Welcome to the discussion! I am Danielle Coates-Connor from the Center for Story-based Strategy. I'm helping to facilitate this conversation. I'm glad you're here!
This first discussion topic is meant to introduce newcomers to the concept of story-based strategy and to make sure we're all on the same page. So what is story-based strategy?
The story-based strategy approach means looking at social change strategy through the lens of narrative.
Humans are narrative animals. We use narrative to make meaning in the world around us. We are literally made up of stories that tell us who, why and what we are. Storytelling has always been a powerful tool for organizers and movement builders to name problems, unite constituencies, and mobilize people towards solutions. Story-based strategy is about changing stories in the dominant culture and therefore creating more political possibility for our movements.
Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions about the story-based strategy approach by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments! I look forward to hearing from you.
-- Danielle Coates-Connor
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Well, I do like this concpet of 'story-based strategy' - I think it is important to how I do my own activism and how I try to work with orgs to move forward. Sometimes when group is stuck, it is helpful to think in these terms to get out of the ditch.
Sometimes a narrative can get in the way when ego is mixed in or people try to follow historical parralels rather than make their own history, imho.
Thanks for sharing these thoughts, redjade. Can you share an example of a narrative getting in the way "when ego is mixed in"? I think it would be helpful for us to also think about the times when narrative is particularly challenging to use. I'm curious to learn more...
-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder
Interesting, redjade I'd also like to hear an example of what you when about how narrative can get in the way - the thing that came up for me around this is that sometimes narratives get "old" as in, we tell ourselves the same story over and over again when in fact conditions have changed and the accuracy and usefulness of this story actually blocks rather than catalyzes a group's moving forward.
For example, I recently worked with an alliance that was suffering from some very difficult internal challenges involving a member that had publicly attacked the alliance - after sitting in and listening in on a few of their meetings I realized that alliance leadership was in a pattern of retelling each other the same story the attacking member had told, blaming each other for the problems named in that particular narrative.
I helped them refocus by asking them all to tell the story of why they were part of that alliance - what was the potential of the alliance, why did they believe in it and why did the work of this alliance matter to justice in the world?
I think this process really helped people break out of that harmful narrative and re-enter around the healthy narrative of core purpose and vision.
What I am about to say can apply to anyone and any group - and perhaps all of us, truly.
For example: (not meanin to pick only on christians) If someone organizing to feed the homeless on the street - why? because people need food, or because to do so is to call attention to the failures of capitalism, or perhaps a recent new law caused more poverty, etc.
But if one's only real goal is to get into heaven for feeding the poor, the poor are just a prop for your own narrative.
This is an example of a narrative 'getting in the way' of good activism.
Ok, so now I pissed off all the christians here. sorry. I could say the same for trotskyists, but that's another story! ;-)
I appreciate your introducing this aspect of stories which rightly complicates what we think about stories and how clearly or not that they reflect truths. There is certainly a tendency that i have noticed to romanticize stories and to presume that they are good. We bandy about the terms "storytelling" and "storyteller" as very positive terms, as both descriptive of actual things and as metaphors applied to a variety of situations, people and media. But stories are no more innocent nor neutral than language. They are exactly as complicated as language. And therefore they are as wonderful and as deadly as language. And one of the reasons we love and use stories as we do is that all stories, no matter how simple or how apparently "true" (as with a newsreport, for instance), is that no story is reducible to one singular truth; all stories have multiple meanings - thus my use of "multivalent" in the subject line for this comment. It is this multivalence that makes stories one of the greatest creations of human culture. And often this multivalence only becomes apparent when we pay attention to the context within whichs stories are told. In one context a story can have a positive meaning while in another the opposite. Part of the wonder of stories is that they contain contradictions - in fact without contradictions, stories often lack vitality. It is the contradictions that make stories worth engaging and we necessarily need to ask (or at least consider) what we mean by this or that story. The struggle for this or that interpretation is a necessary part of the dialogue. It's worth thinking about the best way to resist negative, oppressive stories and whether that is by disputing the facts, fighting for our interpretation to win the contest of meaning or, perhaps more trickily, to tell a better story. I tend to think that the latter is the more enduring solution even while there is often an urgency to saving lives and defending dignity that necessitates the former. I took on the whole "Sacrifice of Isaac" story in this blog post in which i struggled both with the interpretation of this canonical tale (equally important to all three abrahamic religions) as well as offering a bit of thinking about a better story to tell.
That's an interesting example, and common, if we zoom out a bit. Fights for transformation run up against false solutions and varied motivations all day, particularly when power and privilege are at play, which they always are when we're talking about social, economic, and ecological justice.
However, if the question on the table is how to create economic justice, shouldn't we analyze the assumptions of the "get into heaven" narrative and decide if we need to reach that group? Are they an audience for our message? These types of strategy choices are real across issues and sectors. "Their story" is related to "our story," and it's up to us where we put them in the drama triangle. Are they the villain? Are they the victim? Do we want to give them a chance to become the hero? Is their narrative creating a filter that we must overcome in order to be heard? Or do we leave them out altogether because they are not a priority audience for us or an important influence on our target? Depending on the needs of the campaign or initiative, I think it could be very important to look closely at this narrative and figure out how we want to engage it (or not).
This is a very rich area - how to engage deeply entrenched ideas that undermine real solutions.
Have others experienced this? How did you handle it?
I do not quite understand what you mean by good activism, and what that might entail and how in this case the narrative is infact getting in the way of it. Nevertheless, I understand the point that your making, and the struggle to find a truly selfless external narrative to live by. But i do think that that may be a very utopian struggle to begin with. Whose to say that Gandhi did what he did for inner peace? I do not think that there is anything particularly wrong with having a "personal stake" (emotional or otherwise) in a human rights work. Why call it a "prop for your own narrative", and why not call it a "personal drive/incentive" ?
