It is through stories that we make sense of the world. We use stories to understand our lives and those of others. Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is fundamental to our existence as humans. Stories enable us to make sense of our world and to share our understanding with others. To control the narrative is to shape our understanding and consequently, our actions and behaviour. Narratives play an important part in politics shaping our understanding of why the world is the way it is, how it works and how it might be changed.
One of the reasons that the UK electorate voted to leave the EU was that the narrative that the Brussels bureaucrats were responsible for Britain’s sluggish growth and immigration became dominant. The articulation of mere facts could not dislodge this dominant meme. Dissent was dismissed as project fear. Half the electorate passionately believed that once freed from the EU the UK would prosper, set loose it would regain its global role. The other half of the population was, and is, unconvinced. Janan Ganesh, the principal political columnist for the Financial Times, nailed it: “Brexit is an idea whose only effective rebuttal is its own implementation”. It will be painful.
As Ursula Le Guin, the American fantasy and science fiction author explained “The story — from Rumplestiltskin to War and Peace — is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” We know that the victors write history and that there are always competing stories. But fictions can last for centuries. The post-WW1 Spanish flu originated in America, Spain was neutral and without censorship and therefore got to “own” American flu.
I have been thinking about storytelling as I come to terms with my country leaving the EU, if not Europe, at the end of the year. This year the Black Lives Matter movement too has reminded us of slavery and the enduring power of racism, the aggression of daily encounters with it and the deep structural racism that shapes our societies. The anger justifiably felt by people of colour about the statues of the beneficiaries of slavery British cities has been heard. These statues are rightly seen as celebrations of the lives of men who profited from slavery. A reminder to so many of our fellow citizens of the pain inflicted on their ancestors. For me, those same statues tell a different story. They are a reminder that the wealth of Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and London and the industrial revolution which founded Britain’s wealth, was based on slavery. These same statues are a reminder of our engagement in the slave trade. When Britain abolished slavery in 1833 the slave owners were compensated. A loan of £20 million was raised around 40% of total government expenditure in 1833. That loan was only finally paid off in the last decade. That story has not been widely told.
JoAnna Haugen of Rooted Storytelling explains why storytelling is important as a way of dealing with facts. Storytelling is a powerful way to connect with others and to understand the other. JoAnna argues that storytelling is undervalued and underused in tourism. We talk about tourism as a force for good, but we communicate it poorly. We can use stories to connect with tourists and to help them to understand how they can make the world a better place. We need to set aside the jargon and tell stories about experiences that have meaning and make connections. Listen to what JoAnna has to say about understanding the consequences of climate change through a tourist guide’s storytelling on a glacier in Iceland.
Gai Spann talks about the nature of an authentic experience and discusses whether we hear all the stories when we travel. Some stories and experiences get pushed to one side, denied and omitted from the tourism offer. As Gai explains the “whitewashing” of history is an issue is contemporary America using Charleston as her example. Surely we should incorporate the truth and tell the real story?
We need to think about the stories we tell in the itineraries and places we recommend and market. We need to have more diversity in the experiences and stories we tell. We need to take responsibility if travel is to broaden the mind rather than reinforce prejudices. Only through storytelling can we realise the ambition of Responsible Tourism to provide “more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues.”