No more feel-good stories
Or at least not that kind
Almost every day I see a headline like “Teacher raises $200,000 for cancer treatment after going viral for losing healthcare” or maybe “84-year-old comes out of retirement and becomes employee of the month at Costco” and somehow each one is supposed to be a feel-good story. These human interest pieces are supposed to be uplifting, are supposed to make us feel a little warmth of human kindness, or resilience, or hope. And sometimes they do! I have often been amazed and somewhat inspired to see how strangers support one another online. When it looked for a moment like Twitter might completely crash, instead of slowly decaying, thousands of people posted about how they’ve gotten live-saving funds from crowdsourcing on the platform. But all of these feel-good media stories about people providing one another with rent or funds for healthcare or simple money to eat always leave out one thing – why the recipient was in need to begin with.
I love that people provide for one another, that we’re instinctively inclined to care for each other, I think. And there’s no denying that the profoundly human stories and the distress we’re often exposed to on social media in particular leads us to try to help other people. But more and more often, it seems to me, we’re presented with stories intended to make us feel good for just a moment, but from which I just can’t get that boost. When I see that a worker couldn’t afford to own a home after 27 years working steady at the same job, the crowdfunding aspect feels a little less warm and fuzzy. When I think how that one person might have gone viral, but the thousands and thousands of workers in that exact same position surely did not, it begins to get a bit grim. This, all too often, is how these stories function. Systemic issues are painted as one individual having overcome an obstacle, with the help of people like you, and never you mind how everyone else is still stuck with that systemic problem.
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Another of the most common types of feel-good stories is that one up there on the left, about a guy paying a bunch of money to live in an old laundromat. Now some of you might see this and say hey that’s not actually that much money for a one-bedroom in New York City. And on the one hand, that’s true, but on the other hand it’s exactly how some of these stories function. No one should have to pay $1,800 just for a place to lay their head! These stories never get into anything like that, any questions of the existing baselines, instead they operate completely within them and say “you know, maybe this isn’t that bad, this person found a decent loophole in a crappy system, maybe I can too.” I won’t even get into how a laundromat probably doesn’t make for a great apartment, and how you can find community without living in one. But let’s look at something that makes this point a whole, whole lot clearer.
Now again I’m not saying it doesn’t sound nice to save a ton of money, but what exactly is going on here? A mom and her kids have to live in a big camper because they can’t afford to live in a house. Sounds a little different when you put it that way. Lindsey might indeed be savvy, but maybe she shouldn’t have to be quite so clever and frugal. Maybe people should be able to raise their kids in safe and dignified housing without worrying about going broke. But, then again, that’s not the job of these stories. They don’t make these points or ask these questions, because the intent is a quick hit of positivity, not a look underneath the grimy hood at the systems that bring these stories into existence.
There’s more examples like the ones above, many more. You’ve probably seen them. And I don’t blame you if you enjoy this sort of human interest story. Like I said at the beginning I find something to admire in the ones that talk about people coming together to help one another in particular, even if I wish we focused a little more on making crowdfunding the basic needs of both our neighbors and strangers a little less necessary.
There are actual feel-good stories out there, too, ones that talk about creating a world where we won’t need GoFundMe to pay for vital surgeries or to have a shot at retirement. Often they’re just not framed as heartwarming human interest stories; they might be in the politics section or they might be so exceptional that they break through the noise of the news cycles, like:
So I would never say there are no laudable good-news stories, they just fight for air time with a slew of stories that feel more like distractions than like something we really need to hear. And I don’t want to be conspiratorial about it all. While some people might say that the billionaire owners of a lot of media publications would rather publish stories that don’t lead us to question the status quo, I think the answer is even simpler. I think we like seeing stories about people helping each other, or making the most out of tough situations. It can be easier to explain and understand and enjoy that narrative than to understand a complex deep-dive into systems and policies.
But it’s time to move on; it’s time to break up with the feel-good story that’s really talking about the exception to the rule, or papering over major societal problems, or inadvertently accepting conditions none of us should have to accept. This massive, interconnected world is built on a series of complex and interlocking systems. Don’t get me wrong, our instinct to focus on individuals is not something to shy aware from. Cultivating long-term, vulnerable, meaningful relationships with other people is something to be embraced and worked on and enabled through organizing and friendship and love. But there is, simultaneously, an urgency to seeing the systems at work, to seeing that the one Burger King worker who got a house is elevated in such a way as to obscure the 100,000 who cannot buy a home, and will never buy a home if the systems we live under keep marching on.
There will still be stories to tell, so many stories to tell. People around the world are simultaneously fighting the white supremacist and capitalist and patriarchal systems that hold us back, and building new modes and organizations and systems to allow for human and ecological flourishing.
Every system that furthers oppression has countless dedicated and thoughtful people working to dismantle it, as they also work to create something new. And we can tell their stories. I know I hope to tell their stories, and bring them to you. I just hope to filter out the ones that keep up from the truth, that show us exceptions and hide the reality, and instead show you examples that are honest even when it’s hard. Because the world we’re living in can be brutal, and the fights to make it better can be grueling. But I’d rather see 1 story of people slogging towards a better world than 10 of people trying to cover gaping wounds with Band-Aids. So cheers to those working to build and create something beautiful. I hope to read, or write, your story.
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