207. Once Upon a Collective

One of the contradictions we tend to get mired in when we talk about almost anything is what I like to call Issues vs Anecdotes. As analysts often say, anecdotes are not data. But people still want to be heard, and a great many people do cherish this mode of engagement with issues, which leads to a lot of organizational attempts to share stories publicly as a means of collective healing.

Now it’s not that I don’t see value in the sharing. But I do see some issues that crop up a lot. 

One: This is just a personal pet peeve, but I tend to glaze over when the speakers haven’t prepped much, and the accounts shared don’t have clear points, are not succinct etc. Any lack is not to be laid at the feet of the speakers. The organizers can do a lot to help edit, set loose time limits, give some examples of engagingly constructed accounts (so that speakers can prep with some guidance), ask leading questions, and quite a lot more. Good moderation, in essence.

Two: There need to be concrete measures for giving attendees a chance to process what they hear and share. Some balance has to be cultivated between honoring the narratives that are so generously shared, and acknowledging any responses or dissent that might arise. This, on some level, has to be the primary goal of collective sharing. If we want to effect group healing, it doesn’t often happen if people feel betrayed by the experience of sharing, and if listeners have to stifle even thoughtful, respectful disagreement. To be honest, failures in this regard have been my main reason for fleeing group anything. 

Three: I don’t care for how exploitative some of these forums risk becoming. To make this point, I need to embed another one—namely, that there is an organizational (because organizations are often run by people with privilege) tendency to devalue the very sharing they have asked for. Inviting people who have gone through something relevant to your organization, asking them to make themselves vulnerable, and then doing that sort of casual dismissal of the labor they have performed, turning to “experts” to lend credence to and frame the accounts—it is toxic. In addition, paying the “experts” while expecting the storytellers to perform labor for free.

The entire enterprise of shared narrative is the very reason that groups like this form. So where do organizations get off trivializing what they themselves have asked people to do? 

Four: Where is the collective action after the collective sharing? Do not ask people to keep stirring up their pain UNLESS you are willing to be led BY THEM  to actual action. If your primary intent is to gain likes and donors, I have nothing but contempt for your goals. 

Five: I truly believe this is why most folks prefer reading inspirational stories on social media. So that there is unlikely to be a firm call to action. Sharing it on your feed feels like action. Done. *eye roll*

And this is where anecdotes fail to get connected to issues. It isn’t because sharers of stories are vapidly sitting in their feels. It’s because there is a lot of wariness about understanding and acknowledging how the stories connect to a larger cause. And indeed, isn’t that the messaging? We are so often exhorted to work on ourselves; we are told that we can’t change the world, we can only work on our reactions to things; we must detach, be more contemplative. These are all ways in which issues are made smaller, and forced to remain at the level of anecdotes.

Even worse, the vacuum is often filled by someone else’s agenda; thus, the anecdotes become issues, but not the intended one. I especially despise when these agenda thieves turn around and lecture their victims about how they don’t understand the way these things work. Maybe so, but your poisonous, middleman bs is pretty noticeable, just so you know.

I have a specific example, which is going to be my next blog post. I actually started to write that post, but it became this one, so clearly I needed to say this piece first. 

Tldr: when we become meaningfully engaged in other people’s narratives and they with ours, we can start to shape better outcomes for the collective. Sometimes, we are kept apart by a failure of imagination. But it could also be a calculated tactic to prevent people from organizing (who benefits from us all remaining apart, something worth pondering).

If we can own our narratives and use them to be architects for change at all levels, we can become doers and agents, and our journeys need not be so disparate, our voices so wishful.


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