I am a gay muslim pakistani artist. Before i started my Master's in Fine Arts, i was in research and development, working with an NGO within the context of the male street child and as a volunteer for LGBT rights (grassroots level). And i feel no shame in saying that i had an extremely personal stake in my LGBT rights work, and it was simple, it was because i am gay. I wanted a better life for myself, so i decided to fight for it. Being gay is a very integral part of my identity, which might be something else for someone else, which would entail a different form of drive/social interactions. Perhaps very much like a muslim or christian. The "rights of the people" are considered to be far superior then the "rights of God" in Islam. So if a person choses to fight for the rights of a people, by virtue of his religious beliefs, what is so wrong about that? Again, this is a very broad point of view, and lets not complicate this issue with "alterior motives" of religious fanaticism or fundamentalism, that would surely derail the discussion.
As narratives go, they can be external and internal as a source of inspiration or drive to fight. I have seen horrible burnout in people working in human rights work (as i have seen in myself), and i feel that the burnout comes faster when there is no personal stake involved. There maybe be an extremely selfish and personal incentive, or there might be an emotional/spiritual incentive. Different people, different strokes.
I definitely agree about stories getting old. In the City I grew up in, campaign volunteers on EVERY campaign I have ever volunteered for tell the same story about one succesful campaign for City Council in which public stand-outs were the primary tool. It can slow down progress and more effective tactics being brought in, like door knocking.
Another way I think storytelling can "get in the way" is when it flies in the face of facts or is used to construct a damaging reality. "Welfare Queens" is a story that still gets a lot of traction, despite being provably insignificant.
IMO within the USA we have a very strong story/narrative about the efficacy of violence in conflicts. I call it the John Wayne syndrome and it tells us that conflicts between good and evil can only be dealt with via violence that does in the bad guys. In this narrative nonviolence equals cowardice and wimpy submission to evil.
My novel, Denmark Rising, imagines 1940s Denmark being prepared to wage strategic nonviolence against Hitler. From reader reactions, the novel apparently succeeds in changing their beliefs about the efficacy of nonviolence. However, the number of readers is VERY small. Nevertheless, this seems to me to be what is needed.
i wonder if there is a Judeo-Christian narrative base to your John Wayne syndrome?
I mean we never hear that how God would eventually forgive the fallen, no God will punish the fallen/sinners by thrusting them in the fiery pit. That feels tad bit violent. The only way to vanquish evil is to violently destroy it. God vs Satan, Heaven vs Hell, Bad guys vs Good guys? Vin Diesel against henchmen? Popular media has a huge part to play in the accepted strategies of conflict resolution.
I think you are correct. Jesus of course was a serious radical in his advocacy of non-violence, but his example is largely ignored and the Old Testament vengeful God is contiually evoked.
re. the popular media ... even when they tell a story about nonviolence the plot is usually about the nonviolent hero overcoming his scruples against violence in order to finally kill the bad guy after all attempts at nonviolence have failed. In other words, the story line is pretty much designed to discredit the attempt to be nonviolent.
One of my academic advisors wrote a book about this Old Testament image of God: http://www.amazon.com/Disturbing-Divine-Behavior-Troubling-Testament/dp/... - great thoughts and thoroughly written....I think another guy who tackles the question well in Quaker Walter Wink, who contrasts the Judeo-Christian God (one who creates out of love) with the Babylonian perspective on the divine. Two very different characters. He also does some work on the "Myth of Redemptive Violence" as it relates to media, pop culture, storytelling, etc. But certainly Jesus focuses in on nonviolence in a radical and subversive way that goes beyond other religious traditions' commitments to nonviolence, IMO....even though that trajectory of nonviolence is present in most world religions.
Ahh, but Vin Diesel as Riddick is pretty cool.
Indeed, the power of judeo-christian (as well as judeo-christian-islamic if we want to link all three abrahamic religions) narratives is rather fearsome in our world. But i think it worth recognizing that even while there is the doctrinal, orthodox versions of the stories of these faiths, there is also an enormous wealth of scholarship (as well as still-extant and subversive folk culture) that preserves and interprets remarkably diverse and resistant versions of the people, devinities and events found in these religions. I am most familiar with jewish and christian related scholarship which inlcudes remarkable accounts of wizards, magicians and golems, angels and saints and demons. The well-known Gospel of Thomas (long ago a loser in the struggle to authorize the four canonical christian gospels) has some fascinatingly divergent interpretations of jesus' teachings. Likewise, the more recently unearthed Gospel of Judas, radically revisions this essential piece of christian doctrine. My knowledge of Islam is woefully more limited but i have read much folk literature of Suleiman bin Daoud and his vanquishing of genii and ifrits, and the perhaps more literary Harun al Rashid which, again, contain and imply diverse interpretations of otherwise dominant beliefs. I find you never have to look far to find the influence of the stories of abrahamic religions and, for sure, the judeo-christian (which should perhaps be more accurately christian-judeo) stories currently hold the sway of global common sense.
Yes yes, within Islamic narratives one finds a fantastical world ofcourse as well. I would advise you to perhaps look into sufi traditions, they tend to be more littered with ideas of love, forgiveness, non-violent conflict resolutions. And most importantly would be their very rich mythology, with (like you said, Jin's and what not!
Ofcourse, as a storyteller myself, i find these narratives to be a little problematic, and i am usually a lil pertrubed by using religious narratives. And this may possibly be in part due to the long history of organized religion and its tendency to negatively appropriate pagan rituals and concepts (especially in the case of Abrahamic religions). Likewise we also see this happening in the form of self canabilism when comparing Judaisim with Christianity, and Christianity with Islam.
But i think one of my biggest (for there are many) qualm with narratives originating from Abrahamic religions may be the idolized divine suffering. The importance of one to suffer in order to gain intellectual (or otherwise) superiority, is very problematic. Glorified missery within religious narratives, legitimizes the suffering of the people who practice that religion.
