In this series for Emerge, Indra will be exploring what is emerging in politics at this crucial moment in human history. This is part seven. Read parts one, two, three, four, five and six.
They looked at each other with a deep frustration bordering on loathing. “How could he not see that it’s just not that easy?” she fumed. “People can’t just pull their socks up and do better”. But how could she not see that everyone is free to do what they want, he remonstrated: “They just don’t want it enough”.
She’d revisited that awful moment a million times – with friends, Mum and now a psychotherapist. What good would it do to keep going back there? If anything it was making things worse. What happened to the girl they used to look up to and admire, she wondered? She’s gone.
We need a new story. How many times have you heard that recently?
In his recently published book Out of the Wreckage
, George Monbiot dedicates the whole of the first chapter to illustrating how the story of our inherent competitive natures sabotages our ability to find effective solutions for the problems we face. And then he replaces it, using as much evidence as he can, with a story that says we are, in fact, inherently collaborative.
Yet for all George’s persuasiveness, it is actually not that easy to replace one story with another. People working in communities, care professions, or any large organisation where quick methods of cooperation are relied upon (such as an army) would say: we already know that people can work together when necessary. On the other hand, it is very common to hear in the history of the cooperative movement, that people are just as likely to be difficult – for reasons of ego, cultural differences or economic barriers – as they are easy to get along with.
As described in Part 6
, what might hit home as a description of our common reality differs according to your experience of agency. Systems thinkers are less affected by the call to ‘take back control’ than those working in mechanical or routinised jobs. Equally, as described in Part 4
, our different emotional needs make us vulnerable to stories that trigger pain or excitement.
Our need for security, for example – most essential to our being - has become the whole business model for our mainstream news. The more fearful we are, the more dependent we become on the up-to-the-minute details of events.
Crude, evocative headlines keep us in thrall. They tell a meta-story: that we are mostly helpless in the face of the unreasonable people ‘out there’. At the same time, our need for status is constantly exercised by the social media model that offers ‘likes’ and ‘friends’, as measures of how well we are regarded in our community. When we have more balanced lives, able to get our own emotional needs met using our inherent resources, we care less about occupying this persistent echo chamber.
Yet none of us are immune from the power of these tales. The deeper reasons are as much physiological as psychological.
Every one of us is telling an over-arching individual story, based on our past experiences of what counts as conducive to thriving.
Over a lifetime as a storyteller, psychotherapist Pat Williams (now 90) has always paid attention to the micro-stories we are telling ourselves every minute of the day. She explains that information is captured and transmitted neurologically in our brains. Not as straight lines delivering data in 0s and 1s from one part of the body to another. But as patterns of emotions that prompt our body to find the right conditions in which those patterns match.
For example, the body’s need for privacy, in order to repair and maintain equilibrium, sends out the neurological pattern – the feeling - which is matched when we find privacy. This constant pattern-matching way of moving around our environment is what constitutes well-being. We have a small story to tell about everything we perceive. If you doubt that, just stop in the middle of any conversation you are having, or thought you are entertaining and check. That moment is made up of a series of small truisms that you jump between, using them to architect your well-being.
Every one of us is telling an over-arching individual story, based on our past experiences of what counts as conducive to thriving, and what to avoid. This can be straightforward: for example, some people feel happy in crowded rooms, others constrained. Other stories are more subtle, carried as rich metaphors in our minds; they explain our internal workings back to ourselves as we pattern-match with our environment. Our dreams are a good place to catch ourselves operating in this way. They throw up often obscure stories that, on examination, are telling us how we feel about the events of the day before. Helping us to see how we could reframe experiences post-hoc, and help us achieve equilibrium.
But often these patterns of feelings are hard to decipher. They are complex packages, made up of multiple layers of emotional responses that cannot instantly be read for their meaning. Phobias and traumas are the extreme manifestation of these packages, leaving us quite unable to pattern-match in our environment. What is often quite an innocuous event – for arachnophobes, the appearance of a small spider – can trigger extreme fear. The story in their heads is: ‘spiders are life threatening’.
