TEDWomen 2016

Sisonke Msimang: If a story moves you, act on it

Filmed:

Stories are necessary, but they're not as magical as they seem, says writer Sisonke Msimang. In this funny and thoughtful talk, Msimang questions our emphasis on storytelling and spotlights the decline of facts. During a critical time when listening has been confused for action, Msimang asks us to switch off our phones, step away from our screens and step out into the real world to create a plan for justice.

- Writer, activist
Sisonke Msimang untangles the threads of race, class and gender that run through the fabric of African and global culture. Full bio

So earlier this year,
00:12
I was informed that I would be
doing a TED Talk.
00:14
So I was excited, then I panicked,
00:18
then I was excited, then I panicked,
00:20
and in between the excitement
and the panicking,
00:22
I started to do my research,
00:24
and my research primarily consisted
of Googling how to give a great TED Talk.
00:27
(Laughter)
00:31
And interspersed with that,
00:32
I was Googling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
00:34
How many of you know who that is?
00:37
(Cheers)
00:38
So I was Googling her
because I always Google her
00:41
because I'm just a fan,
00:44
but also because she always has
important and interesting things to say.
00:45
And the combination of those searches
00:49
kept leading me to her talk
00:52
on the dangers of a single story,
00:55
on what happens
when we have a solitary lens
00:58
through which to understand
certain groups of people,
01:01
and it is the perfect talk.
01:04
It's the talk that I would have given
if I had been famous first.
01:07
(Laughter)
01:12
You know, and you know,
like, she's African and I'm African,
01:14
and she's a feminist and I'm a feminist,
01:17
and she's a storyteller
and I'm a storyteller,
01:19
so I really felt like it's my talk.
01:21
(Laughter)
01:23
So I decided that I was going
to learn how to code,
01:26
and then I was going to hack the internet
01:29
and I would take down all the copies
of that talk that existed,
01:31
and then I would memorize it,
01:35
and then I would come here
and deliver it as if it was my own speech.
01:37
So that plan was going really well,
except the coding part,
01:40
and then one morning a few months ago,
01:43
I woke up
01:47
to the news that the wife
of a certain presidential candidate
01:49
had given a speech that --
01:54
(Laughter)
01:57
(Applause)
01:59
that sounded eerily like a speech
given by one of my other faves,
02:04
Michelle Obama.
02:09
(Cheers)
02:10
And so I decided that I should
probably write my own TED Talk,
02:12
and so that is what I am here to do.
02:17
I'm here to talk about
my own observations about storytelling.
02:19
I want to talk to you
about the power of stories, of course,
02:24
but I also want to talk
about their limitations,
02:28
particularly for those of us
who are interested in social justice.
02:31
So since Adichie gave that talk
seven years ago,
02:36
there has been a boom in storytelling.
02:39
Stories are everywhere,
02:41
and if there was a danger
in the telling of one tired old tale,
02:44
then I think there has got to be
lots to celebrate about the flourishing
02:48
of so many stories and so many voices.
02:52
Stories are the antidote to bias.
02:55
In fact, today, if you are middle class
and connected via the internet,
02:58
you can download stories
at the touch of a button
03:04
or the swipe of a screen.
03:07
You can listen to a podcast
03:08
about what it's like
to grow up Dalit in Kolkata.
03:10
You can hear an indigenous
man in Australia
03:14
talk about the trials and triumphs
of raising his children in dignity
03:16
and in pride.
03:21
Stories make us fall in love.
03:22
They heal rifts and they bridge divides.
03:24
Stories can even make it easier for us
03:27
to talk about the deaths
of people in our societies
03:29
who don't matter,
because they make us care.
03:32
Right?
03:34
I'm not so sure,
03:36
and I actually work for a place
called the Centre for Stories.
03:38
And my job is to help to tell stories
03:41
that challenge mainstream narratives
about what it means to be black
03:46
or a Muslim or a refugee
or any of those other categories
03:49
that we talk about all the time.
03:52
But I come to this work
03:55
after a long history
as a social justice activist,
03:57
and so I'm really interested in the ways
04:00
that people talk
about nonfiction storytelling
04:02
as though it's about
more than entertainment,
04:05
as though it's about being
a catalyst for social action.
04:07
It's not uncommon to hear people say
04:11
that stories make
the world a better place.
04:14
Increasingly, though, I worry
