A New Narrative

We need a new narrative.

By “narrative” I mean simply a new story, an account of what is important, what is right, good, just. And by “we” I mean progressives, social justice workers, activists, artists, poets, organizers. But “we” also needs to be all of us, everyone, for without broad acceptance of such a narrative, the world we want to see, the world we are working to build, will never be.

The narrative must be simple, easy to understand, but also be able to contain complexities, ambiguities, like a good line of poetry. It must be true, and it must be as honest as we can make it, but it must also be as believable, as embraceable, as a well-crafted lie. It must be able to engage the dispossessed, enchant the disenchanted.

The narrative can come from progressives, but it can’t be seen as belonging to us; it must be seen to just be. It must be oppositional to the status quo, oppositional to neoliberal oligarchy, oppositional to oppression, to racism and misogyny. But it shouldn’t be broadly seen as oppositional, any more than “the grass is green” or “Tuesday comes after Monday” are oppositional. To be effective, the narrative must be sufficiently interwoven into the everyday as to be seen as common sense. Only when it is taken granted, when it becomes common sense in churches, cubicles, factory floors, city parks, can the narrative function as a base for justice.

The narrative must be based on love and inclusion. Always. And to become common sense, it must be repeated, over and over and over, and always with quiet confidence, with a deep assurance that it is right. That deep assurance and ubiquitous repetition are key to the success of any narrative. It must be stated everywhere, in conversation, in the press, on the web, in business, in art, on the streets.

The narrative should of course be shouted on the streets. But the streets are not where it will gain its most traction, since chants on the streets are almost always aspirational, “this is what we are fighting for, what we want to see.” Otherwise, people wouldn’t be out in the streets.

To become common sense, the narrative needs to be different. It needs to be stated matter-of-factly, as if it is already true. Everywhere. The moment when such a narrative is stated and accepted as a simple given on, say, Fox News or a tavern full of cynics and bar stool experts, will it be on its way to where it needs to be.

How to create such a narrative? There, of course, is the rub. We—progressives, activists, artists—have the skills to create such a thing and to support it, to get it into the general discourse. We have the speakers and video makers and poets and web voices and search engine optimizers to do what needs to be done. But we’re also a fractious lot. We come at things with a “yes, but…” purism. It’s a sense that if we don’t get everything we call for, we’re corrupt. And we do tend to delight in despising our allies as much as, or even more than, our opponents. Coming together around any common story, and especially one that can rewrite common sense, may prove to be exceptionally difficult.

Perhaps the first step will be a general recognition as to the need for such an effort, not to control the narrative, but to just make it so compelling that it can’t help becoming something that is eventually taken for granted.

The narrative might be a vision or a set of principles and values, or both. It might be as simple as a good way of stating what is true about the world. We already have a number of these, from “Black lives matter” to “Climate change is real.” But most progressive narratives have some flaw that make them so readily negated—on that factory floor or by that bar stool expert—that they face deep difficulties in being taken for granted, in becoming common sense across a broad population.

And that acceptance must be intentional, it must be baked into the narrative; it can’t be a “that would be nice to have” option. If we don’t create that narrative—or narratives; plural stories may be needed— and turn it into common sense, I fear that we may be consigned to playing defense, to doing cleanup as best we can, with narrowing options for setting agendas and building real frameworks of action and belief.

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