Intro: Reflecting on Sujatha Fernandes’ talk on The Uses of Narrative in Organizing for Social Justice on October 4th, current OHMA student Tianrui Yu ponders the justice of story telling.
We are living in a world where the culture of storytelling is prevalent. From social media to TED talks, and even to presidential election campaigns—people reshape their raw stories to present certain versions of themselves to the world in order to achieve certain goals. However, to me, curating, more or less, means altering the the organic, wholesome reality perceived by the narrator. Therefore I asked myself whether curating stories is an ethical action? This is also a vital question especially for journalists because they have the power to shape public opinion. Curating stories to manipulate and deceive the public for evil ends is definitely unethical. But when journalists curate stories for good ends, such as social justice, do the good ends justify he fact the stories are curated? Professor Fernandes’ presentation gives me the answer.
Let’s begin reasoning with this simple, general question: why do people curate stories?
This is because they want to achieve the goals in their minds. In order to reach the goals, narrators need to win attention and support from their targeted audience. Therefore, storytellers need to either curate stories based of the tastes of audiences, or curate stories in a way that can manipulate/guide/direct the audiences to think or react in the desired way. Then, storytellers make decisions about hiding or highlighting parts of the whole stories by evaluating whether these parts will impede or promote the progress towards the final goal.
This is pretty intuitive. Now let’s consider about another question: why do they think certain parts of the raw stories may impede the the pursuit of the goals?
This is probably because storytellers are uncertain about how audiences would react to those parts. Professor Fernandes shared one example from the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign in relation to this point during her presentation. In short, according to the narrator, a baby-sitter, the raw story is: she is verbally abused by her employer and she resisted her employer. However, journalists only reported the part which she is verbally abused, while the part which she got angry and resisted her employer was never told in any public-facing media. In this context, when presenting this story to the public, the goal is to evoke empathy and obtain more support for the campaign. The journalists probably were unsure about how the public would react to the resistance part of the stories. The public may think: “Oh they know how to resist, so they don’t need our help anymore”, “they seem pretty tough”, and even “how could they dare to resist their employers?” Any of these possible reactions may have negative impacts on the campaign.
However, this reflects a lack of trust from the journalists, the engineers of raw stories, toward the public audiences. They assume that people are indifferent, people do not have enough empathy ability, and people cannot rationally objectively evaluate the whole story. So we give you a curated version to make sure that you think in a “culturally acceptable” way (in this case feeling empathic toward the abused domestic worker) that will serve the goal (support our campaign).
Professor Fernandes specifically criticized this type of storytelling because personal stories are told in ways that flatten narrators and hide their emotion, power, intelligence, resistance and humanity. She further criticized social campaign organizers who feed journalists this type of pitiful individual story. Instead, by referring to oral historian Alessandro Portelli’s three modes of storytelling, Professor Fernandes argues that personal stories should be told on not only the personal level, but also on collective, political levels. That is, making the connection between micro-level personal experience and the macro-level social structural context that shapes individual experiences. Back to the verbal abuse against baby sitter example, the collective, political context could be: immigration, gender discrimination, racial discrimination, and global inequality.
I would argue that, on one hand, journalists should first provide collective and political context, and then grant more trust toward the public, that the public are capable of rationally analyzing the whole story: yes, the baby-sitter did resist, but she has every right to resist against repression and she deserves to be treated as a human being. At the same time, the fact that she resisted neither makes her situation less miserable nor the abusing employer less guilty.
One the other hand, journalists should take presenting the story as a chance to educate the public. Let’s assume that the public are not rational enough to realized the points I mentioned. Then story engineers should lead the public to reason through providing in-depth analysis of the collective, political context, such as elaborating on how global inequality leads to immigration, and ask the audience to imagine what they would do and what help they would need if they are in the situation of the baby-sitter.
Heavily curated personal stories without structural context might sound easier to digest and can evoke sympathy quickly, but sympathy is an emotion that can quickly flee away when there is no more follow up to sad stories. In contrast, presenting the whole personal story with collective, political context and supplementary analysis would both help audiences to grasp a full picture and still guide the readers to react in the desired way: after evaluating the entire incident, they feel empathic, and conclude that they should support the campaign. A conclusion, that is produced after some critical thinking, is much firmer than sympathy. There is a significant difference in the dedication levels between “I feel so sorry for them and I want to help” and “this is unfair for them and I must help them to promote social justice”.
Therefore, back to the question I raised I the very beginning: when stories are curated for good ends, such as social justice, do the good ends justify the fact that the stories are curated?
The answer would only be yes when personal stories are told within social context and curated without flattening narrators.
As oral historians, we do not have control over what journalists would like to do with stories. Sometimes oral historians also need to curate stories before the raw interviews are made available to the public. However, what we can do, is to take the lead in the field of storytelling, and show journalists and social movement organizers that stories can still be powerful, can still touch people’s heart, and can better promote social changes, when curated in an ethical way.
Tianrui is a whimsical explorer who is interested in too many things and enjoys pondering about ethical issues. She truly believes in the bonding power of life stories, and her project at OHMA is about studying globalization, economic development, and changes in social structure’ s influence on individuals’ life.