It’s fashionable these days to summon the concept of narrative for effecting change, whether it’s to evoke brand loyalty, to create demand for some product or, on a rather more substantive scale, to persuade humans to live more peaceably on the planet. I’d personally prefer to see its mysterious power deployed in pursuit of a lot more of the latter and a lot less of the former two — if this power actually exists.
The proliferation of calls for “a new story for humanity” that appear on my news feeds suggests a significant number of environmental and peace activists are convinced it does. Are they onto something?
From my amateur investigations I’m inclined to agree that they are. But I believe the concept needs rather more considered application.
The primary supporting evidence for the power of story is that we appear to be neurologically wired for it. Stories are the shape we give to information in order to make sense of it: they put it into context; they establish likely effects; they associate these with emotional responses that assign value; and they help us to to remember the knowledge gained for future use. Plenty of scientific studies and anecdotal reports substantiate this process, so I shall assume that we do indeed make sense of the world by means of stories; that they bring purpose, direction and consequence to otherwise meaningless lists of occurrences (aka our lives).
But what is a story? The most literal definition is that is it something that happened, once.
When we hear someone say the “story of money isn’t working,” however, story clearly means something else: usually a model, a process, or a series of causal links, which we expect to be consistently reproducible. Such patterns are therefore not stories in the usual sense of the word but the two interpretations do have an important link: the perceived validity of an overarching model of how things work is maintained by the hearing and sharing of stories that support it. As a crude example, rags-to-riches tales with happy-ever-after endings are among the upholding stories for the ‘more-money-brings-more-well-being’ premise.
Likewise, models (economic, scientific, political or anything else) are exposed as broken or invalid when enough of the real-world stories of our lives start veering off in directions that don’t support them — for example (again crudely), growing numbers of people winning the lottery yet ending up more unhappy and unhealthy than they were before.
The state-sanctioned over-story
How we come across those stories, and thereby get to test the legitimacy of the structures and rules on which society is built, is critically important. Anecdotes from friends and family provide compelling evidence, but if they are outweighed by counterbalancing stories from elsewhere, they may not shift our assumptions about the over-arching models. Mass media, those primary purveyors of stories, are more powerful channels. Not only do they deliver news with the voice of so-called authority, but in transmitting their stories to millions they also create a sense of shared, communal knowledge, leading to an unspoken consensus about “how things work” that is hard to shake.
Herein, as we know, lies the power of the media, and the reason it is such a key cornerstone of the cultural hegemony that binds us. In telling stories that reinforce established models and systems, the corporate media block the awareness needed for large numbers of people to challenge these systems — a well-documented phenomenon researched and explained by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their book “Manufacturing Consent” and revealed as the mechanism at work behind corporate and government propaganda by invaluable media watchdogs such as Media Lens in the UK.
And so it is that the majority of people go along unquestioningly with brutal, immoral, risk-laden national and corporate programmes of war, profiteering, pollution, oppression, division, torture, theft, ecocide and imperialism, thanks in large part to the complicity of those media outlets that tell stories offering the requisite justifications.
Media storytelling doesn’t just provide justification and cover for institutional wrong-doings, however. It also delivers to our naïve and story-hungry brains a broader set of erroneous assumptions, to do with where we are heading, as a society and a species.
All those little snippets of broadcast news, those click-bait headlines and carefully-crafted analysis pieces, between them manage to subliminally convey not only that we are the “good guys” delivering democracy and enhanced quality of life around an otherwise culturally bereft and impoverished globe while defending ourselves from insidious forces from some mysterious beyond, but that together we’re on a human journey of improvement and progress, fuelled by technology and international finance, supported (despite a few inconvenient roadblocks) by an endlessly accommodating biosphere and guided by people who know what they’re doing.
Upend the agenda?
