TEDx: Why Stories Matter

On 23rd March I gave a talk at the International School of Tanganyika’s TEDx Upanga event. The talk is reproduced below and can be viewed here (38:30).

I want to talk about stories: why they matter and who gets to tell them. I love stories and have done since I was very young.

When I was four years old one of my favourite stories was a book called Not Now, Bernard.

It’s about a boy called Bernard who, one day, finds a monster in his back garden who threatens to eat him up. Bernard does what a lot of kids would do, and tells his mum, then his dad, that there is a monster in the garden. However, both of them brush him off and say: ‘not now, Bernard’. He goes back out to the monster who then eats Bernard whole.

The monster, still hungry, goes into the house and tries to eat Bernard’s parents too. But they ignore the monster, just like they ignored Bernard. In fact, the mum makes the monster eat his dinner and go to bed, never realising that her ‘son’ is in fact a big monster.

I loved this story. I’d ask for my mum or dad to read it to me over and over again. Why did I love this story so much? I think I liked how crazy it was that the main character gets killed in the first few pages. It’s so unexpected. I still love that in stories now. I also love the monster’s face at the end (look at him, he has no idea what’s going on).

But when I look at the story now, and think a little more, there’s also a real sadness to it. It’s about a boy who is completely ignored by his parents. A boy who has more in common with a monster, an outcast, than he does with his family. I now think that maybe Bernard and the monster are the same person. The monster is just a part of Bernard that he doesn’t like, a part of himself that feels lonely and different. That would explain why the parents treat the monster in the same way as him. He sees himself as a monster but they just see… Bernard. I think most kids feel angry or left out or ignored at some point, and maybe this book captures that experience and by doing so, makes you feel better. Good children’s stories are often pretty dark, they articulate the deep fears and anxieties that kids might have. That’s why so many parents die in Disney films.

Since then I’ve continued to love stories, to the point where it is now my job to read, share and discuss them with others. I find stories and storytelling infinitely fascinating because not only are they entertaining, but they are absolutely fundamental to the way in which human beings understand the world.

Our lives are short. If we’re lucky we get to live for 80 or 90 years. The things we can experience, the places we can visit, the people we can meet are all limited. Limited by time; limited by space and limited by perspective (we can, after all, only experience the world through our own eyes).

But stories defy these limitations and give us access to human experience in its entirety. Not only can we visit every country in the world, we can visit them at any point in history, we can experience what it was like to be a Russian aristocrat two hundred years ago,

or a slave in ancient Egypt, we can experience the thrill of murdering someone and the subsequent crushing, paranoid guilt without having to go through with it ourselves, we can experience the pain of losing someone we’ve loved for 50 years, the terror of living through the darkest moments in history and the excitement of the greatest moments of human achievement. We can visit whole new worlds (slide), and all the while gain a deeper understanding of our own lives. A life without stories is half-lived.

Stories also reaffirm our humanity. In his play ‘The Self-Tormentor’ (a terrifying title) the ancient Roman playwright Terence wrote: ‘I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me’

These words refer to our shared humanity. We have much more in common with every other person, living or dead, than we might want to admit, and we have to see a part of ourselves in the very best and very worst actions of every other human being. Stories remind us of this connection.

They let us know that we are not alone, that there is no emotion that you experience that some other human being has not experienced before. Stories allow us to see this and to understand the world from another person’s point of view. We can experience the world through someone of another race, religion, nationality, gender, age, mental or physical capability.

The power of stories to help us relate to other people has even been supported by research studies. In 2006, psychologists Mar and Oatley found a clear link between the amount of fiction someone reads and their level of empathy and openness to others. Even the act of telling stories brings people closer together. Think about a parent reading their child a bedtime story. Or a group of friends telling each other the same embarrassing stories about each other again and again.

Stories also transmit a society’s culture and values. We tell stories to young children to teach them the difference between right and wrong and to share with them what we value in our society. Nations use stories to define their character and share their culture. Stories make excellent vehicles for moral lessons, this is why the Bible, Qur’an, Torah and other religious texts make such frequent use of them. If you want to change someone’s mind, facts are not enough. You need to tell them a story.

So far, I’ve been talking about the power of stories and why they matter. But what is a story? A novel tells a story, so does a movie, so does a friend telling another friend what they did at the weekend, but I’d like to define the word much more broadly. Stories are the process through which human beings make sense of the world.

Think of when we look up at the night sky. We see thousands of random specs of sparkling light and know that beyond them are billions more. It is beautiful, chaotic and impossibly complex for a human being to take in at once. And yet, what do human beings do?

We find patterns in the stars and make constellations. Creating images and stories from the chaos. Orion the hunter and the great bear and Cassiopeia only exist in the collective imagination of humanity. And yet, these collective fictions have allowed humans to navigate across oceans millennia before compasses and satellite navigation.

Like constellations, stories are our way of making sense of the vastness and chaos of the world. Storytelling is the act of picking a perspective, finding a specific pattern of people and events that will then live in the consciousness of every human being who knows that story.

The historian Yuval Harari, in his book Sapiens, argues that the key to human beings’ success is that we as a species are able to cooperate with one another in large groups because we believe in collective fictions (or shared stories). He identifies gods, nations, money and even human rights as concepts that only exist in the minds of human beings. These allow thousands, millions, even billions of people to work together and organise on an otherwise unimaginable scale.