that even the most poignant stories,
04:18
particularly the stories about people
who no one seems to care about,
04:22
can often get in the way
of action towards social justice.
04:26
Now, this is not because
storytellers mean any harm.
04:29
Quite the contrary.
04:33
Storytellers are often do-gooders
like me and, I suspect, yourselves.
04:34
And the audiences of storytellers
04:39
are often deeply compassionate
and empathetic people.
04:42
Still, good intentions
can have unintended consequences,
04:46
and so I want to propose that stories
are not as magical as they seem.
04:51
So three -- because
it's always got to be three --
04:55
three reasons why I think
04:58
that stories don't necessarily
make the world a better place.
05:00
Firstly, stories can create
an illusion of solidarity.
05:06
There is nothing
like that feel-good factor you get
05:10
from listening to a fantastic story
05:12
where you feel like you
climbed that mountain, right,
05:15
or that you befriended
that death row inmate.
05:18
But you didn't.
05:21
You haven't done anything.
05:23
Listening is an important
05:25
but insufficient step
towards social action.
05:26
Secondly, I think often we are drawn
05:31
towards characters and protagonists
05:34
who are likable and human.
05:36
And this makes sense, of course, right?
05:40
Because if you like someone,
then you care about them.
05:42
But the inverse is also true.
05:45
If you don't like someone,
05:47
then you don't care about them.
05:49
And if you don't care about them,
05:51
you don't have to see yourself
as having a moral obligation
05:53
to think about the circumstances
that shaped their lives.
05:56
I learned this lesson
when I was 14 years old.
06:01
I learned that actually,
you don't have to like someone
06:04
to recognize their wisdom,
06:07
and you certainly
don't have to like someone
06:08
to take a stand by their side.
06:10
So my bike was stolen
06:12
while I was riding it --
06:15
(Laughter)
06:17
which is possible if you're
riding slowly enough, which I was.
06:18
(Laughter)
06:21
So one minute
I'm cutting across this field
06:23
in the Nairobi neighborhood
where I grew up,
06:26
and it's like a very bumpy path,
06:28
and so when you're riding a bike,
06:31
you don't want to be like, you know --
06:32
(Laughter)
06:35
And so I'm going like this,
slowly pedaling,
06:38
and all of a sudden, I'm on the floor.
06:42
I'm on the ground, and I look up,
06:45
and there's this kid peddling away
in the getaway vehicle,
06:47
which is my bike,
06:50
and he's about 11 or 12 years old,
and I'm on the floor,
06:51
and I'm crying because I saved
a lot of money for that bike,
06:55
and I'm crying and I stand up
and I start screaming.
06:58
Instinct steps in,
and I start screaming, "Mwizi, mwizi!"
07:00
which means "thief" in Swahili.
07:04
And out of the woodworks,
all of these people come out
07:07
and they start to give chase.
07:12
This is Africa, so mob justice in action.
07:14
Right?
07:16
And I round the corner,
and they've captured him,
07:17
they've caught him.
07:20
The suspect has been apprehended,
07:22
and they make him give me my bike back,
07:24
and they also make him apologize.
07:27
Again, you know,
typical African justice, right?
07:29
And so they make him say sorry.
07:33
And so we stand there facing each other,
07:34
and he looks at me, and he says sorry,
07:36
but he looks at me
with this unbridled fury.
07:39
He is very, very angry.
07:43
And it is the first time that I have been
confronted with someone
07:47
who doesn't like me
simply because of what I represent.
07:50
He looks at me
with this look as if to say,
07:53
"You, with your shiny skin
and your bike, you're angry at me?"
07:55
So it was a hard lesson
that he didn't like me,
08:01
but you know what, he was right.
08:04
I was a middle-class kid
living in a poor country.
08:06
I had a bike, and he barely had food.
08:10
Sometimes, it's the messages
that we don't want to hear,
08:13
the ones that make us
want to crawl out of ourselves,
08:16
that we need to hear the most.
08:19
For every lovable storyteller
who steals your heart,
08:21
there are hundreds more
whose voices are slurred and ragged,
08:25
who don't get to stand up on a stage
dressed in fine clothes like this.
08:29
There are a million
angry-boy-on-a-bike stories
08:34
and we can't afford to ignore them
08:38
simply because we don't like
their protagonists
08:40
or because that's not the kid
that we would bring home with us
08:43
from the orphanage.
08:46
The third reason that I think
08:48
that stories don't necessarily
make the world a better place
08:50
is that too often we are so invested
in the personal narrative
08:54
that we forget