Ahsan, i share some of your feeling and caution about religious narratives. There's no question that they are loaded. And carry an incredible range of contradictory and downright bad ideas. But within that mess is also extraordinary and tricky wisdom though it hardly serves itself up easily. All major world religions have created canonical works that have appropriated liberally from the local, grassroots, folk traditions of storytelling that are pretty much universal amongst human groups and cultures. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are fantastic compilations of hundreds of stories that predated these great works. The Pali Jatakamala is the Buddhist version of the same practice. And, of course, the three people of the book, as Jews, Christians and Muslims are sometimes called, share a mythology also rich in appropriation and reinvention of ancient folktales. When we start to see that all these works represent ancient practices of reframing (to apply some of today's jargon) we begin to be able to tease out hints of what the original material might have been. Whe you start to find the same version of a story in different religious traditions and see how those stories are used, we can perhaps reclaim some of the more emancipatory messages that lie in wait for those of us with the attention to give them. One example is the relatively well-known story called "the grateful dead" - a story of the respect and generosity a traveller shows the bones of a dead person who is then assisted in his journeys by the spirit of the grateful dead. This so-called motif is found in many cultures around the world. And in a catholic version of the old testament can be found the Book of Tobit (or Tobias) which is, essentially, a 'grateful dead' story. What this story is an example of is the cultural practices of respect and generosity for the dead. And thus all the versions of this story/motif can be compared to see just how different cultures organize, educate and advocate for these values. This kind of study can teach us how better to reframe contemporary messages about these very same values. We can turn to scholarship for some of this. And we can turn to so-called folk traditions and if we suspend our judgment that one is more true than the other we can then, perhaps, see that they represent ancient contests of meaning. Contests that continue today. And so we need to keep telling these tales (contradictions and all) as part of a critical practice through which we participate in this ancient dialogue. And thus we create the relationships in which we can make new and transformative meaning.
One of the more debilitating stories/messages that i grew up with is that of the Fall and the expulsion from paradise. A story that has fueled the very modern (and rather deadly) myth of progress. But again, when we look we find numerous alternative explanations for things. One story i recall: When god was sending adam and eve out of paradise he asked the serpent, "but where shall i put their knowledge of their own divinity?" And the serpent responded, "Put it inside of them." And god thought this a good idea and did just that. And the serpent thought, "Good, they'll never think to look there."
This is a playful messing with a canonical tale. And if that detail of the story can be told, what others are there to find. We can ask ourselves why some became the dominant version and why others did not. And we can thus make new choices. I share another dissident interpretation of a famous (for me infamous) biblical tale in a lengthy blog post here.
And i echo your advice about Sufi stories. Love 'em. From Nasruddin to Bauhaudin Naqshband to Saadi of Shiraz and so many more.
There was something which had been lingering on the sides of my head for a while, and especially since this thread of conversation started. And that is Lot and Gommorah. An excellant example of the power of narrative, originating from a religious context, used across the board, irrespective of nationallity, ethnicity and at times religion as well (for this example is cited within Islamic and Christian contexts), used against LGBT people. And i do mean exhaustively across the board! And this one narrative has been the bane of my life. Eventually i realized that trying to defeat this narrative (not even sure if that is possible) was to perhaps not engage with it at all within a religious context, and use a more current and sociological context to it. Nevertheless, it maintains its position of power.
Stubborn stories, indeed. And i agree that in some cases with stories (and possibly within only certain contexts) the only option is not to engage with the story. My tactic is to treat all the canonical works of major religions as storybooks no different from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Kalevala, the Kathasaritsagara or the Grimm's Brothers' collections. That certain interests in certain cultures managed to codify these texts and persuade or coerce others to grant these texts otherworldly supremacy over human good sense doesn't make them "real". But what do we do when we meet someone who insists on granting literal truth to what is essentially a folktale? If someone insists on seeing Old Testament stories as "history" we can spend all day citing contradictions and utter craziness (e.g. Lot's willingness to sacrifice his virgin daughters for the welfare of two "angels" who, i'm guessing, were pretty capable of defending themselves - consider that often the first thing angels say when they appear is "be not afraid" - what are they that they need utter this warning?) and a believer in the literal truth will carry on blithely believing. Scholarship and critical thinking have little to no effect on such a person. But for the curious, where there's even a small opening for considering alternative interpretations, it's worth studying these stories and their many connections with other stories to see what has been disappeared and, again, to ask why did this or that version survive while others did not.
Within the Sodom and Gommorah tale is an interesting thing in jewish culture: the Lamed Vav Tzadikkim also referred to as the 36 Just Men or the 36 Righteous People or the hidden righteous ones. The story i learned from a jewish storyteller is that following the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah god promised never again to destroy the world so as long as there were on earth 36 righteous people. And so at any one time there are always these 36 alive and when one dies, the world is out of balance until a new one is (quickly) identified (as it were). All versions of these stories describe these 36 people as hidden and they spend their lives committing acts of anonymous kindness and compassion. Some versions even state that these "righteous souls" don't even know they are one of this group. Which, of course, means that it could be any of us.
There's a somewhat similar christian story of a monastery of cranky monks who can't stand each other. One travels to seek the wisdom of another monk who tells him that he knows a secret about that particular monastery. He tells the seeker, "the messiah is one of you, but i do not know which." The monk returns to his monastery of misanthropes and tells them what he learned and suddenly each person transforms their behaviour as they think about each other. One thinks, "the cook is cranky and mean and not a great cook. But perhaps he does this to throw us off because he knows he is the messiah." Another thinks, "what if i am the messiah and don't know it. I need to act better just in case." And so on.
These are not exactly counter-narratives to the destruction of sodom and gommorah. But taken as a whole, we can perhaps see in them an ancient dialogue about kindness and generosity and conceit and selfishness. And, apropos of our contemporary practice (as exemplified by CSS story-based strategy) we can view these as ancient applications of reframing. Nor is this a specious comparison. This is how stories have worked for millenia - we have borrowed and stolen and adapted and re-told and we've tried to turn stories into rigid stone (or parchment or paper). But despite the efforts to disappear knowledge, to ban it or otherwise constrain it for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, storytelling cannot be stopped. And as long as we have breath we will tell stories and mess with them, defy them, learn from them, make change with them.
Another wonderful post!
It seems to me that you are describing a very deep part of what makes us human... and perhaps THE fundamental power struggle throughout history. Generally, those who manage to get their particular version of the story adopted also win the battle for power and control.
For example, in the USA the story that "unions are bad" is now widely accepted among blue collar workers. For example, I have many friends who are construction workers and everyone of them believes this story. If ever there was a group of exploited and abused workers, it is construction workers and yet they have bought this story that unions are bad.
