Storytelling as policy | Inquirer Opinion
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Storytelling as policy

I am a storyteller,” explains University of the Philippines president Angelo Jimenez as he explains his vision to members of the media for how the UP Archipelagic and Oceanic Virtual University can expand the discourse on the issues surrounding the West Philippine Sea to something that goes beyond geopolitics. This was in the context of the media launch of his administration’s flagship programs last Tuesday, of which I was able to participate as part of a media panel. He reiterated the importance of regaining control of the university’s narrative as he sought for “inclusive admissions” partly as a way to combat perceptions of increasing elitism, as 44 percent of the UP College Admission Test qualifiers come from private schools and around 70 percent come from urban centers. Last May, his administration also modified the university’s motto to add “service” to “honor and excellence,” a further expansion of the narrative of what the university stands for.

It is an interesting way of rationalizing a program, that its mere existence can add to or change prevailing narratives. That the questions the panel had for him mostly centered on how his administration can actualize such grand visions, the UP president insisted that the vision itself is worthy on its own through its power to weave a narrative.

What stories can we tell through policies and programs? And are these stories enough?

Filipinos love a good story. We root for the underdogs. We post long diatribes online against villains in reel and real life. We swoon over love teams. We feel for victims and cheer when they get their justice. A compelling story can propel Filipinos into action. And for this reason, stories can be powerful.


This is exactly the power that media wields. My copanelists described their profession as making sure that news and information are understandable to the public. They focus on distilling messages that are easy to digest and persuasive. They bemoan how a good and useful message can be buried by convoluted narratives. When I was first invited to write for this newspaper, I was told to make sure that even high schoolers can understand it. What good is a story if very few people can comprehend it?

Successful politicians, too, know this well and use stories to their advantage. How many candidates from political dynasties insist on their simple upbringing, despite having governors for fathers? How many myths do we have surrounding famous families and personalities in the Philippines? Even now, there is a generations-long battle of narratives regarding how we view our own country’s history, especially as the former dictator’s son now sits on his father’s old seat. During the last election, he said that he was running to protect his family. Years later, we see numerous attempts at rebranding, with their latest directive to mandate a new pledge and hymn based on his campaign rally of “Bagong Pilipinas,” reminding others of his father’s “Bagong Lipunan.”

In mental health, we strive for people to take ownership of their own narratives. We call this autonomy. It is important that we are the primary authors of our lives. Once we hand over the pen to someone else, we risk living someone else’s dreams and goals. With autonomy comes responsibility; there can never be one without the other. Just as we don’t want to be overwritten, we do not want to overwrite others.

For a narrative to be mentally healthy, it needs to be rich and multidimensional. Real life is messy. Heroes and villains can be the exact same person. We live in imperfect, complicated systems. And so, a more authentic narrative is, by necessity, complex. A healthy narrative allows for many layers and makes room for seeming contradictions. While we acknowledge our mistakes and poor choices, we also should recognize our strengths and potential.


Unfortunately, listeners of stories tend to prefer simpler stories. This is why we sometimes rely on stereotypes and digest information through our own narrow experience because it is, quite honestly, simpler and easier. (And more prone to mistakes, in case we care about that.)

In a way, this is the struggle of scientists and why we are generally poor storytellers. Competent scientists and scholars will never talk in absolute terms. The joke is that all responses by scientists starts with “it depends.” Soundbites from such individuals are boring. Moreover, attention span is getting shorter and shorter and so we get impatient for people just to give us the verdict of whether something is good or bad.


Stories are powerful tools, and they need to be used responsibly. While stories can be persuasive, they also need to be true. Stories need to reflect both reality and a vision for the future if we are to use them as agents of change.


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