THE BLOG
10/06/2014 02:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Storytelling And Its Discontents

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

My first reaction to Adichie's talk on the danger of a single story is relief. All too often, the positive power of stories is uncritically celebrated. Here's a talk that considers their shadow elements, their ability, as she says, "to dispossess and malign."

The longer I listen, though, the more restive I get. Her words are beautifully written and delivered. Her basic premise is sound, and, having grown up in Miami, I sympathize with her childhood filled with baffling tales of blue-eyed tots frolicking in snow. She's right about it all -- the dangers of stereotyping, the ease with which we become complicit in compressing others' experiences down to a single factor, the risks of boiling ourselves to our own most negative moments.

So what's bugging me?

I think it's this: stories are necessary but not sufficient for personal and social change. It seems too easy to get stuck in this gear: telling, listening, striving to be heard. Catharsis: confession, identification, validation. Too tasty -- not filling enough.

Adichie warns listeners about how those with power can reduce individuals' narratives down to a unitary story. I'd counter with a warning about overestimating the power of any individual's story to fight that dynamic.

Here's the part in this post where I'd normally drop in a bit of my own story. Instead, I'm going to resist the temptation. Why? Because you've heard it. Unlike when Adichie was small -- and a handful of years before that, when I was -- stories are no longer scarce.

Accounts of people like me are rampant -- collected by publishers such as Seal Press, magazines such as Bitch, fiction collections such as Lightspeed's recentWomen Destroy Science Fiction special issue. Over the years, I've passionately loved such outlets, not only because they showcase perspectives from writers with whom I share a vibe, but also because they make the leap from expression to collective action. They gather my virtual posse together and lend me courage by association. They take the similarities that make us vulnerable to stereotyping and reframe them as shared strengths.

TED itself creates a safe haven for storytellers. Part of the magic is the compact between the performer and live audience -- the sense of responsibility on the one hand to entertain and inform, and on the other to receive the tale with goodwill and respond with compassion to the emotions it provokes.

But establishing such safe spaces does not mend the broken contract between teller and listener out in much of the public sphere. While we can build ourselves up and gather strength through collective storytelling, equipping ourselves with narratives -- especially online ones --increasingly feels like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

In recent months I've been beyond disgusted to learn how many female writers have to muck through not just harsh criticism, but violent threats of rape, harm and even death. This has been true for years, but it seems to have reached a critical mass of visibility in January, with the publication of an article by Amanda Hess in the Pacific Standard: "Why Women Aren't Welcome on the Internet." As a journalist, Hess has been cyber-stalked, threatened with beheading and generally just mercilessly hounded for her writing on women and sexuality.

The consequences are not small. Hess writes, "All of these online offenses are enough to make a woman want to click away from Twitter, shut her laptop, and power down her phone... But for many women, steering clear of the Internet isn't an option. We use our devices to find supportive communities, make a living and construct safety nets. For a woman like me, who lives alone, the Internet isn't a fun diversion -- it is a necessary resource for work and interfacing with friends, family and, sometimes, law enforcement officers in an effort to feel safer from both online and offline violence."

Perhaps this seems a bit dramatic? Here's another story. Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist activist who took developers to task via YouTube for negative depictions of women in popular video games: "damsels in distress" such as the hapless Princess Peach in the Mario Brothers franchise, or "women as background decoration" in Grand Theft Auto. Sounds like feminism 101, right? A bit of counter-storytelling designed to protest flattening depictions that diminish women to a single role or look.

The response from some viewers, however, was not an epiphany, an admission of complicity or even a mocking dismissal. Instead: asymmetric warfare.

"Sarkeesian has been deluged with sexist hate of all stripes, from virtually every gaming community on the Internet," reports Zaid Jiliani in Salon. "It reached a peak when she actually had to leave her home following particularly detailed threats made on her by a Twitter user who knew her address and parents' names."

People, this is bonkers.

None of this contradicts Adichie's core point -- that it would be better if everyone had the patience and presence of mind to absorb the lessons of one another's complex stories.

But it does call into question her theory of change. There's no straight line between a listener learning about the diverse experiences of others and that listener's mind being opened. For some, it slams the door even tighter. Instead of just reducing the teller to a single story, they diminish her even further, into a body subject to harm.

So, yes. Build libraries and writing workshops and publishing houses. But let's also build some safety nets for those who find that telling their stories puts them in jeopardy: hotlines, comment moderation systems, nonprofits like Working to Halt Online Abuse. Let's not keep telling ourselves a single story about how storytelling works in the world.

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