It’s banned books week again, which is a time of year that always makes me appreciate the power of stories. Stories have such power, words such potential, that people actually fear them. Usually, this fear stems from a desire to limit the narratives that young people can access, and in so doing, attempt to limit the ways that they can think, feel, and live.
But they’re just stories, you say, just stories. These book banners are getting to het up over nothing – everybody knows that stories don’t matter.
I disagree. What those book banners know is that stories have enormous power, to change hearts and minds, to change the way that we think and act, to change the ways that we live. And stories aren’t inherently good or bad. In fact, as a faculty member in the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia, I teach a graduate seminar in Narrative, Health and Social Justice, and run a faculty level seminar of that same name. In those seminars, we often discuss how stories can be used toward ends of injustice. Unjust or oppressive narratives are part of the reason that a set of human beings can cease to see their neighbors as equals, as fellow humans, and that narrative change is part of the way that genocides – from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide — happen.
So that’s why, equally, I teach how stories must be operationalized in ways to counteract such oppressions, how stories must be used toward the goals of justice. Stories DO make a difference. This lesson, that SILENCE = DEATH, that THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL, that giving voice to our private experiences can galvanize social movements and create social change is a vital one, handed down to us by the civil rights, feminist, AIDS activist, and other movements.
So, do stories matter? Can stories destroy lives? Can different stories save lives?
Yes. Yes. and YES.
Take the dark power of homophobic bullying, which sprung to mainstream national attention in 2010, with the bullying-related suicides of Billy Lucas, Tyler Clemente, Seth Walsh, and Asher Brown. Although each story was slightly different, each shared a similar premise. These young people committed suicide after homophobic teasing and bullying, which ranged from anti-gay slurs to the now infamous invasion of Rutgers college student Tyler Clemente’s privacy with a webcam. The narrative there? An old one, an awful one. Some lives are worth living, others aren’t.
Yet, how can stories themselves change this oppressive narrative?
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