things up.  People living in the world today are experiencing a bewildering rate of change and complexification.  Culture workers have these ethical goals:  to help people to retain their integrity, to survive, and even to flourish under conditions of profound change.  The strategy of culture work is to inject new material into the culture without activating its immune system.  That new material coalesces around age-old questions:  What is the meaning of this?  Who am I? What are the world and I becoming?

Culture work is direct action.  You strive to understand your audience.  You respond with work that gives voice to values.  Your name is on it, not God's name or Allah's name or Chairman Mao's.  You deploy the tools of storytelling, persuasion, technology, and economics to change minds.  For example, some of the most effective tools so far in the battle against female genital mutilation in Mali have been the voices of popular music and radio.  And regardless of what we may think of Rupert Murdoch, American television will be corrosive to totalitarianism in China.

The absolutist narratives of religion have proven in culture after culture, century after century, to lead to violent conflict.  Faith-based hate is a virulent strain of evil.  Bardic tales and Greek comedy and fairy tales and Commedia dell'Arte and nursery rhymes were each, in their times, antidotes to the privileged narratives of extremist nationalism and religious intolerance.  That is some of the history of culture work.  Exercising our narrative intelligence strengthens critical thinking and imagination, broadens horizons, and undermines absolutism.  Change the stories, and you change the way people think. 

So when I see signs that say "pray for peace," I want to post these signs:  Work for peace.  Speak for peace.  Tell stories for peace.  Make music for peace.  Write books and make movies and build websites for peace.  Do culture work that corrodes extremism and intolerance.  Manifest peace.

*Contains exerpts from Utopian Entrepreneur, MIT Press, 2001