I was reading a very interesting review of a play this morning and it got me thinking about who has the right to tell our story – us or the people who have only seen it from the outside?
I can't remember the title of the play or the name of the reviewer – what I can remember is the reviewer actually had experience of what the play was supposed to be about. The play didn't match the reviewer's experiences at all. In fact, the memorable line from the review was “the play appeared to be an English view of Northern Ireland”. The reviewer then went on to give his expert opinion of what actually went on during the time and situation in which the play was supposedly set (apparently the reviewer came from the place where the play was set and had personal experience of what actually happened).
The funny thing is – we see people attempting to tell stories they have no real experience of all the time. Or – and in some cases this is even worse – they try to tell a story which they only have partial experience of. I admit that there are some people who can actually succeed in doing that but there aren't very many.
When I say “attempting to tell stories they have no real experience of” I am obviously not talking about people who need to be professionally dispassionate when they relate the story – as in journalists. I am talking about people like writers, comedians, etc. Sometimes even people like you and me.
Let's just say – the minute I hear someone getting the old “paintbrush” out in a conversation I become very wary indeed. “Paintbrush”??? I hear you ask. Yes – a useful device for applying paint to surfaces, sometimes even surfaces where you have no intention of paint being applied. A bit like when someone speaks in such a way that every single human in a particular group share the exact same characteristics – based on the single member of that group which they have met in person or read about. You know the ones I mean - “All Muslims are terrorists” because a single human who claimed to be a Muslim carried out a terrorist attack, “All Disabled people are Benefit Scroungers” because one person who claimed to be Disabled got caught cheating on their Benefit claims, “All Asylum Seekers/Foreigners are here to cause trouble/steal our jobs, etc”, because one person got their nose put out of joint because an Asylum Seeker/Foreigner might be better qualified and therefore have got the job they wanted.
Try turning the story on its head and looking at it from the point of view of the person at the centre of the story. Whilst you are at it you might as well try to think how the particular group they belong to might feel on being told they are exactly like the last person you met or read about who is a member of that group.
I am a Disabled person. I am also the daughter of someone who would legally be classed as an immigrant. The highest qualification I have is a Level 1 NVQ in Business Administration. I have got GCSEs (“C” Grade and above) in four different languages. My first name isn't exactly common in England. I have been diagnosed with Metastatic Breast Cancer and Heart Failure.
I can tell you about my experience of all the above – using my own words. I can even make a joke out of some of those things – whilst being greatly offended if someone with no experience of them tried to do the same.
One of my friends said something which kind of relates to this. I had commented on their Facebook status after they had done one of those quizzes about who would be their “Life Partner”. This friend happens to be one half of a pair of identical twins (guess who was picked as their “Life Partner”???). I made a semi-serious comment along the lines of “of course this person would be your Life Partner – you were together before you were born”. Of course I cannot claim to know what it is like to have any brothers or sisters, let alone be one of a pair of twins. However, I can definitely claim to know what it is like to be friends with a pair of twins.
I can still remember when I first met my friend and their twin – mainly due to the fact that I nearly asked my Mum to book me in for a sight test when I got home from school that day. I was standing in the dinner queue during my first term at Lutterworth High School when this pair of identical-looking girls stood in front of me (one in front of each eye). I still haven't worked out exactly who said, “Got double vision, have you?” - and that is after 32 years. (I still get them confused even though they now have totally different hairstyles and hair colours.)
What I am trying to say is – if you want to tell someone else's story try to keep it accurate and keep them in the centre of it. Try not to fall into the trap of thinking that everybody has the same experience – because we don't. You and I can be in the same place, doing exactly the same thing, but I can guarantee that we will have differet experiences and memories of it. The same goes for myself and another person with a similar sight problem (Heaven help them). As U2 sang “We are one but we are not the same”.
Not everybody has the same story – so they shouldn't all be swept up in some mythological idea of what their life seems like to an outsider who has no experience of it. Nor should they be subjected to the quickest stereotypical label you can apply to them. After all – if I tried that trick I would probably alienate over half of my friends very easily.
Here's an idea – if you don't understand why I am doing something you may find odd – or if I am not doing something which you would expect me to be able to do – try asking me about it. As long as you don't open by muttering, “Can't you read?”, or, “Everybody else does... so why can't you?” -ao or look at me with pity or as though you think I should be locked up for my own safety – I will be willing to tell you my reasons. After all, how can we learn about things we don't know without being taught about them???
Stereotypes are barriers which really need to be broken down – and mythological ideas about different sections of society really should be replaced with true facts.
The best people to do that are the people who have the experience to back their words up. In fact – the best people to do that are you and me.