That something as seemingly ephemeral as storytelling can conjure such a mendacious mass mirage is surely testament enough to the power of narrative. The question begging to be answered is how we can tap into those techniques, internalised and deployed so conscientiously and dangerously by the servants of the corporate media, so as to upend the agenda, and put narrative structure to work on behalf of a fairer, kinder, more equal, more peaceful, more diverse, more transparent, more loving and more ecologically viable human society.
First, a brief diversion into nuts and bolts.
The thing we call a media story is a strange entity. In structure it is reassuringly familiar, yet still a long way from the typical story mould. For example, media stories rarely if ever start at the beginning. They contain neither suspense nor scene setting. There is little by way of characterisation. In fact, the rule in the news room is that you start with the ending. How very perverse! Surely this destroys the power of storytelling? Far from it.
Although this structure was designed simply to deliver the most important facts first, the end result has a dark allure all of its own. Remember those lateral thinking puzzles that were the rage in the 90s? “Fred is dead on floor surrounded by a pool of water and broken glass: how did it happen?” These puzzles are so engrossing not just because they test our logic abilities but also because there are few things as tantalising as missing information. (As it happens, many of these puzzles also challenge deeply-held assumptions; such as that Fred should be human.)
Media news stories are rather like those puzzles. Just as a fleeting snapshot of a future scene will keep us glued to a film, the unanswered question presented by the minimalist summary of events lights up our narrative neural networks. Our minds scramble quietly to back-fill the story. We crave answers so strongly that we will create them from our own circuitry if we don’t get them elsewhere. It doesn’t take more than a few carelessly — or carefully — dropped clues to send us off on a wild goose chase of misguided conjecture.
Here’s the ending, says the news reporter, and please don’t pay any attention to the way I’ve used phrases that encourage establishment-friendly assumptions about what occurred to get there. Don’t expect any context either. We’re in far too much of a rush for that. And certainly don’t ask how this makes anyone feel; as you know, feelings and facts are mutually exclusive.
Given the form of the media story, it’s clear how critically important is the choice of its opening words. Terrorist, freedom fighter, casualty, insurgent, fought bravely, capitulated. Primitive. They steer our inner story-maker down pre-set paths whether appropriate to the situation or not. The words that are left out matter too. Massacre, murder, children, limbs. Innocent, agony, grief. Love. Beauty.
The reporter, if they’ve even noticed what they do for a living, can be confident of getting us to back-fill what happened in a way that supports the approved over-story without so much as a fib. Similar techniques are used for longer articles, comment pieces and interviews, as increasing numbers of us are spotting. So much, so Orwellian.
Slightly more nuanced is the way in which these stories also convey a sense of the desired direction of society’s evolution.
Sometimes this shines out clearly, such as in the approving tones for reports of higher economic growth rates or vast investments into industrial “development”, in the consistent and cynical character assassination of socialist candidates for political leadership, or in the dismissals of anti-war demos as “extreme” (extreme peace, anyone?). Sometimes it’s more subtle, disguised as balance but with an incomplete or statistically invalid weighting of the evidence, such as for issues like road-building, fracking or new biotechnologies. Or it can be so disguised that it needs expert analysis to spot it, such as when describing climate change as a technical problem to be solved using the metric of targets, as explained by Chris Shaw of Climate Outreach.
However faint, it is always there: embedded hints of the state-sanctioned direction of travel, small vectors of assumed momentum, which together combine to convey the official narrative arc of society. Sometimes it’s conveyed by omission: the things that don’t even get a mention. Where are the stories about low-energy living, or post-capitalist communities, or de-growth research? About the women-led army resisting ISIS in Rojava? Why are permaculture methods of building soil fertility not hailed as game-changing breakthroughs? Why is the cataclysmic collapse of the planet’s climatic stability not front-page news every day, accompanied by aggressive challenges to government ministers about why they’re not addressing it, ever?
Well, we know the answers to these questions, and perhaps I am eccentric in spending my time fantasising about how news would look if we didn’t have to ask them. But hey, that’s how I relax.
