Controlling the Narrative

As a reminder, the blog is, for me, a primary ‘sense making’ space, and first space of reflection: what that means in practice is that it’s a space of uncertainty and the development of new ideas and the vocabulary that we host them within. With that in mind, today i am exploring the dynamic relationship between narrative, space, and action, and how each may be shaped, owned, or controlled.

So in the spirit of reflection, let me start with this: our views of how the world works are held within Dominant Narratives. An example would be a coffee shop (we understand that you go there for a hot drink, that you order, that you ‘sit in’ or ‘take away’, and that at some point you need to pay for the drink), or a disciplinary meeting (we understand that someone who holds power is reprimanding us for somehow transgressing a boundary of power, and that we may mount a defence, but there is a possibility to be punished).

Another example would be the phrase ‘housewife’, which may conjure up an image of a woman who does not go ‘out’ to work, but looks after a family or home. It’s possible that the last example almost triggered you to action: if i had said ‘does not work’ we may have found ourselves challenging that statement. Because the Dominant Narrative of women in the workplace, and in domestic settings, is evolving. Conversations about gender parity, equality, equity, fairness, power and control are all very much of the moment.

All of this tells us two key things about Dominant Narratives: [1] they are only ‘dominant’ for as long as a majority of people believe them to be and [2] they do change over time. But not always easily.

Dominant narratives do not simply relate to behaviours and places: my previous examples include beliefs and power too. In general, the context of the Social Age challenges many of these narratives too: for example, you may go to a disciplinary meeting, but you can Tweet about it, or even covertly live stream it, or you can attend but then crowd fund a defence against outcomes, and so on.

All of this is really to explore the ways that narrative shapes how we think (the role of women in the home), behave, and act, and the places that we do so.

We use a language of ‘controlling the narrative’, and in the case of Dominant Narratives it may appear that the narrative controls us. In a very real sense, whilst narratives are not ‘real’ in a quantifiable physical sense, they nevertheless act upon us in real ways – or to put it another way, although beliefs are just stories, we change our behaviour as a result of those stories.

Let me use some slightly more extreme examples: there may be men who believe (at the pub, with friends, after a few drinks) that women should, indeed, stay at home. But they may not hold a long conversation with their mother or sister to say the same. Behaviour may tend to be moderated, or impacted, by context, and specifically the types of consequence held within different contexts. Similarly, space itself may provide a context: people act differently in an office, a court room, and their bedroom.

So narratives may be held contextually, either consciously or subconsciously. Some people believe that they know how other people should be treated, but do not wish for that treatment for themselves or their family, so they direct the narrative outside of their tribal structure: so refugees should not be a ‘drain’ on the state, even if they, or their family, themselves claim benefits.

Narratives may control, or provoke, behaviour: a woman being told by the state that she can be paid less than a man for the same job may rightfully (and righteously) organise a protest or a strike.

In parallel though, that woman may feel that she belongs to a global movement, or national body, that is fighting for equal rights, and draw strength, resource, and comfort (or indeed anger and support) from that entity.

All these things relate to narratives: ‘dominant’ ones, emerging ones, individuals ones, and collective ones.

Let me return to the question of narratives, spaces, and action. Clearly there is a relationship, but what is it. Can someone truly ‘control’ a narrative, and if so, what exactly do they control?

There is debate at the moment as to who, precisely, is controlling the narrative in the war in Ukraine: is it President Putin, throwing systems off balance through ambiguity, hyperbole, threat, and violence, or is it President Zelensky, with a narrative of the underdog, courage, moral superiority, humility, and trust?

This is a matter of great importance, if narratives act upon us: for example, the reluctance of NATO to supply planes to Ukraine is partly in response to the narrative from Moscow that there will be unspecified, but hinted nuclear, responses.

Inherently there is nothing unusual in narratives playing out against one another, it’s just that it’s so starkly apparent in the Ukrainian war.

Language always matters: calling the war ‘Putin’s War’ is an attempt to provide space for ordinary Russians to align themselves with NATO, or a pre-emptive excuse to sue for peace should Putin fall, essentially tying the sanctions to the emperor.

Narratives come in different flavours: descriptive, oppositional, personal, authentic, and so on. There is value in understanding the ways each of these operate, and coalesce.

Again, if i return to Ukraine, the narrative of human rights abuses is measured in numbers of victims, each one an additional tragedy. By contrast, Putin’s narrative is in terms of empire and destiny, within which one life does not seem to figure. These are not different aspects of the same story (although them may inhabit the same narrative space) but rather competing narratives, each battling to negate the other.

We see that the majority of Organisational narratives work at the level of system, whilst compelling human ones operate at the level of one face or life.

When we consider how power is attached to narratives we see some of the most interesting effects emerge: individual stories can act as aggregators or amplifiers of power. We see this with the tragic story of George Floyd, whose death led to an aggregation of action around a cause and an amplification of the narratives of police brutality and structural racism.

So can a narrative be ‘controlled’, or is it simply ‘won’? Is it a valid strategy to seek to control a space, seeing as how we understand that control of a narrative can cascade out into broader power and potential?

Perhaps we can consider this in terms of narrative tracks, like pathways that lead through the forest. If we get locked into one track, then one person is always going to be ahead of the other. But what we tend to see is that attempts to fracture or own a narrative can take us off down other paths, or out in entirely new directions. 

In other words: narratives can not only be ‘owned’, but also derailed, diverted, or possibly appropriated.

Whilst we instinctively feel, or sense, that we are either empowered, or constrained, by surrounding narratives, it’s remarkably hard to articulate the rules by which that power or control is exerted.

What seems certain is that neither the volume of the narrative, nor the supposed intensity with which it is shared, will guarantee it’s adoption. This is why neither church, State, Organisation or society changes at the will of those in charge alone. There is always the narrative as broadcast, and the narrative as heard, and the response to the narratives, held in a countervailing story.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
This entry was posted in Narrative, Storytelling and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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