to look at the bigger picture.
08:57
And so we applaud someone
09:00
when they tell us
about their feelings of shame,
09:02
but we don't necessarily
link that to oppression.
09:05
We nod understandingly
when someone says they felt small,
09:09
but we don't link that to discrimination.
09:12
The most important stories,
especially for social justice,
09:15
are those that do both,
09:18
that are both personal and allow us
to explore and understand the political.
09:20
But it's not just
about the stories we like
09:25
versus the stories we choose to ignore.
09:27
Increasingly, we are living in a society
where there are larger forces at play,
09:29
where stories are actually for many people
beginning to replace the news.
09:33
Yeah?
09:38
We live in a time where we are witnessing
the decline of facts,
09:39
when emotions rule
09:43
and analysis, it's kind of boring, right?
09:45
Where we value what we feel
more than what we actually know.
09:48
A recent report by the Pew Center
on trends in America
09:54
indicates that only 10 percent
of young adults under the age of 30
09:58
"place a lot of trust in the media."
10:04
Now, this is significant.
10:07
It means that storytellers
are gaining trust
10:09
at precisely the same moment
10:12
that many in the media
are losing the confidence in the public.
10:13
This is not a good thing,
10:18
because while stories are important
10:20
and they help us
to have insights in many ways,
10:22
we need the media.
10:24
From my years
as a social justice activist,
10:26
I know very well that we need
credible facts from media institutions
10:29
combined with the powerful voices
of storytellers.
10:35
That's what pushes the needle forward
in terms of social justice.
10:39
In the final analysis, of course,
10:43
it is justice
10:48
that makes the world a better place,
10:50
not stories. Right?
10:52
And so if it is justice that we are after,
10:55
then I think we mustn't focus
on the media or on storytellers.
10:58
We must focus on audiences,
11:01
on anyone who has ever turned on a radio
11:04
or listened to a podcast,
11:07
and that means all of us.
11:09
So a few concluding thoughts
11:11
on what audiences can do
to make the world a better place.
11:13
So firstly, the world
would be a better place, I think,
11:18
if audiences were more curious
and more skeptical
11:21
and asked more questions
about the social context
11:25
that created those stories
that they love so much.
11:28
Secondly, the world
would be a better place
11:32
if audiences recognized
that storytelling is intellectual work.
11:34
And I think it would
be important for audiences
11:39
to demand more buttons
on their favorite websites,
11:42
buttons for example that say,
11:47
"If you liked this story,
11:50
click here to support a cause
your storyteller believes in."
11:52
Or "click here to contribute
to your storyteller's next big idea."
11:56
Often, we are committed to the platforms,
12:02
but not necessarily
to the storytellers themselves.
12:05
And then lastly, I think that audiences
can make the world a better place
12:07
by switching off their phones,
12:12
by stepping away from their screens
12:15
and stepping out into the real world
beyond what feels safe.
12:17
Alice Walker has said,
12:22
"Look closely at the present
you are constructing.
12:24
It should look like the future
you are dreaming."
12:28
Storytellers can help us to dream,
12:32
but it's up to all of us
to have a plan for justice.
12:34
Thank you.
12:39
(Applause)
12:40

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About the Speaker:

Sisonke Msimang - Writer, activist
Sisonke Msimang untangles the threads of race, class and gender that run through the fabric of African and global culture.

Why you should listen

Sisonke Msimang tells stories about justice and human rights. In the early part of her career, Msimang set up a fund fight for people whose health had been compromised by their race, class and gender identities. In 2008 she became the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, responsible for making grants on human rights projects. Msimang is now the head of programs at the Centre for Stories, a new initiative that collects, preserves and shares stories about migrants, refugees and diverse people and places linked to the Indian Ocean Rim.

Msimang has been awarded a number of fellowships including from Yale University, the University of the Witwatersrand and the Aspen Institute. She also contributes regularly to the New York Times, Newsweek, the Guardian and a range of other outlets. You can watch her Moth talk on the power of listening here.

More profile about the speaker
Sisonke Msimang | Speaker | TED.com