By Vladimir Ponizovskiy, Research Fellow, Ruhr-Universität Bochum
In the chaotic complexity of life, a story tells us what to strive for, defines heroes and secondary characters, provides scripts for action. For the longest time, cultural knowledge was preserved and passed down the generations through oral tradition – literal storytelling in the light of a bonfire. In the digital era, storytelling plays no lesser role. The complexity of social life ever increases; the navigational utility of stories is much needed. Modern storytelling is no different from yesterday’s, only it is aided by technology – we can illustrate and visualize our stories, make them interactive, and easily reach billions of people, if they are willing to listen. If anything, the power of the story grew.
Immigration is one of the complex social topics that are difficult to approach without a good story: there are hundreds of millions of immigrants in the world, from all cultural backgrounds, of all ages, and all walks of life. Over the centuries, migration fueled economic development, caused tension and conflict, contributed to the foundations of cultures and states. Faithfully representing this phenomenon in a single story is impossible – and yet we try. Without a story, what are we to do with it? Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about the harm caused by simplistic narratives to the peoples of Africa in her powerful TED talk, “The danger of a single story”, which everyone should watch.
Our current stock of stories of migration is poor. We have a story in which immigrants are a danger: the hungry ones, coming from the land of famine, looking to take. The story of the big bad wolf appeals to our fundamental desire to protect each other—especially the close ones—and to control the chaos of life. Opposite it, there is a story in which immigrants are something like distant poor relatives, targets for exercises in impersonal kindness – and this one is no less hackneyed. In our depleted repertoire of narratives, we are left to choose between the story of a predator and the story of a victim.
This situation is dangerous: if these are the only two stories that we have, the gentler one is set to lose. The story is only as powerful as it is appealing, and there are fewer people who need targets for kindness than those that are ready to be scared. Horror stories were always more popular than education novels.
If the victim-immigrant story is not so appealing, why do we hear it so often? It is popular not because of its appeal to the listener, but because of its appeal to the story-tellers. This story is told by people in a position to look for targets of kindness. These people are educated, financially secure, many of them derive meaning from public work – they are also people who, institutionally, have the loudest voices and have the most to gain from showing kindness. Benevolence and social responsibility are luxurious sources of meaning that are not accessible to many.
The story of the victim-immigrant with its focus on impersonal benevolence does not speak to the majority of people who live meaningful lives taking pride in supporting themselves and their families in difficult circumstances, upholding their community traditions, building a professional reputation, and so many other things. These people are not the heroes of the victim-immigrant story. It is of little use to them – difficult to relate to, difficult to apply. Understandably, it feels unfair, even absurd to be judged for not endorsing it.
The good news is that there is an endless supply of other stories that are inspiring and true. Stories that tell how the burden of our varied needs can be lightened through mutual respect, solidarity, and cooperation. These stories are waiting to be told.