Storytelling for a Suspicious Age

6 July 2021


Mohini Ghai Kramer

The Conversation


Mohini Ghai Kramer, Global Head of Learning & Development at International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), shares reflections from our conversation with writers Charles Cumming and Taiye Selasi, who joined us to explore the heroes and narratives our suspicious selves believe in, as well as the power of art and the media to make us think differently about the spaces we share. 


From the discussion on 24 June


Last month, a small group from The Performance Theatre community met virtually – connecting all the way from Singapore to Vancouver – to discuss ‘Storytelling for a Suspicious Age’. We were joined by writers Charles Cumming and Taiye Selasi who helped spark the conversation. What or who do people turn to when they lose trust in the institutions and leaders that hold power? Do art, literature and media really have the power to shift our thinking?

The moment was particularly special for me, as it was the first time that I had the opportunity to reconnect with many members from The Performance Theatre community. We had met previously in Seattle in June 2019, pre-Covid. A lifetime ago. In fact, it was in Seattle, through a series of coincidences and serendipitous connections, that the idea for this session was born.

For almost all of us – whether leaders in business, civil society or the arts – trust is central to our work. At the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), where I work, trust and collaboration are central to our mode of functioning. Essential to our operation is the deployment of staff into volatile situations; as such, we need to have built trust, so that our host communities feel that they can rely on us. From government to armed groups, all relevant stakeholders must feel that we are engaging with positive intent and purely for humanitarian purposes. As the world becomes more digitally connected, issues around trust in the digital sphere are also essential considerations. We can never forget that the trust given to us is our license to operate – it allows us to cross frontlines, reach affected communities and act as a neutral intermediary to broker aid.

Collaborating with other people is not possible without forging connections and overcoming suspicions. Yet, in times of conspiracy theories and science denial, this is becoming even more challenging.

The Performance Theatre discussion delved into all this and more. My key takeaways were:

  • Does technology bring more benefit or harm? Thanks to technology and the power of social media, our leaders are becoming more transparent. Unrelenting scrutiny has made even the most private of conversations at risk of appearing as the next day’s headline. Although the pressure is harsh, it forces accountability. But how sustainable is this and should we be more forgiving?
  • What qualities define a hero or a villain? Villains in our society and storytelling may have changed over time, yet they have always existed. Just like the “Joker” from DC Comics, many anti-heroes are being reimagined with a new lens. Is this an indication that we (and audiences) are forgiving of human flaws in fiction, but set different standards of integrity in real life? Real life is of course much more complicated than a clear resolution or redemption we agree with on screen. Should this complexity be better reflected in literature or film? How might we bring more diversity into the “heroes” and “villains” that are depicted, rather than relying on archetypes?
  • What might organisations and leaders learn from fiction? If leaders – and the organizations and institutions they represent – want to win the public’s trust, do they need to update their approach to storytelling? Being candid appeals to many people and signals trustworthiness to numerous audiences. Might excruciating transparency around one’s intent be a solution? In the past, predictability helped to build trust. Has the world moved on from this? Today, is unpredictability helping populist leaders gain popularity and power?

As with all good discussions we left with more questions than answers, concluding the conversation with renewed energy. To circle back to the theme of trust, I take away with me the words of Toni Morrison – “All important things are hard”. Building trust is essential and one which we must all continue to work towards.

This session was part of the 2021 TPT Season. Read more about it here