Here are some more examples, most of which are designed to benefit large corporations and the super rich:
"goverment is the problem, government is our enemy" and its corallary "what is good for General Motors is good for the country"
"government is inefficent and wasteful" and its corollary "privatization of govt services is good and will save taxpayer money"
"Evil acts and evil people require a violent response' and its corallary "nonviolence is cowardly and ineffective"
"The US has the best health care in the world, socialized medicine (e.g. Canada and Europe) is ineffective and terribly unpopular"
"Captialism benefits everyone and is the main engine that has pulled untold millions out of poverty"
"The super rich are the main engine of job creation"
"the mass media is liberal"
There are also a number of stories that are specifically designed to keep the culture wars going within the US (e.g. "homosexual lifestyle" or "Planned Parenthood promotes abortions", "Christians are suffering persecution"). The main purpose of these stories seems to be to keep people fighting about these issues so they don't notice the pillaging that the major corporations and the super-rich are doing to the rest of us.
The Right seems to understand the power of stories and IMO are quite effective in generating and using stories. Liberals and progressives IMO have been much less effective in this respect. In spite of having science and facts and numbers of people largely on their side, it seems to me that the Left (at least within the USA) has been terribly ineffective in this respect.
likewise, some wonderful points you raise and an excellent list of "stories" which i would term, hegemonic stories, as i am pretty much a gramscian when it comes to theorizing how such stories worm their way into our consciousness and take up residence as the "common sense" of many groups of people. And common sense, in the examples you cite, is most definitely not good sense.
Your opening example of "unions are bad" is one we have to a good extent here in Canada as well. And i think that implicit in your listing of such "stories" is the point that all these things are linked. No single one of these exists apart from the matrix of all of them and more. Which is what makes these blasted things so resilient against reason and research and history. I'm a huge fan of Howard Zinn who has done so much both to theorize how history should be done as well as give voice (and reframing) to little-known facets of social struggle - the voice of the defeated, as it were. But Zinn's work is a spit in the bucket of the kind of idiocy we're witnessing in the US right now. The ignorance and hypocrisy and conceit of the GOP in their anti-obamacare crusade is, to so many of us in the world, staggering. Where did these people go to school? Oh yeah, i think it was in Reagan's emaciated public schooling system.
But a "story" like "unions are bad" can only thrive in a terrain that has been cultivated with other "stories" of individualism triumphant, the heroic (mostly male) hero against a sea of tribulations, stories of the naturalness of capitalist competition (fueled by misappropriated darwinist explanations of natural selection), stories that equate riches with intelligence (debunked nicely by JK Galbraith in A Short History of Economic Euphoria), stories of American exceptionalism, something about which many of us around the world kinda bristle at (even while, here in Canada, we have leaders who would love nothing more than to be a 51st "State"). Gramsci, in his struggle to understand the Italian working class support for fascism (in the 20s and 30s), theorized that there was an entire matrix of ideas learned by people about Italianess - many ideas being contradictory - but that together formed a powerful bulwark of common sense that, despite the power of the idea of a unified working class, easily resisted being shifted. And fascists were clever at mobilizing those learned and embedded notions of italianess. Your example of blue collar support for a dominant idea of anti-unionism and against their commonality (seen within a different frame) is directly analogous to the Gramsci's analysis of popular support for fascism.
We can see that embedded in many US citizens (who, incidentally, still claim the term "american" as a common sense notion remarkably resistant to the reality of an Americas filled with neighbours), is a notion of americaness that is very vulnerable to being mobilized for nefarious means, both to inflame a populace (to war) as well as to silence the dissent of so many. What gramsci showed and theorized was not merely how those with power seize it and seize more but also, crucially, how the mass of people are "persuaded" to see as natural (and therefore grant consent to the idea) that a small elite should rule and the welfare of that small elite should be the most urgent concern of everyone (for that small elite, whose member status so many of us covet, are the smartest, the best and the brightest and they wll take care of us) and so we mangle our notions of democracy and create societies of staggering inequality. If we do things a bit better in Canada, it's really more the case that we are simply less bad. We've all got a long way to go.
I have to say something about your health care example, if only because of the coincidence that i am currently sitting in a hospital to have blood tests. It appears to me (and i know many others as well) that the US's choice of privatized health care with a patchwork of public programs is rather barbaric. And you rightly mock the attitude of many US folk who believe it to be the best system in the world. This reminds me of a moment when the casual brutality of many wealthy americans was exposed for me. Over twenty years ago i was attending a friend's wedding in Philadephia one piece of which was a pre-wedding reception at a wealthy family friend's estate (i'll never forget the tour of this fellow's garage in which he had a sizeable collection of vintage cars). At one point in the evening i was with another Canadian (a young woman struggling as a waitress in New York) and we were talking to our hostess. We had been talking about health care which my friend's friend lamented she lacked while in NY and that this was a huge stress. Our hostess blithely said, "but we have public health care in the United States as well." Me and my compatriot exchanged appropriately startled expressions before one of us asked, "how's that?" To which we were treated to this choice gem of "common sense": "we have the best public health care system in the world because anybody can buy whatever health insurance they want." We were, as you can probably guess, stunned into silence. And i remember wondering what kind of mental health care this billionaire should buy. (Would i be going too far to suggest that this is an example of what Hannah Arendt termed the banality of evil?)
I agree with you, Barry, that the Right has been more effective with their stories than the Left. Sociologist Francesca Polletta does an excellent job (less her neglect of Arendt's work on storytelling) of looking at this in her book It Was Like A Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. And cognitive psychologist George Lakoff has done some key thinking about how metaphors are deployed by various hegemonic interests including advising the Democratic Party and addressing the use of metaphor in electoral politics with Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (again, i think his work would be stronger for inclusion of Arendt).
Part of the problem is that the Right can make great headway with very simple manichaean stories - black/white, good/evil, skinny/fat, rich/poor and so on. The nature of more liberal thinking is to see and respect a more complex world. And when we try and relay some of this complexity we are often accused of being "intellectual" and "professorial" as we have seen used against Obama from time to time. And we saw this populist anti-intellectualism waged, here in Canada, against the former mayor of Toronto (a lawyer), and the failed Liberal candidate for Prime Minister in the last federal election here in Canada (a human rights scholar amongst other things).
