Truth-telling in the Age of Digital Media
The truth will set you free.
It’s a maxim that shows up in all kinds of places, from university mottos to Oprah’s Life Class. Its meanings are often hazy and applications varied, but my religious Southern parents will be pleased to know that I remember its origins are biblical in nature, a derivation of John 8:32, a verse that links discipleship to spiritual freedom.
These days, though, like my own evolution toward humanism, the phrase has become well situated in more secular usage, having become common parlance, not only among theologians, but artists, therapists, and politicians as well.
I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately since I had the chance to sit in on an undergraduate student-led workshop last week called, “Not Your Momma’s Sex Ed,” originally developed by Tani Ikeda of ImMEDIAte Justice, an organization devoted to encouraging “girls to imagine a just world by telling their untold stories of gender and sexuality through film.” The workshop, while focused on the topic of sex ed, is a broader exercise in engaging youth in radical media practices and harnessing the power of storytelling.
It’s also one of a collection of workshops put together by the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project at USC (of which I’m a part), with help from colleagues in USC’s Media Arts + Practice division, as part of an online resource for teachers, students, activists, and community members called By Any Media Necessary. Based on the homonymous forthcoming book from the MAPP team, By Any Media Necessary provides users with information on everything from media production to innovative individuals and organizations working at the intersection of new media and activism (plus much, much more!). The project is made possible by the MacArthur Foundation and its research network on Youth And Participatory Politics (YPP).
But back to that workshop! It was led by two undergraduate students in a class called, “New Media for Social Change,” taught by my colleagues Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro (which is how I got the invite to participate). My first thought was just how nice it was to be back in the classroom; as a research-focused postdoc I don’t often get the opportunity, and I often find myself missing the enthusiasm and curiosity of the students I taught in grad school. I found that same enthusiasm here as the students led us through an icebreaker and prompted us to think about our own experiences with school-based sex ed.
After a brief discussion of that topic, we turned toward thinking about what aspects of our own lives—what personal truths—were left unspoken on a daily basis. We took a few minutes to scribble down our thoughts on the following prompt:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?
Maybe it’s because I’m, admittedly, the world’s worst risk taker, but I spent those ten minutes thinking about all the things that make telling one’s truth so hard and what would make telling my own truth a challenge. Because telling the truth is risky. It’s almost always uncomfortable and requires a vulnerability that, in academic settings especially, both women and men are taught to suppress and overcome. Prescriptions against truth telling and vulnerability exist in school and the workplace, but also at the levels of gender, race, and class as well.
So how to get over this hump? I looked back at the prompt. What if one women told the truth about her life? What if a whole bunch of women, of people, started telling the truth about their lives, I thought. I remembered an observation made by Paul Richardson, a high school English teacher in Kansas City, in a webinar conversation I participated in last month. He explained that it almost seems like human nature to judge other people, particularly those who look different from us. When seeing a person on the street, you are bound to make a whole host of assumptions about them. As soon as a “person tells one story about themselves,” he said, “they are no longer in that category [that you’ve put them in]. They have now stepped out of that category, and now you have a story about them as an individual.”
The webinar, which was by the National Writing Project’s Educator Innovator, a blog and growing community of educators who are seeking to re-imagine learning, was focused on our By Any Media Necessary resource and implementing storytelling, digital media, and popular culture in the classroom, sometimes toward civic and political ends. Sarabeith Leitch, a high school English teacher from Portland, chimed in after Paul to make the important point that, not only can we strive to tell our own stories, but we can learn from truth tellers of the past.
In describing a curriculum she had developed on modern voice, she said that it was vital to “look at the truth tellers who’ve come before us, whether its musicians or poets or speech writers or politicians.” Sarabeth explained that when students “explore and learn about what those voices look like and the techniques, whether it’s looking at media or reading text, they get to understand who are the people who’ve shape our culture and gotten us to where we are today.” Then they can ask themselves how and why they should tell their own stories.
But toward what purpose do we share our personal truths? To return to Tani Ikeda’s provocation from the workshop, what would happen if one woman—if many people—started to tell their stories? Paul said, matter-of-factly, “I see it as activism. I see storytelling—the sharing of truth—as activism.” And I’m inclined to agree with him. Telling one’s truth is a rebellious act but one that, if enough people committed to, would ideally bring about a lot more understanding in the world.
Paul continued, “This idea of storytelling, if it’s going to happen on a scale that alters culture, that alters civilization, then make it digital. Put it out there for as many people to see.”
That’s really the premise behind By Any Media Necessary; for young people all over, telling their stories is so vital, that almost any medium can be used, be it a YouTube video or a meme. But Tani, and the students running her workshop on sex ed, raised a good point, too: telling your story can be done, as Malcolm X once said, by any means necessary, too. She explains of her group’s mission:
ImMEDIAte Justice means telling your story by any means necessary. If you have a camera you can use that. If you don’t have a camera you have a pen and pad to write it through poetry. If you don’t have that you have a body to create shapes and express that vision and story. If you don’t have that you can shout it.
Over the past weeks, if there is one thing that these talented students and teachers have taught me, it’s to be brave. While telling your truth can be a risky proposition, the alternative—silence—is not an option. Because, ultimately, these educators and students, and, yes, even Oprah and St. John, are onto something. The truth really will set you free.