When disagreeing with someone else’s ideas, it can be tempting to engage in narrative attack; to make a direct attack on one narrative from the vantage point, and in the language, of your opposing narrative. For example, when someone wraps climate change-denial views in the rhetoric of creationist beliefs, it is tempting to directly attack the climate change denier’s whole belief system. Once a narrative attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible because the attacked person feels that their whole belief system is under siege. Change becomes impossible.
A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative framework, learning the component parts and looking for points of connection. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, for instance, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment home-grown insurgency against the most problematic beliefs by identifying ally beliefs and seeking to reinforce them. When speaking to creationists about environmental issues, for example, emphasizing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation can be an effective point of entry.
If we are to transform the political culture, we need to think not in terms of attacking opponents’ views head-on, but rather in terms of fomenting homegrown insurgency. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative, transforming that culture from the inside out.
Progressive change agents often engage in something that I call narrative attack; they make a direct attack on one narrative or worldview from the vantage point-and in the language-of their own opposing narrative or worldview. For example, when some people wrap up their anti-environmental views (e.g. climate change denial) in the rhetoric of their creationist beliefs, it is all too tempting for more scientifically minded people to directly attack the climate change deniers’ whole belief system. That is narrative attack. Once a direct attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible, because people feel that their whole belief system is under siege.
(Clearly conservatives do this as well, but given that the purpose of this post is not to criticize but to offer communications strategy suggestions, I’m just discussing this from the viewpoint of progressives.)
A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative, learning the component parts, looking for “allies” inside the narrative. In the Biblical creation story, for example, God charges humankind to be the caretakers of God’s sacred creation. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment “home-grown insurgency” inside the belief system against the most problematic beliefs (which, in this case, is indifference to climate change). By stressing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation, that ally belief is singled out for positive reinforcement within a complex belief system.
This is the second installment in a four-part series written by Jonathan Matthew Smucker in collaboration with Madeline Gardner, originally published in 2007. Click here to read the previous essay, Three Roles of an Antiwar Core
The first primary role of an antiwar core that we will discuss is to attach meaning to unfolding events and help shape common understandings – to interpret reality based on the patterns we observe.
Imperialism, for example, is an observable pattern where the government of one country extends its dominance over other countries or colonies to increase its own wealth and power. Progressives see US military interventions, political and economic pressuring, and even cultural exports through the lens of a story of US imperialism. This story helps us to understand the situation.
Stories can expose underlying motives. They turn the actors into types of characters: protagonists and antagonists, victims, villains, heroes, and so on. Stories connect events, and strip them of their randomness and neutrality. Stories place judgment.
But stories can also obscure motives and distort reality. For example, there is another story used to explain the various manifestations of the US government’s meddling in the world. The story of US benevolence has deep roots in the culture, relying heavily on popular accounts of World War I and, especially, World War II. This story assumes that our government is genuinely interested in spreading freedom, justice and democracy (rather than undermining and overthrowing it).