In 1994, Anne Haas Dyson and Celia Genishi published a collection that made a big impression on me. The Need for Story: Cultural Diversity in Classroom and Community demonstrated how important stories are in helping us to understand the world and ourselves in it—a need that, they argued convincingly, is universal. At the time, I was very glad to see that the old traditional “modes of discourse” (argumentation, exposition, description, and narration) had been displaced in writing curricula, especially since they “bled” into each other constantly. Moreover, I thought then, and do even more so today, that narrative can play a part in all discourse, from memoirs to business reports. And I began tracking the use of narrative in discourses that had traditionally been thought of as outside the “academic” discourse taught in most writing classes, particularly those of African American, Latinx, and Native American traditions.
So I’ve been thinking about narrative, and the power of narrative, for a long time. But in the last 18 months or so, I’ve grown more and more concerned about the use of stories to spread misinformation, distortions, and even lies. In a 2009 Ted Talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out “The Danger of a Single Story”—what happens when whole groups of rich, complex people are reduced to a single narrative. Adichie says that it’s fairly simple to create such a single story: just “show people as one thing and one thing only, over and over again, and that is what they will become.” Adichie notes that stories are enmeshed in structures of power, that how they are told, when they are told, how many are told are all dependent on power, and “the ultimate power is to tell the story of another person—but to make it THE definitive story of that person.” And I would add “of that people” or “of that culture.”
Such stories surround us today: “immigrants are rapists and animals”; “guns don’t kill people”; “climate change is a hoax.” You can fill in the blanks with dozens of other stories that are repeated with stunning and mind-numbing regularity, even though they are demonstrably untrue.
So when I had the amazing opportunity to address the Rhetoric Society of America on its 50th anniversary last week in Minneapolis, I spoke of the need to examine and challenge narratives and stories that crush dreams, choke freedoms, and leave people voiceless and instead to pursue what I am calling narrative justice, because it occurs to me that our efforts to achieve social justice cannot advance when people are trapped, silenced, and demeaned by stories that simply will never allow for it.
I believe that teachers of writing are in a perfect position to foster the work of narrative justice, first by guiding students in identifying and understanding dangerous “single stories,” then analyzing and critiquing them. And we can go the next step as well, guiding students in creating alternative narratives that do justice to the truths of lived experience and that reflect their deepest values, their best sense of self, their vision of a just society. That’s a tall order for sure, but it’s also one that writing teachers are already working to fill. In this time which some call “post-truth” and others “a tower of lies,” doing so is our privilege and our responsibility.
I’m hoping to make my talk available on the web soon, for anyone interested.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 1245690 by Free-Photos, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License