To Rant or to Invite Conversation?
Shifting narratives by meeting people where they are at
Last year I wrote about coming out very publicly in my 2012 TEDx talk for the sake of telling an authentic story — which was after all, partly the focus of my talk. I originally wasn’t planning on including that particular part of my life story, but after some hearty encouragement from my speaker coach, I embraced the fear and changed the talk to include more personal details of my life. As it turned out, the speaker coach was right as a number of people have since shared that they were inspired by my willingness to be vulnerable and authentic.
But adjusting my TEDx talk to include my coming out story wasn’t the only change that I made to the draft. As I began to refine and rehearse my talk, I made a decision that was somewhat controversial amongst my friends.
I had planned to open my talk with the first spoken word poem I ever wrote, The Water Poem. The poem originally ended on an adversarial note, with me angrily naming and shaming large multinational corporations involved in the exploitation of water resources around the world. When I wrote the poem, I had recently finished reading Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke’s book Blue Gold, and was appropriately outraged at what I had learned about the extent to which communities in poorer nations were being stripped of their water resources by corporations who sell the water back to them at exorbitant rates.
As the event drew closer however, I realised I was uncomfortable with the confrontational nature of the framing. I was torn between my anger at the predatory behaviour of these large corporations and the gnawing feeling I had that combative tactics might well only serve to make those corporations and the humans within them dig their heels in even harder. Yelling, blaming, and finger pointing are easy to ignore — a genuine conversation, less so. These companies are doing exactly what they were designed to do — increasing shareholder value — within an unjust and perverse economic system. Likewise, the people who work for those organisations are overwhelmingly good people who are trying to provide for their families, and live the life that they believe is a good and successful one, according to the narratives they have inherited around what constitutes a good and successful life.
Given that I knew this talk would exist on the Internet in perpetuity, I took an alternative path and decided to rewrite the ending to be a softer landing. As in the video below, it featured an invitation into philosophically considering a dark, unthinkable, and seriously water-short future in which human beings might be tapped to glean the water held within their bodies. It’s the stuff of the worst dystopian nightmares, but in these times when reality is often stranger than fiction, it was a way to end on a thought-provoking note without blaming specific actors who might be involved in bringing about this hypothetical and frankly improbable future.
When I tested out my talk with a dear friend, I could see the pain on his face when he heard the new ending. A big fan of my original poem, and a man who has a deep part of his identity rooted in activism and resistance against corporate interests, he told me in slightly more polite words that I had sold out. That I was censoring my art to be more palatable and that I wasn’t being true to myself.
In part, he was right. I was changing my message to be more accessible to a wider audience and it was intentional.
Systems-level problems cannot be solved by only engaging with people that already think the way that we do, nor by directing vitriol towards those who think differently. We likewise cannot tell people how to think, we can only invite them into a new story. As Audrey Lorde said, we cannot undo the master’s house with the same tools that were used to build it. Rather than trying to force or trick people into believing in new narratives, it is more effective to act from our intrinsic values and expose the innate truth of our common humanity through our words and actions.
If you choose to be in the market of control, you can’t control for good; there will always be an integrity missing. Rather than ranting or directing, change will come from inviting conversation.
While still feeling anger at the exploitation of people and the environment in the name of profit, I rewrote the ending of The Water Poem in an effort to meet people where they were at. For this particular forum, I felt that fighting fire with fire and using call out tactics were not the most effective theories of change. Failure to engage in a fight or flight-oriented us-vs-them narrative does not mean denying the problems we face or giving in. It means taking a positive and somewhat spiritual approach in recognising the interconnection of all things, and having trust that in creating new systems and processes that work better for more people, we can make the old ways obsolete.
In his book The Buddha Taught Non-Violence, not Pacifism, Paul R. Fleischman outlines that regardless of whether or not you follow a prescribed religion or spiritual path, there is much to be gained by downing the tools of war to fight against social and environmental challenges, and to resist in a more peaceful and inviting way. That’s not to say that there is never a time for protest or direct action — these tactics certainly have their place and have set monumental social changes in motion. But I believe that these movements need to be accompanied by making space for reconciliation, for sharing our stories and experiences, and for letting our guard down long enough to understand each other.
There are times to stand against something, and are there times to stand for something.
For me, the decision to change the end of my poem was about knowing who my potential audience was, and meeting them where they were at. It was my way of fighting the polarity, increasing extremism, and fundamentalism we are seeing across the world. In some situations where I feel it will go down well, I still perform the original ending. It’s all context-specific, and about knowing what you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to gain the moral high ground through ranting and pointing out how flawed or terrible other people are? Or are you interested in extending an invitation into genuine change? Only you can decide.
P.S. If you’re curious about the original ending of the poem, you can view it here. Circling back around to vulnerability, it’s pretty terrifying for me to share this link as I look back and cringe at my very first ever spoken word performance, full of mistakes and delivered far too fast… But hey, this is where it all started 11 years ago, and we’ve all gotta start somewhere!
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This article is adapted from the draft of the book I’m writing on storytelling, narrative, and systems change. For updates on the book, you can sign up to my newsletter. Thank you!