Components of a new narrative
As it happened, my fantasies took me on a journey, involving (among other things) the investigation of something nearly as trendy as narrative: frame analysis. From this I learned to distinguish, with the help of the work of George Lakoff, Arran Stibbe, Laurence and Alison Matthews, Johan Galtung and others, the difference between my Agenda 1s (what they want you to think about) and Agenda 2s (how they want you to think about it); the way in which nominalising conveys fixity and abstractions dilute accountability; and other linguistic delectations that would satisfy the tastes of the world’s most nerdy word nerds.
I learned that within frames lies silent violence. And that it needn’t be so. It is entirely possible to use words, phrases, emphases and story selections which create a news experience that celebrates life and our part within it, that unpicks the human supremacy inherent in our purviews, and that sows in our minds and hearts the seeds of a different over-story.
In my ideal world, these differently chosen words and frames would conjure a narrative that acknowledges how the collective actions of our destructive culture have brought us to a terrifying, existential precipice and are, each minute, causing great suffering and death to humans and non-humans worldwide. It would not shy away from the enormity of the task required for us to nudge back from the edge and change our ways, nor from the shadow side of our cultural psyche that took us there. But it would promote and celebrate the valiant efforts to stabilise and regenerate, to rebuild connections between human and non-human communities, to flatten hierarchies and inequalities and to build peace within and between different human communities.
It would give us a story of humanity’s travails that chimes with our seen and felt experiences. Its reporting would make clear which efforts are bringing us in line with the story of a living future, and which are obliterating the prospects.
To do this it would introduce news stories frankly, without subverting the identities of aggressors and peacemakers, and without fudging their motives.
Its reporters would be aware of where assumptions can hide, in sentences, phrases, terms, naming and not-naming, explaining or not-explaining. It would not leave recipients confused unless the news gatherers were also confused, in which case they would say so. It would not shy away from feelings, whether of joy, horror, grief or love. It would provide context, as fairly as possible. It would aim to re-educate, re-frame and re-story. And, in re-storying, to restore.
It’s pretty late in the day for cultural neuro-linguistic programming, but since language is by nature viral, since stories are so compelling, and since that opening line of a news piece holds such enormous potential, this may be one of the more useful tools in the transformation box. The required reset in researching, interpreting and reporting approaches is itself no small task though. Many of our linguistic predilections arise out of habits. Correcting them (to begin with) might need the help of a verbal strait-jacket: a set of principles and guidelines, born out of framing analysis, and designed to invert the values of violence and replace them with a protocol for peace.
A sort of pattern language for language.
So, I made a start on one. It’s not polished, but it is freely available (as a Word document) for anyone who would like to play around with it or add to it (a credit or link back would be appreciated if so).
I also had a go at writing some news, in line with the guidelines. I built a site (I’ll be honest: this has been two years coming), and was delighted to be awarded some grant funding from The Rules to take part in their Seeing Wetiko campaign, which gave me the kick-start to put in the donkey work.
The end result, an early-stage, experimental news site, is called ReStory. It contains, thus far, just a few current stories, which don’t yet quite meet my own expectations (I admit, it was a lot harder than I’d anticipated) — but subsequent stories, when I find the time, will be deeper and narrower. After that perhaps they will evolve again. It’s a work in progress.
And I have no idea where it will go. Ideally, of course, global — and wipe the floor with Murdoch. Okay: unlikely. (Unless I can find someone with a few million to invest.) In the meantime, I’ll plug away at it for a while and see what happens. Either way, I’m happy that ReStory and its framing guide are now in the world, and if nothing else might provide reference points for the burgeoning new media projects setting out (thank goodness) to tell stories for good.
This is not just about the media though, powerful as they are.
It falls to us all to be more mindful of the language we use and the stories we tell, especially educators, policy-makers, authors, song-smiths, parents and performers. Stories can indeed change the world — and if they are used carefully, wisely, and with love, they can change it for the better. That, though, will require us all to move from the language of dominion to a language of belonging.