In this blog post, I want to broaden the focus from the exploration of stories in an organisational context, to consider their use in society as a whole. I will explore how people use stories to offer interpretations of current affairs that accord with their existing philosophy. I will point out that people sometimes use stories in that way explicitly and deliberately; and sometimes they do so implicitly and without realising that they are doing so. I also note that there are many points along the spectrum between those two approaches.
I raise the question: how can we construct a space for dialogue that enables a richer understanding, rather than the polarisation too often generated by our current approaches to public and political dialogue? I will also consider some of the difficulties that make addressing that issue so hard.
Finally, I offer my tentative first steps towards a solution to this problem.
The purpose of this post, as with the other digressions signposted in the book, is to prompt thought, and ideally debate, about a topic that I think is worthy of discussion. I do not expect every reader to agree with me in my arguments and conclusions; but I do hope that all will agree that this is an important area to discuss and think about.
This summer we had the Brexit vote. In the wake of it, I saw many stories being promoted about what the vote meant. Some were claiming it was all about the latent racism of the population; others that it was a deliberate kick in the direction of the whole political class, and so on.
All, of course, can provide evidence for their story: but what is striking, is how often we heard stories that struck me, at least, as simplistic.
There are at least two reasons for this.
One is the conscious and explicit one: people involved in politics and opinion-forming are keen to bolster their position: so they seek to claim the narrative. That is the art of the spin doctor, of course.
But at a deeper level, there is another reason, of which commentators may be unaware, and which is not deliberate. That is, the commentators not only interpret the evidence in accordance with their existing beliefs and political assumptions; they also notice evidence on that basis; and attend to it as significant on that basis. Thus to someone who is deeply sceptical regarding the EU, the very facts that strike him as important are different to those which a keen supporter of the EU will notice.
The sceptic may focus on the problems of borders, the CAP, the regular Strasbourg-Brussels removal process and so on. The Supporter thinks such details are trivial when one thinks of the EU’s stabilising effect on peace in Europe, the benefits of economic and political cooperation, and so on.
So, to a large extent, the way in which people understand Brexit, (or any other event) is pre-determined: it will further prove what they already believe about how the EU (or society as a whole) works.
In each case, therefore, a new event such as the Brexit referendum, fails to teach either side of this political division anything new. And that is tragic for at least two reasons. One is that if we do not learn from such events, we risk them happening again. The second is that a truer account almost certainly doesn’t fit either political ideology perfectly, will be vastly more complex and subtle, and may indeed contain all of the elements cited above, and more.
But how do we create a political and social space in which we can engage with those who think differently and learn from each other, to the enrichment of all?
One of the problems is that we tend to be so immersed in our own world view that we do not notice it. We do not realise that we are interpreting the world, not just observing it. And when somebody else arrives at a conclusion that is at odds with ours, we are often quick to assume that they are either mad or bad: and that makes dialogue and understanding even harder. Moreover, it is very easy to see how their understanding is influenced by their assumptions and beliefs. When we do not share those assumptions and beliefs, it is easy to dismiss them. Yet we are not always as quick to see that our own understanding is equally influenced by our own assumptions and beliefs. Naturally, we believe our beliefs to be true, so we are reluctant to relinquish them. The result is that we know we are right and therefore that they are wrong.
Consider something even more contentious than Brexit: abortion.
Pro-choice activists have a very strong narrative: legal, safe abortion is essential to allow women their autonomy, and thus equality with men, and to avoid the dangers of back-street abortions. That is so clear, and so self-evident to them, that when others take a different position, they attribute all sorts of negative motivations to them. Thus they portray the right-to-life campaigners as anti-women, religious bigots, and so on.
The same thing happens the other way around. The right-to-life campaigners believe that human life starts at conception, is of immeasurable value, and is particularly deserving of protection when it is vulnerable. This is so clear and self-evident to them, that when others take a different position, they attribute all sorts of negative motivations to them. Thus they portray pro-choice activists as child murderers and the abortion clinics as money-fuelled businesses only interested in generating more abortions and thus more cash.
And each side can, of course, provide evidence to support not just their positive, but also their negative story. The pro-choice activists can point to those anti-abortion campaigners who attack doctors or clinics, to prove how wicked and deranged the other side are. The pro-life campaigners can point to those clinics that damage or kill women, or kill live-born babies, to prove how wicked and deranged the other side are.
