Storytelling and Ideology

I go to McDonald’s almost every day for a cup of coffee.  There is one downstairs from my apartment building in Queens where I live, so it is convenient.  McDonald’s coffee is cheap, pretty good, and the location has wireless.  I can sit there for an hour and half without feeling guilty, like I do in a typically overcrowded New York Starbucks with limited seating, and others waiting.

About two weeks ago, I mentioned on Twitter that I was trying out their new oatmeal, and that it was mediocre.   I complimented McDonald’s for at least offering something healthier than the Egg McMuffin.  A few people commented back, mocking McDonald’s and their lame attempt to be “healthy.”  Others blamed McDonald’s for American’s obesity problem and vowed to never bring their children into the fast food chain.

It was a good and interesting discussion.  It was only a few days later that I felt a surprising chilling effect.  Knowing that McDonald’s is not a favorite locale of my readership, with all sorts of negative connotations, should I mention my daily trips to McDonald’s anymore?  How does this affect my “brand?”

Of course, I already know your response to that question.  You are all nice people.   You are going to say I should write about anything I want.  But I’m human, too, and I think peer pressure is a worthy subject to discuss, even when it is involved with something like storytelling.

I remember speaking out against the “People of Walmart” website, calling it mean-spirited, even though so many of you thought it was hilarious.  But let’s face it, millions of people go to Walmart every day, whether we like it or not.  How many personal storytellers have now decided NOT TO TELL their little story about their family’s trip to Walmart online because of the negative association the store has with their online friends?  How many women are afraid of telling some funny story about feeding their baby some baby formula, scared to death that they are going to be attacked by breastfeeding advocates.  Or is THAT the point?  To change people’s attitudes by peer pressure?

We are not talking about opinion pieces here.  We are talking about stories.  Human stories of life.  I think we need to make a distinction between opinion/news and storytelling.   Arguing about the Republican’s health care plan is political.  Arguing with a non-political story about a Republican-voting wife is not always appropriate.  It could just be a story about going to the doctor.  Even Republicans have to go to the doctor.

We all proclaim that the internet is about “giving voices” to everyone, and “letting everyone tell their story.”  But do we really believe it?  Perhaps what we are really saying is that “we want to free the voices that have the same beliefs that we do.”

Stories are a funny business, because not every single story is a moral tale, or even makes the hero look good.  For instance, there was once this fight in junior high, and my friend got involved, and rather than helping out, I ran away, wanting to save my own ass.  I’m sure you can see why I fear telling this story.  It is a tale of cowardice.  But it is a human story, a story of a specific time and place.  My eyes are already rolling from visualizing the comments, a combination of friends supporting me and trolls saying someone should cut off my dick.  Too often, we read each other’s stories like they are public announcements of confession or attacks.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I supposed it is the job of the writer to present his unique story in a way that undercuts the reader’s stereotype.  One day, I would like to write a truly beautiful post about my local McDonald’s.  Yeah, yeah, I know it is a corporate giant and the food is terrible and is making our children into fat slobs.  I know all this, and I agree with you.

But I enjoy my cup of coffee in McDonald’s.  Rightly or wrongly, my McDonald’s attracts a very mixed crowd, and in my eyes, it is probably the most ethnically, racially and class mixed group I have ever encountered in one enclosed place.  There are blacks and whites, working class guys, and a businessman stopping for a quick bite before he runs for the bus. And you know what?  We are all nice to each other.  We have a common denominator — McDonald’s mediocre fast food.  Even though McDonald’s isn’t kosher or halal, I see both Jews and Muslims in the playground area with their kids, playing together.  In some ways, my local McDonald’s is our neighborhood’s public park, our Central Park — and even more diverse.  People write poems about Central Park.   Why not about McDonald’s?

But I wonder what the reaction would be if I wrote this glowing tribute the the Golden Arches.  Now if I had a McDonald’s advertisement plastered on my blog, THAT no one would care about.  But a personal opinion would be ripe for attack.  Would some advocate suggest that McDonald’s is “using” minorities for corporate gain by supplying them with cheap, unhealthy food?  Perhaps.  But that is not the story I am telling.  And it would ruin the point of my story.   After all, you might write a lovely tale about your family’s lovely luncheon at the organic food restaurant in the Village.  I’m sure you would not appreciate it if my review of your story was “typical long-winded stuff about a wealthy New York going to a cafe of overpriced food with other white, privileged patrons.”

