It is my view that the major conflicts of our time are over the real and only secondarily over versions of it and methods for apprehending it. The struggle over reality is conducted through contending versions and debates over verification but it is reality, not versions or verification, that is in contention. For instance, the discussion of pornography and prostitution can be seen as a debate in two stories. In story 1, a woman wakes up in the morning and decides, Today is my lucky day. I can choose whether to become a brain surgeon whether to go find a pimp and spread my legs for a camera. In story 2, a girl is sexually abused at home, runs to the street thinking nothing can be worse, is picked up by a pimp, is molested, raped, beaten, starved, drugged, threatened, and sold for sex. Story 1 is a story of choice, equality, liberation; story 2 is a story of force, inequality, slavery. As story, there is no way to distinguish between the two. The fact that most women in the industry were sexually abused as children, entered it as children, are desperately poor, report massive violence against them, and say they want to leave but cannot supports story 2, but all this is extrinsic to the narrative form as such. Story 1 is fantasy, entertainment, lie- it is propaganda- but its support for power widely makes the real story of story 2 into just another story. Storytelling as method requires only the story form for validation.
Women’s Lives, Men’s Laws, by Catharine A. MacKinnon (quoted by femonade)
Consider any political, social or religious issue and you will find the power of narratives underlining every position, especially those that are favorable to power. Narratives are so powerful precisely because they appeal to the imagination, which is more concrete to the individual than any argument or statistical fact. It is one thing to tell people that more than half of prostitutes were abused as children (Prostitution, Violence, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Farley and Barkan), but that fact takes no hold in the imagination unless it is incorporated into a narrative that is repeated and built upon.
The narrative of the rich, empowered escorts who joined of their own free will, on the other hand, is presented to us as if it was representative. Like all narratives, it becomes part of what people think about prostitution and is incorporated in more and more narratives, coagulating into a cohesive view. This view informs how people think about prostitutes, and therefore the political positions they take on the sex trade. The use of the term “sex work” instead of “prostitution” is in itself a highjacking of narrative: it portrays prostitution as being like any other kind of work, and prostitutes as having come into this “work” like any other “worker.”
This process occurs in all areas. If you need any proof of the supremely concrete nature of the imaginary, just look at Christianity. Christianity’s beliefs are completely not grounded in anything real, in anything material, although they try to rationalize it as such. Everything about Christianity resides solely in the imaginary, it is made of castles in the sky (metaphorically of course). And yet Christianity is very real for a billion people and gets them to do very real things to one another. It also pushes otherwise clever people to endlessly rationalize the unrationalizable (such as the genocidal stories of the Old Testament).
That’s the extreme power of narratives, when you lever them with a fixed idea. Most stories in the Bible are about God’s power and dominion over all life. Christian Creationism is just a narrative about God creating all life stretched into a belief system of its own. To refuse to believe Christian Creationism is to refuse to believe in God’s dominion over all life.
Narratives are more insidious than any other form of indoctrination, because they remain persuasive to the individual even after ey comes to know the facts. It’s that concreteness aspect again. For instance, after a person becomes an atheist, the narratives about Heaven/Hell, the morality tales, the stories about Jesus, and so on, stick with people for a long time, sometimes forever.
A narrative is not necessarily a story, with a beginning, middle and end, with a lesson to be learned or a theme, and so on. The examples about sex workers is a good illustration of that. Sometimes it can be a simple cause and effect: [according to theoretical capitalism,] people rise or fall on the basis of their contributions, therefore people are poor because they are lazy. You fill this in with the stereotype of the lazy welfare bum who (shock and horror!) has access to a television, a cell phone, and so on, and you’ve got your story 1 about poverty.
Story 2 is the one explained to us in innumerable documentaries and history books, the fact that workers are screwed by the ownership class, that minorities are screwed by institutionalized racism, that women are screwed (literally) by the patriarchy, and that all of this adds up to the sum total of poverty that exists in our society. It is the narrative of the hard-working average person who gets fired because of “downsizing” and “restructuring” that make the top echelon richer and everyone else poorer, or because workers tried to unionize, or for any number of reasons. This is your story 2 about poverty.
In all cases, does the story 1 ever apply? Sure it does. No doubt there are sex workers who joined of their own impetus, and no doubt there are poor people who are poor because they are lazy. But is it representative? No, it is not. Despite that fact, does it motivate people to attack the rights of sex workers and poor people? Yes, it definitely does.
Another insidious fact about narratives is that they change how we see ourselves, too; and even worse than that, they change what we do. It’s been proven by numerous studies that while people in minority groups may perform as well as “normal” people at a given simple task, when their status is explicitly stated to everyone or when the task is presented as a measure of their ability, the narrative of “you people are incompetent [and you will fail]” will be restimulated in them and they will perform way under par. The narrative becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is even true when the group and narrative are entirely made-up, such as “people with blue eyes perform better at this test than people with brown eyes.”
If the prevalent narrative is that “black people are stupid [and they will fail],” then black people will underperform on intelligence tests. If the prevalent narrative is that “alcoholism is a disease and you are powerless to prevent it, you will crash and burn and will come crawling back to [AA]” then you will be powerless to prevent it, you will crash and burn and come crawling back to AA. It is, in essence, a form of voodoo: the belief that something bad will happen to you is as strong as the law of gravity or magnetism, as long as you keep believing it.
Any issue is informed by battling narratives, and most of what we call political activism is in fact an attempt to directly or indirectly change the prevalent narrative. Think of abortion and the ways people think about women who have one, or “immigration” and the stories people tell each other about why people “immigrate” and what they do, drug use and why people take drugs as well as the kind of people who take drugs, “pirating” and why people “pirate” music and movies… the list is endless. I believe the kind of narrative you ascribe to will be the primary factor in what position you adopt.
To me the most interesting thing about these narratives is the way they are built. For the most part, this whole process is entirely opaque to the consumer: we see the narrative as a fait accompli and don’t think about what’s behind it.
I’ve already pointed out that free speech is a sham. It is a sham because we ground our positions on narratives which are dictated or guided mostly by corporate interests. Debating “free speech” is a convenient way of deflecting attention away from the people responsible for the narratives (either fictional or ostensibly “real”) which drive our beliefs.
Some of these people are part of the power elite, but most are just ordinary Joes, people working as scriptwriters, directors, in newspaper or television offices, making a living. For the most part, all these people do is regurgitate the prevalent narratives, believing that because they are prevalent they must be well-liked. This has the effect of keeping the margins of discourse very narrow, because acceptable political opinions have to follow the prevalent narratives.
These people do not re-examine their premises because they are just “doing their job” and don’t want to be fired or be considered irrelevant. We let them have this power over us because we do not recognize the existence of this power. Any sane society where people recognized the incredible power of narratives to mould our perceptions would never permit random individuals to wield it without accountability.
But we don’t live in a sane society, and we let this happen unconsciously. But by doing so, we remove any possibility of seriously claiming that our political positions are freely chosen. It also means that, in order to even be within the margins of discourse, we need to present alternate, fact-based narratives. We need to nourish people’s imaginary. We know the truth will always win in the end because it’s demonstrable to everyone, but first we need to introduce the truth. And that’s the real challenge.