Twenty years ago the UN General Assembly made the 20th of June World Refugee Day in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convention of 1951, the international treaty giving rights to people to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. Every year around this date myriads articles about refugees and their stories are published all over the world. Most of them are well-intentioned, but they can sometimes still be harmful and damaging for the people in need of international protection.
For thousands of years of human culture and history, personal and collective stories have been the most influential sources of information that ensured societal changes and development. More recently, people who have had a chance to voice their life histories made real change through familiarising various audiences with their unusual or – on the contrary – trivial, but nevertheless important, narratives. The same is true for the stories of different communities shared under a common umbrella.
For centuries only certain people could share their stories. They were those occupying positions of power: men, for example, as opposed to women. Feminist methodologies made it very clear that having one’s voice heard is essential to having a societal impact. Since women’s voices were counted, our societies have changed. Following this logic, other communities made their voices heard through various forms of storytelling: they were LGBTQI communities, disabled people, ethnic and racial minorities, working class people and many other groups. Hearing each and every one of these stories has brought our societies closer to real equality.
This storytelling comes in different forms: from mythological chronicles that depict experiences in starry-eyed fashion (like in the Bible), to fiction that is based on real people’s concerns (as in Joyce’s Ulysses), to video and photo images that talk to their viewers through visual means using new tools provided by technologies and social media. So the mediums of storytelling may vary, but it is the stories themselves that make the difference. Personal stories help audiences to relate their own experiences to those shared in the media landscape. No de-humanised statistical data can do better than storytelling.
In the current environment, big numbers through the prism of Big Data are taken to signify important societal impact. We tend to see statistical calculations as evidence of interest. However, only qualitative data such as life histories, observations and biographies actually make sense of any calculations. Interpretations of statistical data always depend on understanding people, but understanding is the task of qualitative methodologies in social science. Statistical data comes only as a set of distant numbers that register something that needs qualitative interpretation. This is why storytelling is so important for gaining an appreciation of what is actually going on.
Stories may also generate quantifiable impact: the number of people exposed to a particular story is visible in the numbers of website visitors where that story is published or the size of an audience of a particular media. Even though these numbers are identifiable, they still speak very little about empathy that viewers and readership may develop in response or about the emotional circulation that results. It is important to learn about such an interest, but the real measure of impact is still located in the hearts of people exposed to storytelling narratives – a quantity that stays invisible, but that is so important for societal solidarity.
Storytelling is an essential form that drives societal transformations. From the ancient ages when people told their stories in person to our current age when people share their stories via digital mediums, stories have always had an impact. Sometimes one’s face tells a story and makes that impact. The important thing is to find the means of communication to deliver the stories straight to people’s hearts.
Considering how powerful storytelling is, we cannot pretend that the infrastructure built around it by media and researchers is always ethical and respectful towards those who constitute those stories. As an LGBT person who has been granted international protection in Ireland and a quite visible activist, I have been asked for interviews and other types of storytelling. I tend to agree but it’s getting harder all the time.
One journalist told me that I was wearing a good shirt and didn’t look like as an asylum seeker. Another asked how much I paid to smugglers to get me out. Quite recently another journalist was looking for someone ‘from Direct Provision’ at a conference. She approached me and started to ask questions. But once she heard that I had already moved out of Direct Provision, she interrupted me and said that she wanted someone who was currently there, otherwise she was not interested. What a devaluation of my life experience.
In other words, journalists were rude to me, disrespectful and abusive. Using my words or ideas without quotes, giving erroneous interpretations and false promises. Trans and non-binary people, homeless people, other migrants, people of colour, people with disabilities and a lot of others who I shared my concerns with, told me that they often experienced similar treatment from journalists, but also from artists, researchers and other ‘supporters’. It is called ‘cognitive exploitation’, and this is exactly the opposite to the idea of the empowerment of the community through storytelling.
The problem is that after such an interaction most people retreat into their closet and don’t want to tell their stories anymore, despite those stories being so important to tell, as I pointed out. I want us to keep telling our stories as long we have the energy and courage to do so. I also want to encourage everyone to keep trying to use their own voices, to write using available media to tell the stories so that cynical intermediaries cannot intervene. As for the journalists, they perhaps need to discuss professional ethics regarding dealing with precarious groups.
Hence, what is really needed is an open critical discussion with the affected people about what we feel as unacceptable when sharing our stories with others. Let new ethical standards be dictated by unwritten concerns around the precariousness and not by outdated rules and norms. These unwritten rules should come about through debate and generate a deeper understanding of people’s experiences. This seems to be another role for comprehensive storytelling.