However, in both cases, those extremes are the tiny minority, and the majority on both sides of this impassioned debate are far more likely to be well-intentioned.
My question here is not ‘why can’t they find a common ground and a solution to which both sides commit?’ I recognise that the differences are very profound, and are probably insuperable, unless one side or the other has a complete change of philosophy.
No, my question is: ‘why does each side have to (or choose to) demonise the other, deny its good intentions, and impute bad ones?’ I think that an important question; and not just in this instance.
Our political discourse is likewise framed in this way. And in part, I understand that: Prime Ministers’ Question Time (and indeed BBC Question Time) would be far less exciting, at least in the short term, if a more sane and sober approach were adopted.
The demands of a strong story - the conflict, the hero, the enemy - are much more quickly and easily met by this knockabout approach. Newspapers have to be sold every day, TV channels have to entice people not to turn to another station, politicians have to be re-elected periodically (and seem to have to consult the opinion polls every day). All of these drive quick, easy, and often over-simplified stories: not lest because so many are framed in a binary context: this party or that; this policy is good or bad, etc.
Moreover, when politicians (in particular) do try to create a more significant narrative, we are suspicious. We all remember how flawed they so often are in fact: John Major preaching a return to good old values (‘back to basics’) was busy having an extra-marital affair; scores of MPs who crusade on issues of poverty were milking the public purse through dodgy expense claims, and so on.
More than that: often a simple story is politically valuable. It rallies people to a cause very effectively. But it carries all the risks of the demagogue, and it impoverishes the collective political wisdom.
As I said earlier, the question that haunts me is: How do we create a political and social space in which we can engage with those who think differently and learn from each other, to the enrichment of all?
I don’t know the solution to this, but am sure it is something we need to address as a society, if we are to move beyond sound-bite politics and, eventually, sound-bite thinking.
My intuition is that a better understanding of the ways in which narratives are used and abused in framing our discourse will certainly help. As more people become aware of how narratives shape both our thinking and our discourse, there is the chance that more people will be able to engage with ideas and with each other in fresh ways.
We can apply our three stage narrative model to this problem as to any other. So we start with considering how to Loosen the Grip. For ourselves, learning the simple (but difficult) discipline of noticing one’s own interpretive filters is a good first step. A second step is a readiness to suspend such interpretations in dialogue with other people, to be more open to their perceptions. With regard to helping others, the usual skills apply: listening to their story without challenging it, exploring the notion of story, helping them to open up a distance between themselves and the story, so that they can look on it as a story and so on, as explored throughout the book.
The interesting challenge here is being prepared to loosen the grip we (and others) have on preferred stories, rather than on problematic ones. If one is a social conservative (for example) it may prove quite hard to suspend all those judgements and listen to the explanations of a social liberal with a view to understanding what wisdom there may be in them (rather than simply refuting them). And the reverse is also true: the social liberal may find it hard to see the wisdom in the views of a social conservative, because they will challenge so many beliefs and assumptions that are held to be true.
If the first stage in this journey towards a richer discourse is Loosening the Grip, the next is the Search for More Helpful Stories. Given that I am suggesting we need to let go of our (historically) preferred stories in order to move forward in our understanding, where are we to find such new helpful stories? In one sense, this should be easy: at least some of the counter-evidence has already been marshalled by those who take an opposing view. The challenge then becomes to search for narratives which take all of that evidence into account.
If we consider the example of abortion, we are unlikely to find a narrative that results in agreement between those on the two sides of the debate. However, one could envisage a joint narrative that acknowledged the serious and honest concerns of all parties; and possibly even a joint resolution to search for ways forward that would meet all such concerns (though that is harder to envisage).
Should one arrive at such a joint narrative, the third stage would be to Thicken the Plot. That implies both sides taking the trouble to do things that supported the new joint understanding, and also avoiding those actions which undermine it (such as demonising opponents, and generalising from one or two extremists about the whole body of those who disagree with one).
Such an approach might not resolve the underlying dilemma; but at the very least it might detoxify it, and in the process teach all involved some valuable lessons about how their very human concerns could lead them to be more humane to those who disagree with them, rather than hostile towards them.
These are my initial thoughts on how one might use the insights from a narrative approach to engage with controversial societal and political problems in some new ways. And as noted above, my intuition is that a better, widely shared, understanding of narrative and how it is used deliberately, as well as its unseen influence, is important .
But how that is to be achieved at a popular level is something that needs further thought.