… we have all been programmed to respond to the human difference between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. – Audre Lorde
We (whether we care to admit it or not) are all products of our environment, upbringing, family, peers, education, and the biases, opinions, literature and mediums of our times.
We, dear storyteller, have decisions to make, many, many decisions. We, dear storyteller have ourselves as well as an audience/listener/observer/village to which we are accountable the moment we share a story.
When writing, telling, showing or performing a story try asking yourself:
1) Who is this story for? Who will I be telling it to? If you don’t know, then write/tell/show yourself first (it might remain as a journal entry, or even a confession).
2) Who’s story is it? Is it mine to tell? (this may require research, or even written or verbal permission).
3) Where did this story come from? Do your research. Is the story published? Is it a folktale, myth or religious tale? Are there different versions? How do they differ? Are these differences significant? From whose perspective will you choose to tell it? What did you consider when making these choices?
4) Why am I choosing to share it?
5) Why is this story important? In other words, why is it “urgent” – this is a direct reference to d’bi young anitafrika’s sorplusi method).
6) Why am I telling it now?
7) HOW will I tell it? Am I plagiarizing any part of it? In what ways will I give, or not give attribution?
8) Who am I accountable to when sharing this story? In what ways am I willing or unwilling to be accountable for the ways in which I tell it? Why or why not?
And finally, the one that people with unexamined biases often miss:
9) Am I harming anyone with the telling of this story? Does this story denigrate, ridicule or disrespect any person or group? In what ways am I willing to be accountable for this harm, intentional or otherwise?
Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for. – Alice Walker
This post was inspired by the recent debates in the media regarding appropriation. For some very fulfilling mind-food regarding appropriation, I give the floor to two writers I carry a deep respect for, please read more below.
Stories do not exist in a vacuum. Well maybe stories about dust-bunnies do – but that’s a tale/tail for another time. Stories exist in a community. Stories by their very nature involve a teller, a writer or a performer and a listener, audience or village.* Accountability to the community is central.
To “call someone out”, to require accountability, to assert one’s opposition to a story, to question someone’s opinions and perspectives, to highlight biases and misrepresentation, to demand an end to appropriation is in no way a demand for the end of free speech. It is, in fact, the opposite. It is called activism. It is called dialogue. It is called standing up for what you believe in. It is called refusing to be silenced.
“Your silence will not protect you.” – Audre Lorde
Stories can have many functions, they can: entertain, ridicule, protest, incite, inform, educate, heal, and open paths for dialogue or for reconciliation. They can also brutalize, humiliate, terrify, misrepresent, attempt to control, and yes, appropriate. Gossip is story, hate literature is story, rumours and propaganda are stories.
The status quo is naturally comfortable for those who have the status.
Free Speech comes with responsibility. This is where accountability is key. Can an editor, columnist, artist, or storyteller express controversial views without hurting anyone’s feelings? Unlikely. Can they make a point without relying on their own world view, speaking from their own perspective and exposing their own conscious and unconscious biases? Doubtful (and not necessarily the goal anyway).
Will the reader, listener, audience or village see something from another perspective? Hopefully. If the writer, storyteller, playwright, songwriter or journalist crosses a line in community standards and is called out on it, should they face consequences? Of course. Do these standards shift and change over time? Definitely. Should the goal be to keep the standards consistent, to insist that what was once historically acceptable remain so? Obviously not.
The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in. – James Baldwin
Let’s talk about journalism for a moment. News articles by their nature are supposed to aim for objectivity. But if the news was actually objective, there probably wouldn’t be much difference in the way mainstream and alternative media outlets report it. Chances are you have a preference for a certain newspaper, on-line source, pod-cast, Internet site, TV or radio broadcast, and there is a reason why. The reason is slant and bias. In news reporting, objectivity like perfection is an unobtainable, sometimes undefinable, but still necessary target.
On the other hand, editorials and columns, are supposed to contain and express an opinion. And not everyone is going to agree with that opinion every time. Being able to express your views without being jailed or brutalized is central to free speech. The fact that editorial opinions exist and are expressed without fear of government intervention means that we have free speech in Canada. However, there is no guarantee that you won’t be questioned or challenged by other writers, by activists, by individuals or communities.
It is this questioning, this clarifying, this calling for accountability that forces accepted standards to shift.
Sensibly, free speech by necessity has a limit. In Canada, there is a line drawn in the proverbial sand. On one side of the line there is freedom of expression which of course is legal, and on the other side is hate speech, which quite logically is illegal. Drawing the line at hate speech is not censorship. It is part of the legislated civility that encourages respect, helps to protect identifiable groups from hate mongering, and allows communities to remain intact.
A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom – Bob Dylan
Then there is a wide gray area where views are expressed that don’t fall clearly into the category of hate speech but cause a community or group to protest. Remember that the protest, whether written or verbal, also falls under the category of free speech. What it is not, is a call for censorship. What it is, is a call for accountability.
It is this questioning, this clarifying, this calling for accountability that forces accepted standards to shift. Without it, the status quo would remain intact. We see the world through our own unique lens, and we all have blind-spots when it comes to our own biases. Biases often reinforced by the prevailing attitudes and norms of the time and the society we live in.
The status quo is naturally comfortable for those who have the status. It is human nature to want to remain comfortable, and to complain when that comfort is challenged or disrupted. But if you want to be accountable, if you want to grow and mature, if you want to understand the world from a new perspective, if you want to be a responsible storyteller, then its time for you to push past that discomfort. It’s spring after all, so open the windows, turn on the lights, look under the bed and sweep out the corners. Befriend the dust bunnies, slay the dragon, question your view of the world, and try something new. Happy hunting.
On personal integrity hangs humanity’s fate. – Buckminster Fuller
You have come to the end of this section of The Storyteller’s Toolkit – Part 2 – Dust Bunnies, Vacuums, and Accountability – more on the same topic in the next blog post
Footnote * The term “village” used as an alternative here for “audience” is a term taught to me directly by d’bi young anitafrika. Here is a link to a brief description of her SORPLUSI METHODOLOGY