I'm still not sure how we become better storytellers than the Right. The temptation is to play their game and tell simple (even simplistic) narratives. But i can't help but feel that this will bite us in the ass pretty fast.
my heart goes out to you guys!
Again, as a Pakistani, the ideas of "Dependable Public health care" are a wee bit foreign to me. But i must say, that the health care system with the EU, (i am currently in Finland) is truly remarkable, and the taxation system i nice as well...the more you have the more you pay. It benefits the average and struggling and the majority, and not quite the other way around. I am possibly not an authority on the matter, but this is simply what i see.
Nevertheless, stories cannot be taken lightly. They carry a huge amount of political power for the sheer reason of having the capacity to steer public mentality. And popular stories are simply stories, they need not have any connection what so ever with logic, science or ethics (unions are bad, seventy virgins in heaven, gays are the reason god hates america). Possibly one reason why i have seen them (stories) do more harm then good from where i come from. Nevertheless, that itself makes me realize the political nature of stories and hence their potential fo bringing about a change.
You concluded your post with
"I'm still not sure how we become better storytellers than the Right. The temptation is to play their game and tell simple (even simplistic) narratives. But i can't help but feel that this will bite us in the ass pretty fast."
I agree. Seems to me that the simplistic narratives are generally propoganda and the complex narratives are art. I did a blog piece on art and propaganda here
The simplistic narratives (i.e. propoganda) are probably appropriate when we are in the middle of a political struggle, i.e. a strike or trying to stop a war. Complex narratives (i.e. art) on the other hand, should help us to grow up. Art should encourage us to grapple with ideas and hopefully help us to discover who we are as individuals.
I'm not sure how fundamentally Judeo-Christian the appeal of violence is. Until recently, Jews have had a striking history of nonviolent survival, and Christians' faith revolves around a savoir who was executed without resisting. Everywhere you look in the world, violence is seen as efficacious and even cleansing — it just happens that Judeo-Christian societies have happened to be especially vicious in weilding it. I don't think we can blame the religions themselves, though we can raise questions about how the central stories of these traditions are retold and used for particular violent ends. And certainly the cult of violence in Holywood is beyond appalling.
Most of all, when we consider religious storytelling, I think the real question is often less of what the story is than how it is told, and what is highlighted in the telling. I learned this most of all from religion scholar Bruce Lincoln's book Theorizing Myth. One particularly striking example of this is how Gandhi himself understood the Bhagavad Gita, a rather gory text that is essentially one long argument in favor of fighting in a pointless war, as a basis for his philosophy of nonviolence.
I was really struck how, during the height of the Occupy movement (or maybe a bit after) this article we published at Waging Nonviolence about grassroots power among Swedes and Norwegians was wildly successful. It was really important, I think, for people to see an example in which nonviolent struggle over many years was effective in overpowering economic oppression.
Great example Nathan, never knew this history about Sweden and Norway
Thank you for this Barry I've done some thinking about meta-narratives or the big fat stories that underly how our global society is organized, but really have thought about it more in terms of just 2 of the big 3 - governance and economics. but in the 3rd of the big 3 - culture - I think this meta- narrative about violence is so key and I've never thought about it that way.
When I think about some of my favorite stories I am not proud to realize that they are stories that involve violence in some way or at least vengeance which I think is a sort of emotional violence: the Count of Monte Cristo, war stories of rebellion and triumph like those told in Glory, North and South, WWII documentaries; and action movies that involve violent confrontations like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Also I notice that some of my favorite TV shows are shows in which women are the lead characters and they are strong emprowered and "bad-ass" women - the "bas-ass" being as much defined by their skills in hand to hand combat and way with a Glock, as by their savvy in fighting crime and injustice.
But I've come to a point in my own change work where I deeply believe that nonviolence is the road we must challenge our movements to walk - what are examples of well-known tropes of nonviolent victory that we should collectly lift up and emulate, and how can we re-contextualize heroes of nonviolent change (MLK, Ghandi, Rosa Parks and others) so they are not "disneyfied" and disempowered? Also how can we avoid the blaming dichotomy of the dominant system that labels nonviolent leaders and movements as all good and leaders and movements that advocate militant tactics as all bad?
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and questions, Jen! I wanted to offer an idea in response to your questions:
how can we re-contextualize heroes of nonviolent change (MLK, Ghandi, Rosa Parks and others) so they are not "disneyfied" and disempowered? Also how can we avoid the blaming dichotomy of the dominant system that labels nonviolent leaders and movements as all good and leaders and movements that advocate militant tactics as all bad?
Another context to put nonviolent movements in is that of strategic effectiveness. Yes, as social change advocates we prefer nonviolence for many reasons based on our values and beliefs. But nonviolent action is also highly strategic. These nonviolent leaders were not just compassionate activists - they were efffective, strategic and tactical. They knew that a violent strategy would not work. And now there is research to prove the effectiveness of nonviolent action, thanks to Erica Chenoweth and others.
So this is another lens through which to contextualize nonviolent movements and their leaders. These leaders are super 'bad-ass' not because of their weapons but because they don't need them to win! What's cooler than that?
I look forward to hearing from others!
-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder
I'd like to think that "as social change advocates we prefer nonviolence for many reasons based on our values and beliefs" but my experience doesn't bear this out. Rather our valies and beliefs are far more muddled when it comes to preferences for violence or nonviolence. And, not surprisingly, there are two examples of such muddledness in this conversation: CSS's choice of naming two of their pueces of theory "battle of the story" and "story of the battle" and the use in the above comment of "super 'bad-ass'". Not that i don't use such terms all the time. My comments here are directed as much at myself as anyone else. For i was raised on superhero comics and Bruce Lee movies and within a family situation that left a lot to be desired when it came to violence/nonviolence issues (to leave much unsaid). And such an upbringing held me in good stead during the uears i stood alongside the Sandinistas during the Nicaraguan Revolution and the counterinsurgency war. I certainly have a long list of favourite bad-asses, Buffy, Mal and River (of Firefly/Serenity fame), Jackie Chan, Rick and Darryl of Walking Dead, Hiro Protagonist (of Snow Crash) et al.
