It is my story!
In a debate people don't just trade information. They express their beliefs and values and aim to persuade other people to think or act in certain ways. Often, they resort to autobiographical and personally significant stories featuring their experiences to argue for or against a controversial claim.
This project aims at investigating the multiple roles of stories and in particular their roles in sustaining our sense of agency, providing a sense of belonging, and functioning as evidence in an argument.
Here are some of the research questions I plan to address:
In what circumstances is a personal story a good piece of evidence for a general claim?
Do stories contributing to debates about health and about politics have a special significance, and how do they shape our identities?
What skills do we need to assess stories, and what criteria should stories be assessed against?
Can we respond to stories with an attitude that encompasses simultaneously compassion for the storyteller's predicament and critical distance from the story as evidence?
The Power of Stories
Autobiographical stories do not merely offer insights into someone’s experience but can constitute evidence or even serve as self-standing arguments for a given viewpoint in the context of public debates. Such stories are likely to exercise considerable influence on debate participants’ views and behaviour due to their being more vivid, engaging, and accessible than other forms of evidence or argument. In this paper we are interested in whether there are epistemic and moral duties associated with the use of autobiographical stories in mental health debates.
We argue that debate participants have a responsibility to assess a story as evidence or as an argument when the story is put forward to support a given viewpoint. We also make some preliminary suggestions about what can be done to ensure that the use of stories contributes to the variety of the resources available to debate participants without compromising the quality of the argumentation or increasing polarisation.
When the Personal Becomes Political
In recent public debates, autobiographical or personally significant stories are offered not just as illustrations of a point, but as evidence for claims that are often central to the debated issues. Such stories are likely to influence the beliefs and actions of debate participants, shaping the subsequent development of the debates themselves. If agents have an epistemic duty to believe in accordance with the evidence, as is argued for by many in the philosophical literature (for instance, Scott Stapleford), then they have a duty to think carefully about the relation that holds between their evidence and the proposition they believe or they are considering whether to believe.
This may be particularly challenging when the evidence is presented in the form of autobiographical or personally significant stories, because stories have multiple roles over and beyond providing evidence for a claim. By reference to social media debates on Brexit, this chapter shows that stories (a) are used as evidence to support broad political claims; (b) offer insights into the perspectives and concerns of debate participants; but (c) are unlikely to offer support for these claims in isolation from other forms of evidence.
Stories as Evidence
People often use personal stories to support and defend their views. But can a personal story be evidence? A story tells us that a certain event can happen and has already happened to someone, but it may not always help us understand what caused the event or predict how likely that event is to happen again in the future. Moreover, people confabulate. That is, when they tell stories about their past, they are likely to distort reality in some way. In this paper, we argue that the pervasiveness of confabulation does not rule out that personal stories can be used as evidence but invites us to reflect carefully about what they are evidence of. And this is especially important in the context of digital storytelling, because stories shared on online platforms can exert even greater influence on what people think and do.