I believe ideology is the enemy of storytelling.  Let people live their lives and tell their truth, without shame, even if the story doesn’t always fit into your box.   If you really want to hear “the voices of people,” you have to hear about visits to McDonald’s and Walmart — because that’s part of their story.

Note:  Speaking of stories, you can read a post I wrote for Studio 30+ about the pitfalls of searching for photos of topless women online when you are a 30+ male.

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48 Responses to Storytelling and Ideology

  1. Tony Noland says:

    This was expressed quite well. There are shared places and experiences we all have which are trivial and commonplace. They only become amazing when you stop to think about them, as you’ve done here.

    The mockery and snark will always be with us, precisely because the trivial and commonplace are the hallmark of the common individual. Those who deride and sniff reserve themselves for finer things… which then become commonplace in their own way.

    For the record, I don’t like McDonald’s food much, but their coffee has gotten much better in recent years.
    Tony Noland posted Where the hell is Tonys FridayFlash

  2. Jules says:

    Interesting transition from McDonald’s to porn. But wait, it is kind of the same. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart anymore because of how they treat their employees. And I don’t shop at Target anymore because of some of the donations they gave during the last election. McDonald’s is giving healthier choices because people ask for it. That’s the only reason. But I make my choices for the reasons I do. And if I was a really good person, I’d stop wearing leather.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I wish I could figure out how to type my applause. In the end, it’s that kind of turning against each other, that kind of judgment, that will (continue to) erode our society. And besides, with 34 million blogs out there, there’s plenty of wide open space for each of us to tell our stories. And besides #2: McDonald’s has good coffee.
    Jennifer posted Migration

  4. Deb Rox says:

    But details in a story are never just cigars, and especially details that carry class implications–and you are right, class issues are bust open on the Internet. Add to that the fact that the semiotics of food are heavy, dude, heavy. Plus, the context of storytelling on the Internet has been entirely altered by monetization of storytelling as well. I can’t hear about McDonald’s oatmeal and only think about your experience that morning, no way, because the last time I heard about McDonald’s oatmeal on Twitter it was paid placement as part of the Mighty Summit. Plus, consumer choice IS political. Plus plus plus. I think it’s good, it’s rich, it’s juicy, to swim in all of this signification, but I agree that it is changing our daily experiences with stories and does make us question which pressures and attachments matter to us.
    “People of Walmart” IS mean, but people would rather worry about Charlie Sheen being offended by Ricky Gervais. Class is a bitch.

  5. TheNextMartha says:

    Confession: I’ve eaten at Old Country Buffet. And liked it. >Cue dark clouds<

  6. Tom G. says:

    I would go further and say “Ideology is the Enemy of Community”.

    I think you are right in distinguishing between ideological/political Op Ed posts, and Storytelling. The first says to the reader “Here is what is right, and wrong in the world, and I am prepared to defend this position”. The second says “This is my life. I am sharing it with you, as I would food at my table. (Or coffee at McDonald’s) It is not a challenge to your life, but a confession of what mine is like”.

    There internet ought to be big enough for both types of blog postings.

    In the case of the Op Ed post, it is meant to be a public discussion or debate. It exists in the public sphere, and by putting it out there you are inviting discussion. Hopefully that discussion will be civil, but you can’t control that. The world will always have trolls who want to bring you down into their misery with them.

    In the case of the storytelling blog post, it is a personal . It is intended to share/show what your life is like, and how you feel about it. Hopefully people will empathize with it, and if they don’t they will be polite enough to stay silent. It’s as if you invite them to dinner at your house and share your food with them. Even if they do not like your cooking, they should be polite enough to keep it too themselves and not say “This food sucks!”

    I wish commenter could understand the difference. Maybe it’s unrealistic. Afterall, the storytelling post is not only a personal invite to your dinner table among friends, it is leaving the door open for strangers to share at your table too. By doing so, you can’t control who walks in and sits down. But you do have the right to ask them to leave if they are being rude. Because they are your guests.

    I made a personal choice to try to be non-political on my blog, and focus on the storytelling. That is why I call it my Front Porch. It is the little public space on my private life. All are welcome to sit down and have a cup of coffee, but it is still my private property. Get obnoxious, and I’ll kindly ask you to get off the porch.

