Stories, Social Justice and Digital Humanities

“Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise.”

Humans have a need to tell their stories, especially if those stories have been traumatic or influential to them. There is a definite catharsis in the telling of your story, a feeling of release and relief in getting something out, of letting it go. I wonder if we also have a need to know what happens to that story once we have released it, or if the healing is found in simply being given an outlet. I’m sure that knowing the telling of your story could help, support, or inform others; that it could make a difference, act as a cautionary tale or come together with other similar stories (as in the Quipu Project) to seek or obtain social justice would add a deeper dimension to the telling. Telling is only one part though, being heard is another. To tell your story and for it to be heard and then for others to actually, actively listen and care is also important. What are our deeper motivations in telling our stories? Do we just want to be heard, or do we in fact find solace in the community of stories to which we belong once our stories are told alongside those of others?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s TED talk was inspiring and truthful. The assertion that we are “impressionable and vulnerable in the face of a story” is a powerful message, because a story is a subjective, personal account. It has bias and omission and is informed by so much the teller is not even aware of when they are telling. This means that stories are somewhat unreliable in terms of a balanced, rounded viewpoint, but this does not and should not mean that they are not real, not true, and not deeply important to those to whom the stories belong. This is very much relevant in terms of my own research. I want to create a forum where people can tell their stories in an area where many stories are dismissed as unreliable, unscientific, anecdotal, misinformed (and therefore assumed to be irrelevant or false).

The power in the connections between stories can be seen in the Quipu Project. Individually, these people were ignored, dismissed and silenced, but in a group, where the stories connect, where similar tales are told over and over and again, it is impossible to argue that all these people are wrong. It becomes difficult to believe that all of them somehow came to the same, incorrect conclusions about what happened to them, what damaged them, what affected them so deeply, about a wrong that was done to them. The volume of stories here provides the much needed balance, dissolving stereotypical views of the people involved and acting as a humanising factor. Instead of being a group of superstitious, poor, uneducated people, they become a recognised group with rights that have been violated. This is the power of the digital, the collection of these stories gave a voice and an outlet for pain, trauma and injustice. That voice allows the articulation of politically uncomfortable truths, and opens the door for questioning the actions of governments towards people.

The power issue mentioned in this talk is also integral to my area of research, as Ngozi says, how, who, when and how many stories are told all depend on power. The people in the Quipu project had their power taken away by the actions of a government, and the subsequent denial of their suffering. Their connections through their stories and the digital artefact that gave them a collective voice gave them their power back, and is helping them to seek justice for the wrongs that were done to them. The Quipu project is a perfect example of the “incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it.”


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