If a story moves you, act on it

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.

By Sisonke Msimang

I'm here to talk about my own observations about storytelling. I want to talk to you about the power of stories, of course, but I also want to talk about their limitations, particularly for those of us who are interested in social justice.


Stories are everywhere, and if there was a danger in the telling of one tired old tale, then I think there has got to be lots to celebrate about the flourishing of so many stories and so many voices. Stories are the antidote to bias. In fact, today, if you are middle class and connected via the internet, you can download stories at the touch of a button or the swipe of a screen. You can listen to a podcast about what it's like to grow up Dalit in Kolkata. You can hear an indigenous man in Australia talk about the trials and triumphs of raising his children in dignity and in pride. Stories make us fall in love. They heal rifts and they bridge divides. Stories can even make it easier for us to talk about the deaths of people in our societies who don't matter, because they make us care. Right?

If it is justice that we are after, then I think we mustn’t focus on the media or the storytellers. We must focus on audiences, on anyone who has ever turned on a radio or listened to a podcast, and that means all of us

I'm not so sure, and I actually work for a place called the Centre for Stories. And my job is to help to tell stories that challenge mainstream narratives about what it means to be black or a Muslim or a refugee or any of those other categories that we talk about all the time. But I come to this work after a long history as a social justice activist, and so I'm really interested in the ways that people talk about nonfiction storytelling as though it's about more than entertainment, as though it's about being a catalyst for social action. It's not uncommon to hear people say that stories make the world a better place. Increasingly, though, I worry that even the most poignant stories, particularly the stories about people who no one seems to care about, can often get in the way of action towards social justice. Now, this is not because storytellers mean any harm. Quite the contrary. Storytellers are often do-gooders like me and, I suspect, yourselves. And the audiences of storytellers are often deeply compassionate and empathetic people. Still, good intentions can have unintended consequences, and so I want to propose that stories are not as magical as they seem.

So three -- because it's always got to be three -- three reasons why I think that stories don't necessarily make the world a better place.


stories can create an illusion of solidarity. There is nothing like that feel-good factor you get from listening to a fantastic story where you feel like you climbed that mountain, right, or that you befriended that death row inmate. But you didn't. You haven't done anything. Listening is an important but insufficient step towards social action.


I think often we are drawn towards characters and protagonists who are likable and human. And this makes sense, of course, right? Because if you like someone, then you care about them. But the inverse is also true. If you don't like someone, then you don't care about them. And if you don't care about them, you don't have to see yourself as having a moral obligation to think about the circumstances that shaped their lives.


I think that stories don't necessarily make the world a better place because too often we are so invested in the personal narrative that we forget to look at the bigger picture. And so we applaud someone when they tell us about their feelings of shame, but we don't necessarily link that to oppression. We nod understandingly when someone says they felt small, but we don't link that to discrimination. The most important stories, especially for social justice, are those that do both, that are both personal and allow us to explore and understand the political.

Photo credit:  recombiner  

Photo credit: recombiner 

But it's not just about the stories we like versus the stories we choose to ignore.

Increasingly, we are living in a society where there are larger forces at play, where stories are actually for many people beginning to replace the news. We live in a time where we are witnessing the decline of facts, when emotions rule and analysis, it's kind of boring, right? Where we value what we feel more than what we actually know. A recent report by the Pew Center on trends in America indicates that only 10 percent of young adults under the age of 30 "place a lot of trust in the media." Now, this is significant. It means that storytellers are gaining trust at precisely the same moment that many in the media are losing the confidence in the public. This is not a good thing, because while stories are important and they help us to have insights in many ways, we need the media. From my years as a social justice activist, I know very well that we need credible facts from media institutions combined with the powerful voices of storytellers. That's what pushes the needle forward in terms of social justice.


In the final analysis, of course, it is justice that makes the world a better place, not stories. Right? And so if it is justice that we are after, then I think we mustn't focus on the media or on storytellers. We must focus on audiences, on anyone who has ever turned on a radio or listened to a podcast, and that means all of us.


So a few concluding thoughts on what audiences can do to make the world a better place:

  1. The world would be a better place, I think, if audiences were more curious and more skeptical and asked more questions about the social context that created those stories that they love so much.
  2. The world would be a better place if audiences recognized that storytelling is intellectual work. And I think it would be important for audiences to demand more buttons on their favorite websites, buttons for example that say, "If you liked this story, click here to support a cause your storyteller believes in." Or "click here to contribute to your storyteller's next big idea." Often, we are committed to the platforms, but not necessarily to the storytellers themselves.
  3. I think that audiences can make the world a better place by switching off their phones, by stepping away from their screens and stepping out into the real world beyond what feels safe.

Alice Walker has said, "Look closely at the present you are constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming."

Storytellers can help us to dream, but it's up to all of us to have a plan for justice.


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.

This is an extract from a 2016 talk delivered by Sisonke Msimang entitled "If a story moves you, act on it" delivered at TEDWomen, published under a Creative Commons Attribution License