    It would be a lot more difficult if I tried to do both types of things at my blog. I think the readers would easily confuse the two at times, and in the case of your McDonalds and Walmart analogies, that is exactly what I think it happening.

    Wonderful post Neil. Keep up the good work.
    Tom G. posted Bummin’

  7. Andy Warhol understood this, didn’t he? The art of the everyday and the maligned, common brand.

    But you always write from the perspective of someone who has lots of readers and followers on Twitter and is plugged in. You see yourself as part of the INTERNET and as part of some gigantic community, all waiting to pounce on your story.

    Most of us don’t have that experience, and most of us are not party to all the drama and popularity contests, and jockeying for position that these sorts of issues affect.

    The Internet does give everyone a voice, Neil. It doesn’t, however, give everyone a readership, a seal of approval, or validation. If that’s what you want, then writing about McDonald’s becomes A Big Deal. For most of us, it’s just a story we either feel is worth telling or not.

  8. Pingback: Tweets that mention Storytelling and Ideology | Citizen of the Month -- Topsy.com

  9. I was at a communications seminar about 6 years back and a PR guy from McDonald’s spoke about its healthy living campaign, its commercials that encouraged kids to exercise, etc. OK, I thought, it’s a fair attempt to try to counterbalance the negative press about its food products in the public eye. But one of the things he was most proud of was that McDonald’s was one of the biggest buyers and users of apples in the U.S. or world, I forget. “See how good we are,” he insinuated. “Apples, wholesome apples! We sell people apples so we are a good company with healthy products! Love us! Embrace us!”

    Failed to mention that most of those apples go into those deep fried pies.

    Storytelling … it’s all in the point of view.
    always home and uncool posted Gimme 3 Steps Away from that Crowded Gym

  10. Neil says:

    Well, granted, I would take anyone doing PR for McDonald’s with a bucket of the sodium they pour on the fries. I’m even wondering how “healthy” this oatmeal is. I think they throw in sugar flavoring…

  11. Heather says:

    Too many times–I think that this whole online writing life is just an extension of high school. Those who consider themselves the cool kids can say whatever the hell they want and get kudos. Anyone who chooses to say something contrary to the majority (or whatever) rule, is considered an outcast.

    I’m not bitter… ;)
    Heather posted Nonday 1

  12. Lynn says:

    I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

  13. erika says:

    my family shops at walmart and we always grab lunch at mcd’s which are now in most stores. while this may be politically incorrect to some, it’s usually a wonderful day and an affordable one for us to spend time shopping and eating together.
    erika posted Fate

  14. heather says:

    “Let people live their lives and tell their truth, without shame, even if the story doesn’t always fit into your box. ”

    This I really like.
    heather posted you heard it here first

  15. Megan says:

    It’s sad that the essence of a story can get lost in stupid minuate that aren’t important. Pearls before swine sometimes, I think.

    I always laugh when people rail against McDonald’s or some other fast food place because, once upon a time, there was a place here in Boca called Healthy Bites, which was a healthy fast food place. They sold lean burgers (on whole-grain buns), baked fries, salads, smoothies, etc. They even had a drive-thru. The food was good; I used to go there a lot. It went out of business. There’s now a Wendy’s there, and it’s doing just fine. People, in general, don’t want to eat what’s good for them.
    Megan posted Look

  16. Ben says:

    “Even Republicans have to go to the doctor.” That one gave me a great mid-morning chuckle… Except that we conservatives don’t ever get sick, Neil. It’s our gesture towards cutting health-care costs!

    I’m sitting here at work with 10 different projects in various stages of clutter around my desk, just kinda taking a few moments from the mental chaos to read your post (which was enjoyable, as usual), when your last paragraph jumped of the screen and solidly grabbed my focus! “I believe ideology is the enemy of storytelling”… (and I second Tom G’s inclusion of community in that sentiment). It’s a two-front attack on being transparent. I am attacked externally because of what I share from those not wanting to hear it. But even worse, I am attacked internally from the fear that develops within me as a protective measure. That fear, if unresolved, will force me to change who I am. And now it is now longer my story I’m telling, but someone else’s. And Tom is right, we then lose community, which should be about creating places to bringing people together. Instead, we are too busy trying to make everyone else look like ourselves…

    Good thoughts, Neil.

