Stories are only magical if they make you (re)act

I was a kid who loved books deeply and stayed up late reading in bed with a flashlight.  While growing up, I became more and more convinced  that good stories have the ability to enhance understanding, empathy, to let the reader virtually live other lives, know places far away and become more ‘human’. Part of my job is now about writing, and, of course, I still believe in the power of fictional and non-fictional stories to represent the complexity of reality and create awareness and solidarity around crucial issues. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s famous and passionate TED talk about “The danger of a single story” inspired me, like, a lot.

Despite all of this endless honeymoon of mine with storytelling, I enjoyed Sisonke Msimang’s thought-provoking talk about stories not necessarily making world a better place.

Stories are the antidote to bias, Msimang says. Stories make us fall in love. They heal rifts and they bridge divides. Yet, she argues, stories are not as magical as they seem. She explains why.

Reason #1: They can create an illusion of solidarity. That feel-good factor is tricking you. You haven’t done anything, you just listened to a touching story.

Reason #2: We are often drawn towards characters and protagonists that are likable and human. However, sometimes it’s the messages that we don’t want to hear, the ones that make us want to crawl out of ourselves, that we need to hear the most.

Reason #3: We are too often too invested in the personal narrative that we forget to look at the bigger picture. The most important stories, Msimang argues, are those that are both personal and allow us to explore and understand the political.

Also, we are witnessing a decline of facts in our society; media are losing confidence in the public and that’s not a good thing. To move forward in the field of social justice, we need credible facts from media institutions combined with the powerful voices of storytellers. Last but not least, audiences are the ones who can make the world a better place, by taking action when they are touched by news or stories about injustice.

I think that audiences can make the world a better place by switching off their phones, by stepping away from their screens and stepping out into the real world beyond what feels safe.

Msimang talks about social justice causes, but I believe her reflections can apply to INGOs communication, too.

Digital communication about aid and poverty can lead to forms of digital activism, which are often vulnerable to criticism and potentially considered as slacktivism.

In this video, released from SAIH Norway last Christmas and called “Change A Life With Just One Swipe”, the witty creators of the hilarious “Africa for Norway” series make fun of a bunch of stereotypical  “feel good” apps and online NGO facilities which allow Western citizens to help solving apparently simple issues and “changing a life” through a swipe.

The video is ironical, of course, but how familiar do these tropes sound? Stereotypical short stories about poverty, featuring oversimplified problems and very simple solutions (Norwegians feel cold in winter? Let’s bring them electric radiators from Africa! Olaf is afraid of bears? Let’s give him an axe!) are still quite common among INGO’s communication [1, 2].

I find  Msimang’s points #2 and #3 particularly relevant.

I guess it’s a fact that we are all, more or less, prone to compassion fatigue [1] or, to say it another way, we are used at hearing dramatic stories set in places and countries far from home, reporting issues which do not touch us directly and do not put into discussion our own lifestyle and daily life.

So I agree: the stories (and communication messages, overall) we need the most, maybe, are those which can make us feel a little uncomfortable, for example, letting us realise how we are implied in global dynamics connected to poverty, or the ones which highlight emergencies and injustices happening very close to home. In these cases, it is more probable that we feel like we are implicitly involved in the situation, if we are not acting.

In this video published in february, 2016, MSF UK director answers to a bunch of “nasty tweets” from British people about the refugee crisis. It dismantles in a simple, clear and yet cutting way the most common prejudices about the refugee situation in France, seen as a potential danger by a part of the UK public opinion. It also highlights the very hard living conditions refugees are facing in the “Jungle” camp in Northern France, in the heart of Europe and very close to the audience.

This is something different, but it is also related to the refugees issue. In this powerful couple of videos by Save the Children, we see how life would be if British refugees were fleeing a British civil war, with a reverse effect meant to destabilize our collective unconscious about refugees being Other from us [2,3]. The effects of war and the distressing vicissitudes of the protagonist, a British pre-teen girl, are conceived to emotionally “hit close to home” for the audience, more than a normal report about refugees from the Syrian region would do.

These videos adopt different communication techniques, but I guess they have an objective in common: they are meant to raise indignation in the watcher, to provoke in his/her mind the will to act on something that is happening close to home. In the latter case, British citizens are expected, I guess, to realize that behind the asylum-seekers willing to reach to the UK there are many personal stories full of pain and many normal people fleeing from the horrors of war who deserve and need a break and a decent reception from other countries. And, at the same time, an international emergency which needs to be addressed as a whole by the institutions.

In my opinion, these can be considered examples of a communication which makes the watcher uncomfortable, making him/her feel like he/she may be part of the problem. This objective can be even more complex to fulfil when communicating about North/South economic/political inequalities. It seems to me that just a few INGOs highlight the connections between poverty in the South and responsibilities in the North. Problems in the South are normally circumscribed to their context.

Another relevant point highlighted by Msimang, in fact, is the risk connected to the lack of complexity in storytelling. This is a common problem among communication for development, too.  Political issues and roots of inequality are often left out of INGOs messages.  Talking about the African context, Anyangwe highlights that Africa’s stories are still largely told by international charities, whose communication strategies are often  “split” between their advocacy function (which is concerned with challenging long-term structural and policy issues) and their fundraising objective, that seeks to raise money, often simplifying the discourse and using the tools of guilt and pity.

Msimang suggests that the best communication is the one which balances personal and political elements. Daniel Lombardi too [4] argues that really good stories normally include a range of positive and negative emotions, without leaving out important facts or oversimplifying the narrative.

I think this animation video from World Vision Australia shows well INGOs can still work to improve the way they represent North/South relationships.

Its title is “What causes poverty?” and it  tells the “stories” of a male Australian teenager compared to the one of a female teenager from Timor Leste. It starts describing their daily routine, then goes on highlighting the lack or scarcity of infrastructures and essential facilities in the girl’s rural village.  Poverty is explained as the result of geographical conditions which create a disadvantaged setting for human wellbeing, and human factors such as corrupt leaders, discrimination, unfair trade rules and poor infrastructures which limit the access to education, healthcare and clean water.  The issue of unfair trade rules between developing and developed countries is mentioned, but there it doesn’t go more in-depth than this. Western lifestyle and consumeristic dynamics are not questioned  in this video and there is not an acknowledgement of  historical factors that influenced Timor Leste’s development. A good element of this video is, in my opinion, the short reference to local population’s involvement and agency in aid and development programs.

Storytelling – and communication for social change – is intellectual work, as Msimang reminds us. I believe it is also a form of art which comes with a great load of responsibility. As a news and social media consumer, I feel like the most effective stories or communication messages are those which rely on universal emotions, the ones which highlight our common humanity; and the ones “that make us want to crawl out of ourselves”, as Msimang puts it, drawing attention to our privilege and/or to our connection to global problems and titillating our potential to act.

If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.

John Steinbeck

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons.

[1] Scott, M. (2014). Media and Development. London: Zed

[2]Dogra, N. (2012). Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs. IB Tauris

[3] Joye, S. (2009). The hierarchy of global suffering: A critical discourse analysis of television news reporting on foreign natural disasters, in The Journal of International Communication, 15: 2, pp. 45-61

[4] Lombardi, D. (2016). Don’t create a mood, just tell good stories, in WhyDev (ed.) 2016: Fresh and Frank Voices in Ending Poverty. Gordon, NSW: WhyDev.

[5] Anyangwe, E. (2017). Media perspectives: is Africa’s development story still stuck on aid?, in Bunce, M.,Franks, S., Paterson, C.(2017). Africa’s Media Image in the 21st Century. From the “Heart of Darkness” to “Africa Rising”. Routledge, New York.

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