How can we overcome single stories? Our daily reality is full of simplifications, partial news and stereotypes that can easily lead to the creation of stereotypes and to the marginalisation of people.
On the 7th of April, a group of selected professionals met online for the first time to discuss the value of Single Stories, the pillar concept around which Project Smite (SMITE – Stereotypes & Mass Information Together Explored) revolves. Broadcaster Mariella Pisani Bencini, social worker for the Migrant Commission of Malta Mario Gerada, forensic phycologist Gail Debono and artist Mohammad Ali (Dali) Agrebi gathered live on Facebook to share their thoughts about one sided narrative and the discrimination that comes from it.
We have the responsibility to work against the creation of stereotypes formed by single stories, according to Maria-Gabriele Doublesin, chairperson of NWAMI International Malta, author and promoter of the project. For this reason, the aim of the project is to empower migrant communities, enabling them to develop the means to make up their own story and to be heard, thus the project aims at providing such tools through story cafes and educational entertainment.
As the discussion begins, the speakers were asked to give their own personal definition of what a “single story” is. Numerous different points of view were exchanged in response to this first question. According to broadcaster Mariella Pisani Bencini, social media are the main means through which people nowadays express their opinions, even in cases in which they are not experts of the topic. The issue, Mrs Bencini points out, lies in the lack of control and checks on the information that people are free to share, leading to the creation of partial narratives and misleading realities. As a very powerful example she offers the misrepresent
ation of the condition of migrants in Malta. Mr Gerada remarked the importance of the way we craft our stories to perpetuate a good message and avoid creating misleading notions that can spread hatred among certain groups of people. Language holds a great power in this regard. For Miss Debono, single stories come from the broad generalisation that arises from a limited number of examples that are usually created around an issue, for example the issue of migration. In reality, it is a matter of power: it is the most powerful group that decides which the dominant narrative is, dominating the story and perpetuating existing stereotypes and discriminatory concepts.
As the discussion progressed, the participants discussed the different ways single stories can affect both individuals and society. Miss Debono points out how the spread of disinformation can lead to the alienation of groups of people and then to various phycological damages, while Mr Gerada goes as far as to identifying murder as one of the effects. We need to disrupt dominant narratives that could damage people and deprive perpetrators of their means of abuse.
The focus naturally shifts to the issue of migration and its representation: the partiality of such narratives has always been a reality in Malta. Individuals remain “foreigners'' and they never truly integrate into the Maltese context because of a dominant narrative that treats them as outsiders, says Mrs Bencini. This, in turn, creates a divided society. Media portrays migrants in a limited way and it creates limited narratives on the topic, Dali added. Thus, a truthful storytelling is paramount to represent people in the correct way and avoid making them experience fear and discrimination.
A question then arises: what can be done?
For a start, more marginalised people should be able to tell their stories to be empowered and to allow the disruption of false assumptions. Representation of vulnerable people directly from their side is the key, said Mr Gerada. Another important element is teaching critical thinking and acceptance, added Miss Debono, pointing out that the media should be held accountable for what they publish. Reality has many shades and they all should be represented. According to Dali, social media is a place of algorithms and, in this virtual reality, mini universes are created in which people can share the same few ideas repeatedly inside their small circles. Reality, however, is a completely different thing.
There is no human interaction with the stories that are shared through social media, and interaction is what is actually needed. Thus, Dali suggested the creation of spaces in real life where people can interact, filling the gaps of incomplete stories and empowering themselves and their communities.
In the last round of comments, the panelists dived deeply into the concept of spaces for active participation: these spaces can be everywhere – said Mr Gerada – but it depends on who is involved in them. Most of the time such spaces already exist, the only thing that is missing is the active participation of people, and to have it we need to empower the target community by explaining the importance of direct engagement. What we also need is education: children need to be taught about concepts such as integration, so they will experience multiculturality as the norm instead of as the exception.
The talk was moderated jointly by Levi Lijkong from African Media Association Malta, Maria Gabiela Doublesin and Conway Wigg from NWAMI International Malta.
The project SMITE is managed jointly by African Media Association Malta and NWAMI International Malta, and funded by Active Citizens Fund Malta, which is operated by SOS Malta.