  17. The common denominator is humility. Arrogance will get you into a club, but it will never get you into McDonald’s.
    Karen Maezen Miller posted goes well with chocolates

  18. Juli says:

    I hear what you’re saying about a cigar being a cigar. But I agree with Deb about the details in our stories having class implications. Class is the elephant. We are all humans. But should we try to filter out our observations about class when we read, in the hopes of achieving some kind of ideological homogeneity? My favourite sentence:

    “I supposed it is the job of the writer to show present his unique story in a way that undercuts the reader’s stereotype.”
    Juli posted In which I chat with the President and CEO of My Bank

  19. Jane says:

    “Let people live their lives and tell their truth, without shame, even if the story doesn’t always fit into your box.”

    I love this, Neil. I’ve found the shaming part to be rare but always stunning, always hurtful, and always unnecessary.
    Jane posted Shine

  20. afteriris says:

    Stories are a funny business, because not every single story is a moral tale, or even makes the hero look good.

    My favorite stories fall into neither of these categories. Give me petty protagonist and a nihilistic narrative any day.
    afteriris posted Dry

  21. Rufus Dogg says:

    My local McDonalds at 5:00am every morning is a coffee club for old people. If you strip away the golden arches and all the branding, you would be describing any diner in any small town in America. Maybe you should tell your stories sans the arches and see who gets sucked into thinking you are talking about a diner. Does place really matter to the story? My McDonalds doesn’t one bit to the cast who gathers there each morning…

  22. This post reminds me of a few lines from the movie, Bruce Almighty…
    Bruce: How do you make so many people love you without affecting Free Will?
    God: Welcome to my world, son. If you come up with an answer to that one, let me know.

    Basically, we’re all spouting what we wish, and readers are loving or hating it in often equal amounts. I agree that all stories should be told. And, then they can be embraced or dismissed respectfully.

  23. Amanda says:

    I love that you enjoy your morning cup of coffee at McDonald’s. I worked at McDonald’s when I was in high school and I had a great time and met some wonderful people. I also lost 20 pounds in my first 6 months working there. It’s not the food at McDonald’s that makes people morbidly obese. Eating a burger and fries from any restaurant (or at home) twice a day will make anyone fat.
    Amanda posted Gardening Follies

  24. Noel says:

    People write poems about Central Park because it’s beautiful. Many scoff at McDonald’s, or merely decide against writing poems about it, because it’s aggressively ugly and the food is awful. You extol your local branch for serving the whole Melting Pot, but isn’t that more true of Central Park? You can find rich people there, as well as poor, and the rich don’t go to the big M because they can afford to eat better.

    But you made me think of this recent quote:

    “This is America, where a white Catholic male Republican judge was murdered on his way to greet a Democratic Jewish woman member of Congress, who was his friend. Her life was saved initially by a 20-year old Mexican-American gay college student, and eventually by a Korean-American combat surgeon, all eulogized by our African American President.” – Mark Shields
    Noel posted My Dad

  25. Say whatever you want as long as I can wax rhapsodic about my favorite place in the whole wide world…Olive Garden!
    unmitigated me posted Things in My Head

  26. Your post is spot on. Once I needed to plop down to reply to some emails and I went to my local McDonald’s and decided not to check-in on FourSquare. I didn’t want people to know that I was there.

    All Central Park is not that diverse. Prospect Park and Flushing Meadows are better.
    Nichelle Stephens posted Photo

  27. subWOW says:

    Thank you very much for this article. It made me think. I haven’t stopped thinking about it. (I wonder whether it is because I am a woman? Otherwise I’d have to stop thinking about THIS and take some time out to think about nekkid women on the Internet? LOL)

    Not sure whether this makes sense to you, but your argument provides me the “approval” I need for myself to LIKE someone who may be on the opposite end of political spectrum as I.

    p.s. I also wonder whether this makes it ok to read and like Glenn Beck’s book Christmas Sweater. ;-)
    subWOW posted The Cure

  28. subWOW says:

    By the way, I like McDonald’s. There, I said it. It was a BIG thing when the first McD opened in Taipei and it was considered “fancy food” back then since it was so expensive compared to the roadside stands that were (and still are) all over Taipei. I had very fond memories of lingering and studying in McD all over town, and all the cool and hip young people gathered in McDs too (very much like Starbucks in the US now. Go figure)

    When I became a mother, I appreciated the 20, 30 minutes of “downtown” the playland afforded me when the weather did not allow outdoor plays, and since we are in Chicago, that’s about 50% of the time. People freak out about the germs etc found in the ball pit, well, it worked for us because I threatened my kids with tales of Black Death and they did not put their hands anywhere near their mouths before they washed their hands.

