Telling our stories, speaking without fear

Powerful storyteller Dr John Falzon speaks on how to tell our Secure Jobs stories, how not to be afraid, and why we need to reclaim the narrative for ourselves to make change.

2022 has begun in chaos.  

But the deeper the chaos, the more focussed we are on our fight for Secure Jobs.  

Insecure work is being normalised at a pace. Bosses are lining up to see what else they can get out of a government that is already clearly devoted to union-bashing, wage suppression and worker demonisation. Qantas, to take one example, is doing its damnedest to slash the wages of flight attendants by an average of 40%. 

Rapid antigen tests have not been made freely available. Workers are unsafe and the Morrison government seems fine with that.  

Aged care is in crisis. As ANMF member, Susan Walton, said, at a rally on the lawns of parliament house in Canberra, “We were treading water before, but we are drowning now.” Avoidable deaths, no commitment to nurse ratios, no commitment to a pay rise for aged care workers…  just an insulting and tokenistic “bonus.” 

Services Australia is being privatised and outsourced, with over 30% of workers outsourced or insecure. And the social security system, like the labour market, is deeply insecure. People on income support continue to be forced to wage a daily battle for survival from below the poverty line. And we’ve never had so many people having to work more than one job to barely stay afloat.  

Gendered violence is yet to be addressed in workplaces, not even if your workplace is parliament house.  

At the time of writing, the Morrison government was actually arguing for legislation that will allow private schools to expel transgender kids. 

The sense of chaos can be disheartening.  


Which is why our story is everything.  


The powerful tell us stories all the time. But when we tell our stories, we are engaging in an act of resistance. 


To tell our story is to make the claim that whatever is happening around us has a beginning and an end and that we can shape what happens next.  

To tell our story is to make the claim that we are not passive objects who are just shoved into the story told by those who want to control us. On the contrary, we are shaping our own story, our own future, our own collective dream for a better society. 


Each of us has our own story. Our stories are deeply personal, profoundly unique. No two human stories are the same. And yet, collectively, our stories come together to form a mighty river that moves with a progressive force for social change that is unstoppable. 


This is why we fight. This is why we fight for secure jobs, for worker safety, for public health, for public education, for public housing, for social security, for dignity, for equality, no matter your race, your gender, your sexuality, your postcode, your age, your disability. This is why we fight. So that everyone gets a fair crack at happiness. 


This is why, even when we feel gutted by the latest act of viciousness, we don’t just throw our hands in the air and give up.  


We never give up. We don’t accept the stories they try to tell us that are designed to try and make us give up. 


We choose to talk about the things that they would prefer us to be silent about. Like when we talk about what happens in our workplaces, our communities, and our lives. The very act of telling a story is a deliberate choice. As the writer Susan Sontag observed: “To tell a story is to say: this is the important story.” We are saying that this, what it is we are talking about, really matters. Even if it does not matter to those who despise us. 


We only see what we look at,” wrote John Berger. “To look is an act of choice.”  So we talk about what we see and we see what we choose to look at. This might seem pretty obvious, but the truth is that our society is structured in such a way as to try to discourage us from looking at the causes of its problems.  


The loose amalgam of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, fascists, Palmer United Party members, One Nation supporters and others drawn to the populist Right, are really a prime example of how sections of the ruling class are keen to create chaos, keen to make some of us look in all the wrong places for the causes of social and economic insecurity…. keen to shift the political debate further to the Right…. keen to work against the unity of workers, keen to turn us against each other. 


We gain nothing from trying to argue within the slippery frame they have slapped together. 


Rather, our urgent mission is to build our own frame, solidly grounded in the concrete social conditions, crafted with the materials available to us (our collective wisdom and experience), and melded together with our blood, sweat and tears. 


What we have learned over the past two years of the pandemic, what we have learned over the past forty years of neoliberalism, what we have learned over the past two hundred years of modern capitalism, is that we can only depend on ourselves, rather than on those who put as high a price as they can on everything, except our time, except our labour, except our lives. 


What we have learned is that we are impelled by social love and that there is nothing stronger than the organisation of love.  


And that we are more powerful than we think. 


What we have learned is that if we don’t fight, we lose. 


“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This is how the writer, Joan Didion explained it, that deeply human urge to give meaning to, and acknowledge the mystery of, what happens in our lives.  


This is true of us personally. We constantly craft the stories we tell ourselves and each other, the stories of our past, of where we have come from, the stories of our struggles, our victories, our pain. Some things we tell ourselves over and over again. Other things we prefer to forget. As our lives change, the way we arrange the elements of our story changes. As we grow older, for example, we begin to notice things that have happened in our lives that previously we did not give so much importance to. And we begin to shrink some of the things that once loomed large in our minds.          


The world  is made of, and changed by, stories. 


The planet’s powerful few have no difficulty in ensuring that their stories get told. For them it is easy. They just buy and control the means of mass communication.  


But story-telling does not belong to those who want to commodify everything they can get their paws on. 


Story-telling belongs to humanity. 


To be human is to have a story.  


To be human is to be a story.  


Our stories are messy, fragmented, contradictory. In fact if our story is too neatly packaged it’s a dead give-away that that’s exactly what it is: packaged for the sake of appearances, freed from its imperfections. 


If it is a story, it is imperfect. If it is a story, it is at home with imperfection. If it is a story told with love, a story that is formed in the practice of paying attention to whatever is happening, then it can be beautiful, not despite, but because of, its imperfections. 


Just as our personal lives are battlefields, so are our stories.  


No matter how unique our stories are, they unfold within a shared context: the neoliberal period of capitalism, with its signature policies of dismantling and privatising the public sphere and disorganising and degrading the working class, especially through job insecurity, wage suppression, and unsustainable cost of living increases.  


When we tell, for instance, the story of why we joined our union and why we believe in union, we need to remember not only who we are but who we are speaking with. We cannot ever guarantee that our words will hit the mark. But what we can do is at least guarantee that we are telling our story clearly, honestly and effectively.  


We need to know why we want to tell a particular story. As Ursula K. Le Guin explains: “Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” We also need to know at least a little about the stories of the people we are speaking to. And, with these two elements we attempt to build a bridge with our story between our message and our listeners.  


To do this we need to speak without fear but we must also learn to listen without interruption. So much so that we are equipped to include at least a little of the story of the people we are speaking to. They need to be able to recognise themselves in our story, not because we are superficially trying to appear to be like them, but because we have learned to intuit where there is common ground, some shared experience, between us.  


We want to achieve what Yankunytjatjara poet, Ali Cobby Eckermann describes: 

“hearts can’t make it up  

when you feel the story  

you know it’s true”.  


To do this I suggest:  

1 Be yourself. Talk in your own language. 

2 Read the room, even before you enter it.  

3 Frame your argument and then stick to three points. 

4 Tell stories. Use humour.  

5 Be neither afraid of, nor angry with, your audience. 

6 Always end on a note of hope. 

The point of speaking is to achieve connection, not perfection. That’s where our power lies. In wielding our not-so-secret weapon, solidarity. In speaking the truth to each other and ourselves. In giving courage to each other. In lifting each other’s spirits. In strengthening union.  

Dr John Falzon is Senior Fellow, Inequality and Social Justice at Per Capita. He is the author of The language of the unheard (2012) and a collection of poems, Communists like us (2017). He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society from 2006 to 2018. He is a member of the Australian Services Union.  

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