Ethical Storysharing, Part 2
April 19, 2011
(Frequent contributor Thaler Pekar recently delivered a lecture on the Ethics of Working with Story to Kent State University’s graduate program in Information Architecture and Knowledge Management. Click here to read part 1. The complete video of the lecture can be seen at her Web site, www.thalerpekar.com.)
Thinking about the stories you're not hearing is critical to the ethical use of story. Do you have a responsibility to seek them out? Also, do you plan to label and publicly present the stories you do gather? And if so, how will the context affect the way the audience perceives those stories?
The way you choose to label stories -- "Stories from College Graduates," "Stories from Women," Stories from African Americans” -- can affect the way in which they are understood. When you label, you may lose some of the context and emotion that is critical to true understanding.
Similarly, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie warns, in a 2009 TED Talk, about the "danger of the single story." As Adichie says:
How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power. Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes, "That if you want to dispose a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, 'Secondly...'
Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, but not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African states, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story...."
(I encourage you to watch the entire twenty-minute talk.)
Be aware, as well, of other power imbalances, of people feeling they have no recourse but to say "Yes" when you ask them to share their story. Perhaps you want to use it in an advertising campaign or a public service announcement and are offering monetary compensation or an all-expenses-paid trip. Either may constitute a power imbalance.
The pendulum can swing too far in the other direction as well. I've often heard well-meaning nonprofit executives say "we simply can't tell this person's story; they are too vulnerable, and we must protect them." This, too, involves a kind of power imbalance. People have the right to be fully informed -- and to make their own decisions about whether to share, or not share, their stories.
Before you jump into story-gathering mode take a good look at your informed-consent documents. Better yet, have an outside expert take a look at them. You might want to offer choices about the ways in which an individual's story will be shared (e.g., anonymously, or only in certain circumstances or formats, or only with certain audiences).
Stories are extremely personal, powerful, and persuasive. They can affect great change in organizations, in the way a person perceives a situation or other people, and in the world. To be a true narrative leader, you must respect and uphold the highest ethical standards when gathering stories, sharing stories, and working with the people who choose to share those stories.
As I wrote in part one of this essay, your goal is to empower, not exploit. When you use story ethically, you enable people to be heard, respected, and celebrated.
-- Thaler Pekar