The question we need to ask is, "how is it that our imaginations and desires ahve been trained to these metaphors (and the stories they imply)?" And how do we make something like non-violence a more appealing option that violence? For sure, violence has all the good metaphors. So, what happens when we adopt those metaphors to describe our work? Do we use them to make "nonviolence" more appealing? Do we reframe Gandhi as a "bad-ass"? Good for a laugh, perhaps and gimme an evening of kicking back brews and i'm down with that. What are the stories that give us different frames for such things. How about:
i love this tale and it guides me in mysterious ways. It is a trickster tale. And one that allows us to draw on a much wider set of metaphors and stories for our advocacy of other ways than those of violence. It reminds me of a compelling description of nonviolent resistance that Starhawk describes in her novel The Fifth Sacred Thing. In a post-apocalyptic landscape in which California has been split into an authoritarian-militarist state to the south and an anarchist-peaceful community in the north, the southern army invades and occupies the north. Many are killed, many are imprisoned. The anarchist northerners develop a strategy they call "haunting" in which the family members of the murdered approach a soldier and proceed to tell that soldier all about their lost loved one. Suffice to say, the technique works. Nor is this simply literary fantasy. For i have participated in nonviolent actions where those of us on the line with riot police would talk to them with humour and compassion about what we were doing and what they were doing. And after a while, many of us won a smile or a nod from the stony-faced cop (who was them summarily rotated away from the frontline to be replaced by a new sonty-faced cop with whom we would immediately start to talk). These are small tactics, tricky and beautiful. But they hold the seed of a new world.
One thing i'm dropping into this conversation is the theme of trickster stories which are a rich source of images, metaphors, tactics and strategies from which we can draw in addition to all the "bad ass battling" we need to do.
I very much like your post and I love your name!
One thing that gives me hope is that stories such as those you related are so powerful that they can be transformative. After a lifetime of being immersed in the John Wayne badass mythos, we find that somehow, miraculously one incident or one story transforms our understanding and our imagination and there is no going back. In a real sense we undergo a conversion experience.
This is not to invalidate your point about the muddledness of our values, we do not simply shed our attachments to Bruce Lee and John Wayne and instantly become a nonviolent saint. But we do become open to new possibilities and we do develop new values.
One trickster image I like is that of Jesus as badass revolutionary. The nonviolence Jesus extolled was a masterly assault on the perversions of the dominant culture of this time. There was nothing wimpy about it.
Thanks for a great post.
agreed - "trickster stories" is definitely something I'm going to take away from this conversation, and the story of the Japanese monk is already sticking with me in mysterious ways - amazing how equanimity and lack of fear can be so much more powerful than reactive violence, something to aspire to and guide our organizing our storytelling and the way we treat each other.
Indeed, JC as revolutionary is a powerful trickster image. (Add in the JC of the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Judas and you get an even more complicated picture of a trickster character.) And this reminds me of many images of the warrior at odds with violence and peace. I'm particularly fond of Japanese cinema (Kurosawa to be precise) and the images of samurai and ronin from his Seven Samurai. Yojimbo/Sanjuro and, my favourite, the doctor in Red Beard are images of tricksters who, arguably, depict an image of avoiding violence at all costs, using trickery whenever possible and, of course, kicking some serious ass when necessary. Rather than see these as advocating for violence i've always seen them as playful dialogues about the relationship of aggression to trickery to negotiation and so on. Add to these the famous series of Zatoichi-The Blind Swordsman, the comic book series Lone Wolf and Son and many others that tease my memory and you can see that this dialogue is ancient and, of course, still new. Again, the thing that strikes me about stories as a means of dialogue is that they contain contradictions and because of this they continue to teach us across the ages.
I also think that this is a very interesting topic/strategy for discussion.
I thinks stories and closely knitted structures i.e the art of naming, can be highly political.
I have personally seen ugly manifestations of race and ethnicity within the identification of the "Other" by a local context, when the "White Man" comes to help the poor "Brown Oppressed Folk". And hence, irrespective of what the Other has to say, it would always have a very limited power of interception within the phsyche of the localized context, which may fight the new intellectual idea after labeling it as foreign or yet another ploy by western world in their bid for cultural dictatorship. Which might be the case when one tends to fight for gay rights in middle east, or child marriages in South Asia. And part of the intellectual rebutall by the localized context may be in part the fact that these new notions of human rights, may not necessarily correspond with their current cultural/social/religious values. Infact they would not correspond with their stories, age old stories of messiahs, and gods or (God) and socio-cultural obligations towards the society. And hence, like drops of water in oil, these new concepts of gay rights or negation of child brides, never truly sinks in. It is at this point that localized contexts need to be looked into. Parts of history which had been previously ignored or put under wraps (for one reason or another), and perhaps attempt to gather evidence within their own socio-cultural narrative to find evidence to support these new ideas. It is perhaps only than, that such ideas would not seem foreign, and hence have a higher chance of acceptance by a local context.
Stories are very political. I think we have all seen them being used by State, Clergy, or self testified Messiahs, to control public sentiment...to their benefit! May it be a little red book, 2000 year old narratives of virgin births or the promise of 70 virgins waiting for some (extremely unfortunate ones) in heaven.
I do consider storytelling a very coniving weapon to impose one's will and make it appear as a democratic vote. Therefore, i see no harm in appropriating such a strategy to work it for our benefit, rather against it.
Great contribution, AhsanMasood. I think what is crucial is harnessing the power of storytelling is to plant seeds that shift the popular paradigms a bit. The visual effect is important. For example, instead of having a middle-aged white man reaching down to give food to young brown children, place them together at the same table. We have to be thoughtful about our portrayals of all people, considering how you would feel if you had that person's age/ethnic/religious/socioeconomic/etc identity before portrayng that person in a certain light.
