Re:Imagining Change – storytelling & movement building

Re:Imagining ChangeRe:Imagining Change is a very useful little book — both for activists looking to reframe the issues they are fighting and energize people around their cause, but also I think for critical theorists thinking about praxis. Authors Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning write:

Re:Imagining Change is an introduction to the ideas and methods of the smartMeme Strategy and Training Project. We founded smartMeme to innovate social change strategies in response to the movement-building and messaging demands of the globalized information age. We are motivated by the social and ecological crises facing our planet and by a belief that fundamental change is not only possibly, but necessary. (11)

On the one hand it is written simply and is full of charts and questions to really help people on the ground work to create and tell a powerful story about their struggle (and I like that for the authors this is clearly just one component of movement building, and they ask that a politics and ethics of justice and accountability  be intrinsic to this approach). They write ‘smartMeme uses storytelling to integrate traditional organizing methods with messaging, framing, and cultural interventions’. (12)

On the other, it is also contains some big thinking about discourse, narrative and hegemony. Thinking and theory that has been boiled down into the bare essentials through multiple workshops with a range of organisations around a range of issues. This is what activists working on the ground have found most useful in this theory — a good way to direct theoretical forces but also ask some questions about where those in practice may be missing something important.

It is in five sections:

Section I – overview of story-based strategy campaign model

Section II – theoretical framework of narrative power analysis

Section III – battle of the story method

Section IV – points of intervention

Section V – case studies

For me, and probably this is because of all I have been grappling with and my fascination with Gramsci, there was a long section that I found summarised much of what I have been thinking in a rather satisfying way (and while I have read a lot of Gramsci, I have not read much at all about narrative power analyses or story based strategies, though I have sat through a few press and spin trainings):

Many of our current social and ecological problems have their roots in the silent consensus of assumptions that shape the dominant culture…

To make real and lasting change…these stories must change.

A narrative power analysis recognizes that humans understand the world and our role in it through stories, and thus all power relations have a narrative dimension. Likewise, many stories are imbued with power. This could be the power to explain and justify the status quo or the power to make change imaginable and urgent.

A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? What new stories can we tell to more accurately describe the world we see? And, perhaps more urgently, what are the stories that can help create the world we desire?

Narrative power analysis starts with the recognition that the currency of story is not necessarily truth, but rather meaning. In other words, we often believe in a story not necessarily because it is factually true; we accept a story as true because it connects with our values, or is relevant to our experiences in a way that is compelling.

The role of narrative in rendering meaning in our minds is what makes story a powerful force. These power dynamics operate both in terms of our individual identities — whether or not you get to determine your own story — and on the larger cultural level: Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our world? (20-21)

Who is heroic? Who is the villain? The answers show ‘the narrative dimensions of the physical relationships of power and privilege…’  (21)

A nice, simple view of Gramsci:

Hegemony operate in cultural stories that over time gain widespread acceptances and reinforce a dominant perspective or worldview. These webs of narratives are control mythologies, which shape a shared sense of political reality, normalize the status quo, and obscure alternative options or visions (22-24)

Referring to these stories as “mythologies” is not about whether they are true or false — again, it is about how much meaning they carry in the culture. (24)

And what this book is all about — changing people’s minds

A narrative power analysis suggests that the problem is not necessarily what people don’t know (the facts). Rather, the problem may be what they did know (underlying assumptions).

In other words, people have existing stories about their world that may act as narrative filters to prevent them from hearing social change messages. (28)

I think this is very true, and I also think it shows one potential limitation of this approach — it is in many ways about asking important questions while crafting stories, but those stories are still mostly for consumption. And I worry that there is not enough on how we know we are overcoming our own filters and our own stories.

Growing up poor, working alongside communities of colour and communities who don’t speak English, I have encountered (and continue to encounter) a large number of well-meaning individuals somehow unable to see any member of these groups as equal to them in experience or intelligence, who have believed they had all the answers if only people would listen. They liked to tell stories, to try and educate, to try and convince us that our narrative filters were wrong — when actually there was nothing wrong with our narrative filters. They just didn’t understand our realities.

This kind of approach used without a very deep integrity and commitment to critical dialogue and self-reflection could potentially lend itself to the same patronising mythmaking it is trying to fight. It needs to use both the process of creating stories, and the stories we create, to challenge and educate people to interrogate all such myths and memes for themselves and in themselves. So for example, when they write:

Audiences naturally look for characters we can identify with. Which characters do we sympathize with or relate to? (53)

They don’t interrogate the reality that in the US it is fairly well-known that many white people only relate to white people — and of their (self-identified) class or above. Hollywood holds this as axiomatic, immigrants know it, poor people know it, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign and the ongoing violence with impunity against Black bodies has shown again and again how true it is — how then do you frame your stories? How do you choose your audiences? How do you ensure sympathy? Who do they mean when they say ‘we’?

This small sentence alone raises immense issues and complexities in an American context, because the character that may evoke the most sympathy from the broadest swathe of American society — and that’s a group needing some targeting — may not at all be the character that should be used, and may in fact prop up the oppressive and all-pervasive racism that exists even though it might be trying to do the opposite in some well-meaning way.

Of course, this analysis would have made this a much longer book.

I think ultimately the point has to be to enable people to resist and deconstruct the power of myths and memes, and to collectively and as broadly as possible build up new and empowering stories. I think this book starts asking many of the right questions, starts thinking about some of the tools to do this. I also think these narrative tools are tools that can be used to move our causes forward and to build movement, and we ignore them at our peril. But I worry about using them too easily.

I kind of like this definition for example:

At smartMeme we think of a meme as a capsule for a story to spread. (34)

I like how they outline the craft of telling stories, and their elements: Conflict; Characters; Imagery (Show Don’t Tell); Foreshadowing; Assumptions.

This helps think about how to shift the frame, how we start to have the conversations we need to be having about issues of environmental collapse, and social and racial justice. I think perhaps I just wanted a little stronger dose of caution, of Paolo Freire and some of the brilliant work coming out around race and class, of critique and questioning incorporated into story telling and the complexities of that in the world we face today.

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