Storytelling: Should every voice be heard? Even liars and rebel rousers?

This seems like a stupid question, but I find myself having the same conversation with well-meaning people all over the world. For three years we (GlobalGiving in general, and me in particular) have served as stewards of a collection of community change stories from Kenya and Uganda (~60,000 in all). They are individual people’s perspectives, and naturally contain inaccuracies, exaggerations, and lies, but they also contain honest emotions, reflections, and opinions about society’s failures. Storytellers lie when they have grievances and have not been heard. It is our duty to give everyone – including them – a voice.

Though the vast majority of stories are one person’s best effort to describe what happened using facts, and I personally believe this is their weakness. Storytellers ought to share their emotions more, because feelings are the “amplitude” that modulate the frequencies of “meaning” – AKA the truth. Unfortunately, intimacy in story is a rare thing regardless of whether we collect from Uganda or Japan.

Many stories will not contain the whole truth, or even most of the truth. That’s why I built djotjog – a search engine for finding the truth within a collection of stories. The Javanese word djotjog describes a community meeting where everyone tells his own story and the truth of the matter emerges from the parts that overlap. There is no individual “truth” – only collective perspective.

community gathering

So if you are wondering why we don’t fret when an individual story complains about a good organization, it is because we are stewards of the collection and guides in the process of understanding – not curators of individual stories that need to stand on their own, like pretty paintings about poverty and international development.

There are galleries for that elsewhere, and the huddled masses of humanity will never be given a microphone there. Our portraits are messy, confusing, sparse, and most importantly – engaging. We drive a question-seeking process, not an answer-procurement process, though many others in the “feedback loops” industry are currently selling the idea that way.

So how do I respond to those who fear the legal liability of listening? They often couch it as a form of “responsibility” to remove inflammatory, incendiary, uncorroborated claims and allegations from “the process” but they are not responsible. They are cowards. We cannot be good stewards of knowledge if we decide for everyone which voices have value and which don’t. And the power-brokers would never respond to feedback provided to them in the shadows anyway.

But in the politeness of email, I only say:

For years I’ve run the storytelling project with a mindset of doing our best to make people happy, but never backing down from the truth. We operate an internet service and abide by peoples’ expectations of internet privacy. If anyone would later like a story removed and requests it themselves we would remove it. But requests from third parties who seek to clean up the knowledge because they are looking out for others’ best interests will rarely be given much merit. We are always open to dialogue and extremely accessible. And after years of running this project, we’ve found this to be one of the first and most common objections, but has never been found to have merit. Certain people are used to having the anonymity that controlling information provides them, and we are comfortable making those people uncomfortable, and are legally not in any real danger. The authors have the right to remove their own story, and that is sufficient for uncensored information to flow freely.

So far, I’ve had zero ‘take-down’ requests from storytellers.

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