Also crucial is framing the people we use in stories not on the spectrum of privilege-neediness, but on the spectrum of those benefitting from injustice and those trying to do justice. Our "call to action" that our stories should bring out should equip and inspire people to transform the social/political/economic/cultural status quo, rather than simply "helping out the less fortunate."
agreed! I like the suggestion of the benefitting from injustice vs. trying to do justice spectrum. I think CSS and other groups like the Center for Media Justice capture this by asking some form of "who benefits" and "who pays" when framing a problem in narrative exercises, but I also thikn we need to connect "who pays" to "who is working for justice" so there is not a victim portrayal but rather a portrayal of people transforming and inspiring others to transform the status quo as you say
Jen, you made me think of another thing. When possible and accurate, I think it is important to portray those who pay as those at the frontlines of transforming the system. Too often it is those who live in symbolic solidarity with the oppressed who become spokespeople for the oppressed....even when the oppressed are involved in strategic action.
SolidarityUganda, your comment brings to mind the Ruckus Society Action Framework: http://ruckus.org/section.php?id=128
"Frontline Communities are grassroots communities organized for action against the direct impacts of injustice or harm they experience. Frontline fights are led by the community and the solutions to the problems they face are driven by the community, as well. (IMPACT + ORGANIZING = FRONTLINE)"
agreed! A mentor of mine Makani Themba always says that communications for justice has to involve helping shift power relations through who speaks and leads in our stories - impacted people and people from frontline communities as Danielle shares lead our organizing efforts, they also lead in stories as not only bearers of their own experiences but ideally also as experts on the issue at hand.
We sometimes use the Drama Triangle as a tool to think about the implications of a framing strategy. Thinking about heroes, victims, and villains is a simple way to analyze the opposition narrative, and can help us look at "our story" with fresh eyes. Who is the victim in our story? How can we tell a story that moves them to the hero? Who is the hero? Who is the villain? Do we want them to remain a villain, or do we want to give them the opportunity to move into heroism through the campaign ask?
Note: my comments are based on the tools and resources generated by the Center for Story-based Strategy (CSS) over the past ten years of work with movement based social change-makers.
Story-based strategy is about changing stories in the dominant culture and therefore creating more political possibility for our movements.
However, as the previous comments begin to reveal, every issue has a web of existing stories and cultural assumptions that frame public understanding. Story-based strategy provides a process to understand the current story around an issue and identify opportunities to change the story with the right framing, messaging, messangers, and creative interventions.
So what is a narrative filter? CSS defines a narrative filter as the existing stories and assumptions people have about the world that screen out new information that doesn't fit with their existing mental frameworks.
We often use an assumptions spectrogram at our trainings to show the various underlying beliefs that even people in the same group have about an issue. We'll start with a simple statement, like "Chocolate is good for you." And ask participants to move their bodies from one end of the room to the other, depending on whether they AGREE or DISAGREE. Once of the interesting answers that pops up usually in the AGREE area is all of the scientific evidence that dark chocolate is healthy, so we uncover an assumption that chocolate is good for you if it is dark chocolate. You can imagine the range of responses.
Where this goes in the exercise is to begin uncovering the difference between TRUTH and MEANING. People working for social change already know the facts are on our side, but if the facts were all we needed to win, wouldn't we have won a long time ago?
Think about the big dipper. Is there really a giant ladle in the sky? No, of course not. Constellations are meaningful stories that get passed from generation to generation in order to make meaning of stars, and pre-GPS, to help people figure out which direction they are travelling.
It would be great to hear some stories about what folks have done when they have the facts on their side, in order to make those facts meaningful and cause the culture to move. What are the movement examples of confronting underlying assumptions, and changing the story about an issue?
There are so many rich examples of this in social change history!
Ahsan mentioned the political nature or stories.
President Ronald Reagan told stories very effectively. For instance, his story about "welfare queens" driving cadilacs and eating steaks although totally false is still very much with us. The phrase "corporate welfare" seems to be an example of trying to move the other direction (IMO a more factually correct direction).
My novel "Denmark Rising" is an attempt to confront and overcome the story that nonviolence could not have been used against Hitler.
In our 22 years of working with rural communities in West and East Africa, we have seen firsthand how communities can positively reshape their future when they learn meaningful and relevant information that impacts their wellbeing.
In many communities where we partner, the traditional practice of female genital cutting (FGC) is practiced. FGC is a social norm, making it difficult for an individual to decide to abandon the practice on their own, even if it means violating the law or endangering their health. Tostan’s approach to promoting the abandonment of the practice is grounded in nonformal education based on human rights. Through learning about the rights of all members of society as well as the health consequences of FGC in our holistic Community Empowerment Program (CEP), participants use this new information to consider how the practice relates to peace and wellbeing in their community. Many participants then agree that the practice does not increase the wellbeing of their community.
These individuals are further empowered in their decision to abandon the practice through social mobilization efforts which provide members of inter-connected social networks the chance to dialogue on the issue, eventually leading to public declarations, where many villages will stand together to simultaneously abandon the practice. While abandonment at public declarations is not 100 percent, they are critical in the process for total abandonment and necessary for building critical mass, eventually leading FGC to becoming a thing of the past.
To date, over 6,700 African communities who have participated in our program either directly or indirectly have declared abandonment of FGC as well as child/forced marriage. This is a direct result of them being empowered by meaningful information on health and human rights and turning it into action that is building a movement to support the wellbeing of all people.
This makes me think of the parallel distinction of INFORMATION vs. INFLUENCE and TACTICS vs. STRATEGY
Which leads me to a story of how I am using story-based strategy right now:
- For the past 6 months I've been working with the We Belong Together: Women for Common Sense Immigration Reform campaign. At each transition point in the campaign, the leadership team gets to together to plan the strategy for the next 3 months. Often there have already been a set of tactics in place that needed to be refined and adjusted given changing conditions.
When the Senate bill passed and the campaign shifted to focusing on the House, we started the communications strategy development by doing some internal storytelling that answered a few key questions: Imagine that it is October - what have we accomplished? How have we done it - what has changed about the campaign since June? who have been the key House leaders who helped us accomplish this? Who are the undocumented women leaders who have brought their stories directly to swing targets and how have they swayed them? What challenges have we overcome? How have we addressed the problem of wasteful border militarization in the Senate bill?
