What Personal Storytelling Leaves Out: A Suggestion on Alternate Approaches to Activism

by John Whitehead


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A common practice among activists or commentators on political controversies is to invoke personal stories. Someone will tell how her or his life, or the life of a friend or acquaintance, was directly affected by a larger injustice or problem. The activist or commentator will use that personal experience as an element in an argument about how best to understand and respond to the larger injustice. This use of personal stories in political arguments is often powerful, but it also has serious limitations. Further, because not all political causes lend themselves equally well to sharing personal stories, this approach slants attention and discussion toward certain causes and away from others no less worthy.


Before explaining personal stories’ limits, however, I should give due credit to their value. Having someone talk about suffering personally from an injustice makes what could otherwise be a general and distant issue specific and immediate. When someone talks about a personal experience, we do not encounter statistics or charts that can be intellectually grasped but leave our emotions untouched. We hear another human being tell her or his story and may end up deeply touched. The specificity, immediacy, and emotional impact of personal stories can inspire a commitment to work against whatever injustice has affected the storyteller’s life.


Because of its power to inspire, telling personal stories is often part of activism, including social justice, peace, and pro-life activism. Groups such as Veterans for Peace and Silent No More, to take just a couple examples, make known the stories of people affected by war or abortion who now wish to speak out against these forms of violence. Such use of personal storytelling by activists is entirely understandable and often valuable.


Personal storytelling is not a cure-all, however. It has several shortcomings. First, not all audiences are inspired by the same approach. Many people are moved to action by someone’s personal experiences, but others may be more cautious or cerebral by nature and require a more abstract analysis of an injustice before they act against it. Second, while sharing personal experiences of injustice can touch people emotionally, such sharing cannot by itself provide a practical strategy for how to counter that injustice. A more analytical approach that looks at the injustice in a more abstract way is necessary.


A third problem with personal stories, and the main one that concerns me, is that not all activist causes lend themselves equally well to such storytelling. A cause might be a good one that addresses a real injustice without being easy to translate into a tale of personal experience.


Sometimes the people most directly affected by an injustice are far removed from the people who most need to hear their stories. When wars or military actions waged by the United States cause death and injury in other countries, the bereaved and injured survivors cannot easily gain a hearing from the American public: their physical and political distance from the United States prevents that. American troops who have known the trauma of war or American families who have lost loved ones in war can make their voices heard more easily and that is all to the good. Even so, a huge part of war’s suffering is left out when the experiences of people in other countries is not heard.


Sometimes the targets of injustice are not just geographically or politically distant but by definition cannot tell their own stories. Animal rights activists work against violence or inhumane living conditions that affect non-human creatures who can never share their own experiences as humans do. Pro-life activists similarly work against lethal violence that targets preborn humans who are not yet able to defend their own right to life. Granted, once they are born and mature enough, people who could have been killed by abortion can tell their stories. One thinks of Gianna Jessen and Melissa Ohden, both survivors of attempted abortions, or the many people whose mothers considered abortion prior to their birth. Such people’s stories are undeniably powerful. Nevertheless, during the period of life when they are actually threatened with abortion, preborn children cannot speak for themselves but must rely on others.


Sometimes the targets of injustice cannot tell their stories because, to some extent, the injustice has not yet happened. Environmentalists who warn of the dire consequences of climate change or similar threats can certainly draw on the experiences of people already living with the effects of ecological damage. Nevertheless, they are working against not merely current environmental damage but the prospect of still greater damage in the future, the victims of which cannot yet tell their stories.


The same problem faces, to a still greater degree, activists working against nuclear weapons. A comparatively small and sadly dwindling number of people—survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings or of atomic testing—have direct personal experience of nuclear weapons’ destructiveness. Moreover, the central concern of anti-nuclear activists is not what nuclear weapons have done in the past, horrifying though that is, but rather the destruction they might wreak in the future. Nuclear war is an event no one has personal experience of—and if it ever were to occur, few people would be left to tell their stories. Anti-nuclear peace activism must involve, to a significant degree, warnings about a hypothetical future event. An emphasis on personal stories puts such activism at a disadvantage.


Again, none of this is to deny the value of personal stories or to exclude such an approach from activism. We should recognize, however, that many worthy causes are not well served by an emphasis on sharing personal experiences. Sometimes a more general, analytical approach to causes is required. Activism on behalf of justice, peace, and life should allow for a wide variety of approaches, the personal and abstract alike.


This article originally appeared in Volume 7 Issue 4 of Life Matters Journal.

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