The origin of arachnophobia is a common human story that has been traced back to prehistoric times, when spiders were in fact life threatening. But whether the story is now part of our DNA, or just a hangover from a bad childhood experience, is hard to tell without paying deep attention to the individual.
While much of our story-life is unique to each of us, there are wider patterns of common stories that bind us together in tribes. They appear in our environment as myths – deeply held explanations of what we believe to be true. Some myths are held together by fantasies, for example, the ‘myth’ of our hidden potential in the story of Superman. Or the myth of American exceptionalism, mediated through the American Dream. But others are less exotic and have a mundane grip on our daily lives.
What began as a story of the divine right of Kings, has been held strong through the centuries to keep everyone else in their place.
For example, material inequality is made rational by narratives of power – the system of stories that allow a small amount of people to dominate the rest. Some would object fiercely to that notion – on the grounds that it seems to trivialise the complexity of inequality. But the same people might well agree that inequality is culturally constructed, measured by the prevailing economics and confirmed by our belief about where power arises from.
Of course, over time, that belief system has been institutionalised. Those ‘born to rule’ or ‘have more merit’ network constantly, commanding the seats of power in law, politics and even the military. They defend their cultural assets and send their children to the schools where the stories which underpin their self-belief are reinforced. What began as a story of the divine right of Kings, has been held strong through the centuries to keep everyone else in their place in a hierarchy stretching down to the most underprivileged.
When Occupy reframed this economic reality as the dominance of the 1% over the 99% they undermined the story of meritocracy by revealing the gross unfairness. However they also revealed its absurdity – like the spectacle of a grown man afraid of an insect. That hugely accelerated a new story about people power. A new rationality wherein the sheer numbers of the oppressed are bound to overcome the elites.
This ability of story and narrative to change reality was originally described by Joseph Nye as soft power. While hard power is force – guns and money – soft power is the ability to influence behaviour through narrative. Hollywood in this sense, is the US’s greatest asset: keeping the whole world entranced with the American Dream – the land where anyone can become President. But these are not tales of equality: on closer inspection, only those of exceptional character or talent are depicted as thriving: the rest are losers. But as with any addiction, the possibility of being lucky, has us hooked. As long as people want to be part of that story, the US will continue to dominate the globe.
Yet it’s no longer just huge countries that can generate soft power: since the advent of the internet, it’s equally (if not more so) the province of what Nye calls non-state actors. Any teenager with a computer can tell a story that can change the public space if it goes viral. In fact you don’t even need your own computer, as Greta Thunberg has recently demonstrated. Sitting outside the Swedish parliament with a placard announcing a School Strike created enough of a spectacle, shared on social media to cause 7.5 million people to come out in sympathy. Which in turn has triggered a significant shift in action amongst governments around the world.
That story did not succeed in a vacuum. It is currently succeeding where previous attempts to mobilise people around climate action failed. And this is not because of its singular quality as a story but because of a complex set of conditions that made it more likely to be heard. No doubt someone is writing that book now, but it’s likely those conditions include the publication of the IPPC report and the decades of slowly-building climate grief, arising from the insistent provocations of Green activism. Add to that the spectacle of Greta’s vulnerability and courage in the face of established authority. And the clarity of her integrity (enabled through her Asperger’s syndrome) when most of us have been living with compromise —and you have world-changing possibility.
So the next time you hear the call for a new story, it is more likely to be a challenge for our deep listening to people’s needs and desires.
However, soft power – a name we could give for these strategies of persuasive story-telling - is a neutral phenomenon, neither good nor bad. Over the past ten years we have seen effective public narration from every corner of the political spectrum. From Isis, who changed foreign policy agendas across the globe with one horrific video. To the picture of the queue outside Northern Rock ATM which acted as a major trigger for the global economic melt-down in 2008.
None of these stories are random – their success depends upon their ability to trigger deeper stories already existing in the public sphere, which in turn depend upon enough of their truth resonating within individuals on the receiving end.
So the next time you hear the call for a new story, and it sounds like a simple, creative task—be wary. It is more likely to be a challenge for our deep listening to people’s needs and desires. Our sensitivity to prevailing as well as traditional myths. And an ability to intuit what people are yearning for that has not yet been tried.
Illustration for Emerge by Christopher Burrows.