Why do the 67 million people living on this patch of earth call themselves French, pay taxes to the French government, have a shared history, a national character, support les Bleus at the World Cup? Part of this sense of national identity is pragmatic and is linked to mutual benefit (for example, the payment of taxes in exchange for services). But much of it is about a collective fiction. They have joined up the stars they see around them and bought into the story of France.

So stories are not just words written in books, but are an account of connected events, or a narrative. These narratives have a huge impact on our lives. An obvious example is found in politics. Every politician tells a story about their country’s past and offers a story for its future. In 2008, Barack Obama told a story of an America full of hope. Where a person who just 150 years ago could have been a slave, could now run for and be elected president. In Obama’s story, we can see some of the key plot points. The emancipation proclamation, the civil rights movement, and then, his presidency. In 2016, Donald Trump told a different story of America. He told a story of rich Washington elites screwing over the little guy and being duped by sneaky foreigners. Interestingly, Trump’s story of America’s past was also his vision for the future. Though both Obama and Trump’s stories are just stories. They have had a profound effect on the lives of citizens of both America and the world.

This photograph shows a boat full of people rescued by the Irish army in 2015. Looking at this image, there are different stories we can tell. We can tell the story of someone who has had their home destroyed and has nothing left; we can tell the story of a person whose life has been threatened due to their political beliefs and is fleeing to safety; we can tell the story of an exhausted naval officer helping to lift children from a sinking boat; or we can tell a story about the one refugee in a million who will commit a violent crime or the story of a country that is full and cannot help. The story we choose to tell has a direct impact on the actions we take.

Stories are powerful. They give us access to a universe of experiences; they allow us to see the world from other people’s perspective; they carry the culture and values of our society; they inform the political, economic, and social narratives in which we believe and upon which we act.

The important question is who gets to tell these stories?

The author, Chimamanda Adichie, in her TED talk ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ explains that when she was a child all of the books she read were about little white English children. Though she loved the books, she did not see her own stories being told. Novels give us insight into the experiences of a diverse range of people, but only if a diverse range of people are given the opportunity to write and publish their stories.

When I think back to the authors I read and studied at school and university I can pick out many.

Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Golding, Cummings, Camus, Yeats. Do you see a pattern emerging? White men from Europe or America get to tell a lot of stories (I mean, look at me right now on this stage, telling you a story). I love the work of these writers, and their work is rich and varied, but the range of perspectives and experiences they can offer are still limited. When I moved to Tanzania and started teaching in an international school, this limitation became even more apparent. How can you justify teaching a syllabus composed exclusively of dead white men in a truly international school in Dar es Salaam? I decided to only read novels by African writers and such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Adichie, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Dangarembga and Obioma. I don’t regret having read the books by these writers (point to screen) but I have gained so much from seeking out writers with backgrounds and from nations different to my own. If reading stories helps nurture empathy, we should seek out those from the widest possible range of cultures. If stories shape the way we see the world, the people telling them should be representative of those who live in it.

The same goes for political and economic narratives told by historians, university professors, journalists and politicians. If we look at journalism in the UK and US we find that people of colour, muslims, women and those from poorer backgrounds are all hugely underrepresented. Over half of British journalists were privately educated, while only 7% of the British population went to private schools.

This pattern is reflected across Europe and the rest of the world. Only 25% of British front page news stories in 2017 were written by women. Perhaps that’s how we end up with front pages like this.

The Daily Mail decided that when the Prime Minister and Scottish First Minister met to discuss Brexit, the real story was who had the best legs. Similar inequalities exist in Hollywood, where there has been just one female Oscar winner for best director…ever. This reflects an industry in which 89% of directors and writers are men.

The result are films in which there are fewer female characters, and the few characters there are talk less than men and play fewer roles than men. The only thing female characters do more of than men in movies is taking their clothes off. In the top 900 movies between 2007 and 2016, 25% of female characters got partially naked, as opposed to 9% of males.

When our stories are exclusively authored by men, by the rich, by Europeans or Americans, by the older generation, then our culture, our economy, our politics, our moral rules, favour these people. Global leaders focus on the stories of the older, whiter, and richer generation. The story of economic growth at all costs, of consumerism, of fossil fuel consumption. Instead, we need to listen to the stories of the young, the poor, the disenfranchised. We need to hear the stories of our own culture and of cultures around the world so that we can live a richer life and grow closer to our brothers and sisters everywhere.

I wonder if we would be facing the same climate crisis we do today if we spent more time listening to the stories told by the young, rather than disregarding them as naive or idealistic. I wonder if the world’s most powerful countries would still be closing their doors to refugees fleeing violence and poverty if we spent more time listening to the stories of the dispossessed rather than those who pedal bigotry for political and financial gain.

No one should feel or be treated like a monster in their own society. Stories have the power to change that. From making people laugh, to allowing us to understand other people’s perspectives, to celebrating our own culture, even to shaping the political and economic narratives that affect all of our lives. I encourage you to ask whose stories you are listening to, amplify and share the stories that rarely get heard and, maybe most importantly, go out and tell your own stories with pride.

Thank you.


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