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).
I’m reading two great books about the power of story as an organizing tool in social change struggles. One is smartMeme’s RE:Imagining Change (a guide for activists on story-based strategy), the other is It Was Like a Fever: Story-telling in Protest and Politics by Francesca Polletta.
Amongst other subjects, both Polletta and smartMeme discuss the problem of “victim stories” for social change agents. Social change organizations understandably try to mobilize to address an injustice by showing the real-life negative impact of that injustice. Victims of the injustice tell their stories (or their stories are told) often emphasizing victim status – purposely or not – with the hope of appealing to people’s sense of compassion and mobilizing a popular response.
The problem though is that victim stories usually don’t work very well for challenger movements to challenge power relationships. Instead of mobilizing people, they tend to reinforce the existing power structure – in part by reinforcing the idea that victims are in fact powerless.
SmartMeme encourages change agents to tell a story that instead casts challenger movements as empowered and sympathetic protagonists, who are attractive in large part because they are seen as winners or on a winning trajectory (usually in an insurgent kind of way). Polletta discusses situations where social movement organizations have successfully done just that (e.g. Rosa Parks’ refusal, or the lunch counter sit-ins), and also discusses examples of when movements have presented their “main characters” as victims – which characteristically hasn’t worked very well.