    Moral of my rambling? Threat works great for parenting. ;-)
    subWOW posted The Cure

  29. GrandeMocha says:

    My son’s favorite place to eat is McD’s. We go there a LOT. If we find one with a playland & we have time to play, even better. He eats reasonably well, no fries or pop. A good time is had by all. I call it a win.

    You shouldn’t be embarassed about McD’s.

  30. What an insightful perspective. You’re so right. I’m not “cultured” or “hip” (not even enough to know the cultured or hip words for cultured and hip), and normally I don’t care, or at least I think I don’t — I’m sort of cool in a counterculture-cool way, right? But I only present a small version even of that, and it’s still being shamefully image conscious.

    The McDonald’s in my hick hometown, and its Playland, saved my butt when my son was little. He’d play in the hamster-tunnel-looking tubes for a couple hours while I completed my thesis and ate crappy food (which I was, and am, unrefined enough to actually enjoy).

    And yes, I shop local whenever possible, but I’ve been known to make the 2 a.m. run to Walmart. Where ELSE am I supposed to get milk, cough syrup, Pull-Ups, cat food, and light bulbs all at the same time.
    Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer) posted The butterfly effect at Boyce Thompson Arboretum also the Gila monster-vulture-hummingbird effect

  31. Jack says:

    I once discussed the benefits of marrying a tiger mom while sitting in a McDonalds located inside a Wal-Mart. In between bites of of a Big Mac we surfed the web for porn. Good times.

  32. We need to get off each others back, stop blaming others for our free will choices, be supportive and enjoy the stories we tell each other. Oh…and…I like the oatmeal. I have about 15 free coupons and that makes it even better!

  33. Alexandra says:

    This was a fantastic post to read, mostly because I just finished reading Nancy Gordimer’s book on the social responsibility of writers. Which is a wonderfully written book about causing change, and bringing awareness, and taking a stand. About doing something that is the right thing to do. I can’t remember the name of the book, but it is her most recent one.

    If you’ve read it, I know you enjoyed it. If not, you will eat up every word. It’s inspiring.

    Everyone is vulnerable to words, no matter how they pretend not to be.

    I truly enjoyed every word here today.

    Thank you

  34. Kristen says:

    So well said!

    I’m making this our “good read” for today at ShePosts. :)

  35. Danny says:

    You know, I loathe McDonald’s and everything they stand for, but I think it’s SO much more interesting that you write from there every morning rather than some stupid Starbuck’s. (And I’m sitting in a Starbuck’s right now!)

    Truth be told, I grew up on McDonald’s (one of the first franchises in the country was a few blocks from my house–remember when they were red-and-white striped with huge golden arches?) and they still have the best fries. But don’t ever let one of those terrifying McRib sandwiches touch your lips.
    Danny posted Sargent Shriver

  36. Well said, as always.

    I spend more time at Starbucks due to space and seating capacity near me. As for McDs, like the coffee, love the fries when I feel like indulging and yes clogging up a few arteries.

    I love the people watching there, from suits to seniors to young families to dorky teens, all colours and shapes and sizes. Is good for all of us to be in that company.

  37. Kim says:

    Bravo !! Very well said.

    McDonald’s fries. Yum.

  38. Karen says:

    I’ve suddenly have a craving for matzo and can’t for the life of me figure out why??
    Karen posted LA Life In A Nut Shell Snowbird 2011

  39. Stasha says:

    Thank you. I love this post. That’s all.
    Stasha posted Free to be you and me

  40. Ring says:

    I’d just like to point out that People of Walmart is more about people with hideous fashion and who are horribly ugly. No one’s trying to peer pressure anyone into anything, unless you count pressuring them into stopping being white trash, and if that’s the case, that’s a kindness.

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