Truth and Storytelling Consequences
Posted on 10 April 2017
Much of storytelling is a thought experiment. We develop a collection of characters, put them into particular circumstances and, if we are honest in our storytelling, we allow events to roll out to the most likely conclusions given all considerations. While we are doing this we are inhabiting other people’s lives and other people’s minds…that is, if we are being honest.
We all rely too much on stereotypes to help tell our stories for us. And yet to do so is highly unjust to those who are being portrayed as mere addendums to the “real” characters. Sometimes this is out of laziness, sometimes ignorance or a lack of imagination, sometimes this is because of anger, bigotry, or any combination of the above. Science fiction and fantasy is often a mass of stereotypes in aid of “cool” ideas which take the fore: what would the future be like if teleportation became a thing, what would the world be like if we had to live with dragons, etc.
Embedded in this problem is a deeper one: what right do we have to represent others stories. If someone living in a city writes a story about someone working as a rancher in the country, they are holding up to the world a manufactured example of what it is like to be a rancher and thereby inform their audience, perhaps erroneously, as to what it is like to be a rancher and what sort of person a rancher might be. This story may romanticise or vilify ranch workers and thereby mould city people’s impressions. This becomes a problem when by sheer numbers city people make electoral decisions that affect those living in the country, who by law are now subject to decisions over which they had little say. In conclusion not only may the city writer have used stereotypes to titillate an audience: they may have misrepresented a group of people and thereby misinformed their audience. From their isolated position the writer may think they have done nothing wrong, because they cannot see the consequences.
Now let’s open these questions up into more dangerous territory. We do not live in a world of pure divisions between peoples, and yet we often try to create such divisions. These divisions often serve as a means to protect ourselves, either by providing a quick way to determine who might be a threat or by informing us who it is acceptable to exploit in order to ensure we have sufficient for our survival. These are the most insidious stereotypes. Living on the blunt end of these divisions makes various people vulnerable to the representations of those who are more privileged. However, the reality that these divisions are arbitrary means many people are both privileged and underprivileged simultaneously.
The Problem of the Historical Fiction Author
Former president Barack Obama is wealthy, male, and once held one of the most privileged positions you can attain within the United States. However, his dark features make him the subject of stereotyping, slurs, and racist behaviour. Writing is not a particularly profitable profession. Let us say that in the future a white, lower middle class woman just barely scraping by writes a piece of historical fiction about the childhood lives of Malia and Sasha Obama. This woman might feel justified because they all know what it is like to be female. She would find challenging not only leaping the ethnic divide to best represent African American culture, but also the divide between lower and upper classes.
If the book about Sasha and Malia were published, it might very well cause an outcry no matter how conscientious the author tried to be. As a child I was crazy about Phillis Wheatley, because she was a poet as a little girl and I was a poet as a little girl. If this author had a genuine affinity for Sasha and Malia, I could understand this author feeling upset that her chosen subject matter was seen as beyond her. However, if Michelle Obama were to write a novel from the viewpoint of a poor white man, I can bet you anything that the outcry would be louder and more vicious.
The answer would seem to be an author should only write about their own people. Who are our own people? Should our historical novelist only write about young, able, white, lower middle class women who live in small towns near Portland Oregon? What about the supporting characters in her novel? Are they also subject to these restrictions? In many ways our problems start increasing.
Write What You Know?
I doubt that our historical novelist lives in a world where she never sees another person who is older or younger than herself, never comes across someone differently abled, of another ethnicity or class, or is of a different gender or gender diverse. Without absolute isolation this is impossible. To not include diversity in her stories is to be dishonest about her experience and the nature of the world. If we all wrote books that narrow in focus, it would become very easy to increase divisions among ourselves. Some people would read books that only reflect their own experience (which already happens but this could exacerbate the issue). Some people would find it harder to make imaginative leaps into recognising shared humanity because of the intense othering. What also concerns me is that we then also have fewer models as to how we can successfully live together.
Okay, let’s soften that barrier. Let’s say she can write about people more distinct from herself, but they can only be the secondary characters. The main character must be someone like herself. Sorry, we still have problems. Reading is an important tool for empathy. People identify with someone unlike themselves in stories and start to care. Some people need our care, but are unable to write for themselves. People with various intellectual disabilities come to mind. People who have been unjustly imprisoned and are being prevented from communicating outside their situation is another example. Intense situations involving children definitely require the writing of an adult to protect the child and inform the public.
I don’t believe there is any way we can tell a story where we aren’t vulnerable to judgement. I would say if we are creating stories, we have to not concern ourselves with the judgement but rather focus on being genuinely truthful, sensitive, and showing due care to the best of our ability. We will still be caught out, but we will need to have the humility to allow our vulnerability and to learn. Some things can be done to make it easier to tell stories that are broad in scope and diversity, which integrate the peoples of this Earth.
More Than One Voice Creating Stories, More Than One Voice In Stories
If only one voice is heard telling their stories we have a problem. If only the stories of wealthy white men and the world of wealthy white men are told, then it’s easy to feel that theirs are the only stories that matter. Worse, many people end up feeling the stories of wealthy white men are the only stories worth emulating, not only in the creation of new stories, but in how our lives are lived. This is happening now and creating a whole world of problems when it comes to rich/poor divide, discrimination, and the damaging of our ecosystem.
If only one voice is being heard telling everyone else’s stories, we have a problem. If only wealthy white males are telling the stories of women, children, people of colour, etc then we have at best limited insight into other people’s lives because we have no way of knowing how fair the portrayal is. How do a people portray themselves? What details do they focus on? What is important to them? For those who cannot speak for themselves, if at least a diversity of voices are telling their stories then we might get a closer approximation of truth. A mother’s story about her child with Down Syndrome may be very different from the father’s story.
We must demand that a fair distribution of voices is heard through a diversity of media, and in our schools from pre-school to graduate school. This is not optional. A world of peace demands such fairness.
Writers must develop their stories with all due diligence. We must research our subjects with the same care and objectivity as academics. We must do so with an eye to detail and a sensitive concern for the values of those being portrayed. That doesn’t mean backing off from the truth when it’s complex and dirty. In fact that complexity is what the world most needs to acknowledge and accept as part of a genuine compassion for whole human beings. Just make sure the complexity extends to all characters not just one segment.
We must engage and consult with our subjects. This is where we part ways with the academics, because we are about portraying emotional truth as well. To the best of our ability we should spend time with people like those we are creating, or at least watching their vlogs. I don’t ask people to dip into “method” storytelling, that can be immensely damaging to a person’s mental well-being. If people at least seek the help of those they are representing and listen to their opinions before releasing their stories to the world, this would help create greater truthfulness.
The Conversation Begins
I do not believe I have addressed all the problems nor have I presented all the answers here. What I am mostly seeking is to open up a conversation about how we can enter each others worlds sufficiently to create a community of goodwill. I want us engaging in each others stories and imagining ourselves in the positions of their characters. Women frequently experience stories by imagining what it’s like to be the male lead. The same is true of many people who are not of the mainstream storied class. When we have sufficient diversity in the story market that white men enjoy imagining themselves as being one of the rest of us, then we will be within embracing distance of a truly peaceful world.
I want an integrated world of goodwill, so I do my best to write an integrated world of goodwill. If you have any ideas on how we can all do this better, please let me know.
Peace and kindness,