We live in a world of competing stories. We know that our culture is headed for the rocks of resource depletion, debt and climate change, but people don’t rally around bad news. It’s much more comforting to believe the progress story – the one about aspiration, economic growth, and ever-rising standards of living. It’s the defining narrative of our times, and it’s not without merit – the last hundred years has seen all kinds of advances, particularly around the middle of the century.
For campaigners, it’s a bit of a common enemy. Whether we’re talking about the climate, oil, banking, the steady state economy, we run into the same problems. Reigning in consumption, opting for less rather than more, showing restraint of any kind – these are things that are outside the paradigm, beyond the edges of our culture’s imagination. Often our reaction is to try and correct society’s assumptions, unpicking the story and raising awareness of the crises, but education on its own doesn’t seem to be enough.
Something that the Transition Towns movement does well is understand that it needs to tell a different story about the world we live in and where it is going. It’s not enough to warn people of impending doom – they need to believe things can be different. Transitioners do this through community visioning, creating timelines and newspapers from the future, and various other imaginative group exercises that you can find in their books, the Transition Handbook and the Transition Timeline.
Nobody welcomes the prophets of doom. As Philip Pullman says in Do good lives have to cost the earth, environmentalists need to tell better stories.
Being aware of these sorts of ideas, I was pleased to stumble across the work of SmartMeme the other week. They’re a communications agency that works with campaign groups to refine their message and share it more effectively. They use a narrative based approach, and having downloaded a few of their resources and found them useful, I ordered their book, Re:Imagining change – how to use story based strategy to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world.
Described as a manual “for people who want to create change and shift our society toward a more just and sustainable future,” the book explores the power of narratives to shape our understanding of the world, and how those stories can be undermined and changed.
“As humans, we are literally hardwired for narrative”, say the authors. Narrative is how we order our world for ourselves and find our place in it, and culture is composed of those shared stories that define as collectively. Stories create and reinforce a dominant culture, Gramsci’s ‘hegemony’, justifying its power structures with ‘control mythologies’ such as “there is no alternative”.
These narratives can be deconstructed. Who is being portrayed as heroic or villainous? What kind of imagery is being used? What sort of future is hinted at? I wasn’t going to give an example, but one spontaneously springs to mind in the form of Britain’s new coalition government: The drive towards small government is justified with the control mythology of “the inevitable budget“. Citizens and entrepreneurs are heroic, while civil servants and quangos are villainous. More government spending will lead us to financial ruin, while less will usher in a new age of aspiration. And the ‘big society’ posters, with their happy and frowning faces, have to rank among the least subtle propaganda posters of all time. It’s like the visual equivalent of the “four legs good, two legs bad” bleat that the sheep adopt in Animal Farm.
Anyway, analysing a story helps to identify key players, and work out who holds the power. It reveals images that can be subverted or co-opted, and exposes weaknesses that could be exploited. It also shows the underlying assumptions behind the story, contradictions or lies. The book has a series of exercises for groups to use, like ‘the battle of the story’, which pits your story against the status quo. Once you’ve spotted a useful point of intervention, there’s lots of advice about creating memorable slogans or iconic actions using meme theory, with useful case studies of people who have done it well.
Reimagining change has a lot to offer for such a small book. A lot of the exercises themselves, and the theory too actually, is available on the Smartmeme website. I found the simple one-page worksheets such as the ‘battle of the story’ or the ‘influence map’ very helpful, just giving new terms of reference to what we’re doing. You can download the book on a donations basis. If you’re interested in campaign strategy, you’ll want to order a hard copy and take notes.