This sort of vision-based torytelling has helped us turn tactics into a larger strategy, surface and decide on key strategic questions as well as helping us generate an overall narrative framed not just for sharing information but for weilding influence - for the time period from which we can draw messages, talking points, develop infographics etc.
It is important to ground our message in what is factual. But it is our premise that presenting facts alone is not enough in the context of a media-saturated modern capitalist economy where "the other side" spends billions to sell their story. Sharing facts can be effective in other contexts, or where there are openings/political moments when a large swath of the population has been shocked into questioning long-standing assumptions. But generally speaking, we can assume that despite many years of facts being presented to members of the most affluent industrialized nations in the world, there is a constant gap between perception and reality--and democratic political change is very difficult to achieve without broad segments of the population having a solid grasp on reality. See Wealth Inequality in America as an example if you haven't already.
Our work at Design Action Collective is based on the premise that we do have the answers. We have long known the many pieces that would fit together to make a Better World possible. It's not a lack of information, data, models, research, theory or framework that keeps us from having those things. Take health care. It's clear that a Single Payer system works better, saves money, and, if polled on it's elements, is what people want. But try putting that to vote, and suddenly it's some sort of perscription for fascism. As of today we're in the middle of a government shutdown over a health care plan that is in fact a corporate giveaway and nothing near the efficient model that something like Single Payer could provide. But the real solutions remain multiple steps away from any practical political discourse.
So the "battle for hearts and minds" today is not a question of having the facts or the perfect perscription. It's about persuasion in the context of a media saturated society. The other side literally spends billions of dollars every year to push their agenda (if you include the overall annual budget for corporate advertising, which must by it's nature promote capitalist values). So it's no surprise that large swaths of the population are bought in, or at best confused.
The good news is, they have to spend that money because they are pushing a boulder uphill. They are peddling lies. The model they are promoting, doesn't work, and doesn't bring life, liberty and happiness to the human experience. Wheras our solutions do.
So we don't have to have their budgets, but we do have to engage in the battle. Hence the importance of using effective tools to connect with people. Story. Visual Communicatons. Persuasion.
There is an accepted narrative among some groups that torture is an effective tool for gathering information. What the Center for Victims of Torture has learned through years of treating torture survivors, though, is that it does not yield reliable information. In fact, torture survivors consistently report that they said anything to satisfy their interrogators, regardless of its accuracy, so that the torture would stop. This has been an important counter-narrative in advocating against the use of torture.
Do you have any tips or reflections about how you mobilized that counter narrative against such a vicious myth?
I wish I had a better answer to your question ... as a writer who is mostly involved with geographically dispersed virutal communities, mostly what I have done lately is write. An essay appeared in the sojourner's newsletter
and another in Counterpunch
And of course my novel "Denmark Rising" takes on the myth that nonviolence could not deal with Hitler.
The problem with all of this is that I am terrible at marketing so not very many people see this. There is one small country where Denmark Rising is being translated into the local languages and distributed for free to schools and libraries as part of the attempt to heal from a bloody civil war.
I really love the thinking going on in this conversation. I particularly appreciate AhsanMasood and Jen Soriano taking the dialogue in different directions. I think some of the complications of story come into how we are using it. When we instrumentalize story and storytelling we are specifically creating a narrow framework for a specific reason. I think when we use story for transformational development, the broader the experiences and ideas, the better. But, the context needs to be one of dialogue and human connection. To come up with a story to use as an advocacy tool is not the same as to extablish a space where people can share their experiences around a particular issue so that they can develop new thinking around that issue. The storytelling practice becomes more important than creating a single narrative for mass consumption/use. Some years ago I co-edited a book on storytelling for social justice. It is a collection of essays from around the world on how commuities are using storytelling and narrative processes to build community and make social justice claims. It also has a section on the limits and pitfalls of story, which give lots of food for thought.
My work has been not to figure out how a new tactic can be a silver bullet, but how can we use old/new creative means of bringing people together to realize their collective strength and goodness, so that they can take on whatever it is that they feel is important. I'd like to see more wide containers, for holding people in community while allowing them to develop a social justice consciousness, seeded throughout the world.
yes yes yes! thank you so much for this kayhanirani. this says so much better what I was planning to say which was:
stories are powerful because they're one of the main ways we establish connection, impart meaning, and share lessons with one another
but stories are complicated things and we shouldn't assume that there's just one way to "use" a story just as there isn't one way to "tell" a story -
there is a difference between story-based strategy (an approach), a strategic story (a tactic), narrative at is being used in the funding world today (a silver bullet), and storytelling (a process or a space as you said through which people can share and dialogue and create new thinking and I would add arrive at common understanding and generate common meaning - I think this process and space can also somewhat distinctly be thought of as the type of storytelling that has been characterisitc of many cultures as a process of community-building, norm creation and disruption, or just simply interpersonal bonding).
In terms of social justice it's this last type of storytelling that I'm most interested in working on with groups - the development of this space within established group process to tell stories together in an ongoing way to generate new visions, critiques, solutions, and overall increase alignment especially within coalitions and alliances.
I'm really eager to read your book! Will order a copy once I get my next paycheck ;-) I'm especially interested in reading the parts about the limits and pitfalls of story. Is there an example of this you could share?
Thanks Jen. One of the essays in the "Limits" section is about what happens when story becomes commodified. The author speaks about the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa and speaks about how NGOs and other groups mined communities for stories of apartheid and racism. So much so, that money was being offered to individuals to tell their story and expectations became established that one would tell a certain story for compensation. I think it's a good example of a strategy (truth and reconciliation) being co-opted or replicated by NGOs for unclear purposes which then removes any social change purpose from the story and storytelling and makes it a commodity and makes it inauthentic. The tellers were also aware of the type of story people were looking to hear and would craft them to reflect the listener's desire. It's really interesting. Another articile is about what people spoke about above, where a "negative" narrative gets set into place and is connected to identity so that one who comes from a place or belongs to a certain place is supposed to retain a certail story about their identity. Get the book from the library, you won't have to pay for it!