The Power & Perils of Storytelling

…doing good is hard work. It’s humbling work, it’s a lifelong commitment, and it requires us to face hard questions about the way we live. And doing good, sometimes, requires us to wage war on sentimentality.

-my friend Jialan Wang, on Kony2012 and this article in particular


In the wake of Kony2012, there’s a hot new story of activism gone awry: playwright and performer Mike Daisey’s fabrications in his one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”  Daisey traveled to China to learn about the working conditions of Apple’s subcontractors and created a performance around his findings – but, as it happens, he made some of them up.  Some are willing to forgive Daisey, in the name of narrative expediency or ideological coherence; others have burned him at the stake of journalistic integrity.  Some have split the difference, claiming that documentary theater is equal parts documentary and theater, the messy collision of fact and fiction, and sorting out boundaries is futility.


But my favorite response is this one, from a journalist who has been in China for years: “Daisey’s fiction was predicated on the notion that China is essentially unknowable, that reporters never go to factory gates, that highways exit to nowhere… His story was initially a success because it satisfied so many of our casual assumptions about China and Apple.”


I like what Jialan has to say (above) about activism, but I think it applies equally well to storytelling.  Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates, on learning a second language: “…And I have to believe that if I explored languages with more distance from English, I’d see even more interesting things and I would see, not simply highways, but entire flight-paths. ”


What is true of second languages – that it expands one’s worldview, one’s sense of potential, one’s empathy – is also true of encountering second stories.  I had an exceedingly lost post planned on the matter but it turns out someone else has already said it all, and so much better:

“Power is the ability not just to tell a story about a person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”  This is, precisely, why Kony2012 is problematic; the white voices of Invisible Children replicate the single story that reduces Africa to an issue of Western saviorism.  This is why Mike Daisey’s efforts, however well-intentioned, are fundamentally misguided – because the stories of Foxconn employees do not fit neatly into a proscribed narrative, a single story, and no matter how those stories compel us in the privileged West to action the damage they do to their subjects cannot be excused.  Often, what these stories compel is the opposite of engagement; by refusing to see the subjects of stories as fully human, these stories make them all too easy to ignore as people.  (The article at that link is quite lengthy, and fascinating on many levels, but the relevant incident occurs about 4/5 of the way through – well worth reading to.)


It bothers me as an activist to see the power of storytelling so misused, co-opting the strength and intelligence and solutions of affected populations.  Daisey and Invisible Children and their ilk are well-meaning but their eagerness to define the narratives of others is stifling and problematic on a practical level; it may seem a lesser criticism to call it unimaginative, or strange to label such impassioned activism ‘easy’, but the stories proffered are both, and that, I find, is what offends me most – not that these white men (just sayin’) dared to tell such tales but that they didn’t dare to tell better ones.


What might a better story look like?  Truthful, to be certain, and more complete, challenging audiences not by its neatness but by its fullness and mess – because most of all a better story is not circumscribed by its teller but only by the tale itself.  Conflict and perseverance in post-colonial Uganda, globalization and labor conditions in the largest nation the world has ever known – these are big stories, so much bigger than Invisible Children or Mike Daisey, and in choosing to tell them at all those entities assumed an obligation to tell them well.  Whatever arguments are to be made for them as activists or journalists or theater artists all miss this central point: that Invisible Children and Mike Daisey tried to tell stories about other people – people far, far away – and in that basic (but not simple) task, they utterly failed.  Their stories were of victims and villains, characters instead of human beings; and their stories were about themselves most of all, heroes just for speaking of these faraway lands.


But real courage rarely comforts our assumptions or fits so squarely into our archetypes.  We will do better – and more courageously – when, first, we begin to tell better stories.

0 thoughts on “The Power & Perils of Storytelling”

Leave a Reply