Storytelling as Organizing: How to Rescue the Left from its Crisis of Imagination
by Adam Kader
In These Times
In an editorial in In These Times' November 2009 issue, reflecting on the right’s success at re-framing the healthcare reform debate in its favor, Kevin O’Donnell wrote, “When it comes to messaging, Republicans believe in science. Democrats don’t.” To their detriment, “Democrats cling to the idea, disproved by science and electoral experience, that if you present the facts, people will reason their way to the right conclusion.” Republicans, on the other hand, know to use “simple words, short sentences and a heavy dose of repetition.”
Must one be this cynical in order to win a campaign or a policy battle? Is the way to beat conservatives on important issues to “race to the bottom,” debasing rhetoric, and treating the public as imbeciles? Fortunately, for those looking for a more generous understanding of public discourse, there’s Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World (PM Press, 2010), by Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning.
Reinsborough and Canning provide another way of looking at “the battle of the narrative.” Like O’Donnell, any experienced activist knows that framing the issue matters to any campaign's success. But rather than “dumbing down” progressive campaign messaging, Reinsborough and Canning argue for a story-based strategy that deconstructs dominant narratives and constructs new ones that challenge assumptions and move citizens to action.
The authors encourage readers to re-imagine both how change can happen and what can be changed. They introduce a series of concepts “to win campaigns, build movements, and change the world” based on Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which posits that powerful interests exert control through dominant culture so that the status-quo becomes “common sense.” If campaigns are to change the status-quo, the authors argue, they must be communicated in ways that fall outside the narrative categories created by the status quo.
Just as a successful campaign can change the material conditions of society, Reinsborough and Canning argue, so can it change the way society thinks—it creates change on the level of meaning. In the same way that a direct action physically interrupts a target’s business-as-usual, a campaign has a deeper impact when it also interrupts the dominant narrative about the campaign issue.
Consider Re:Imagining Change’s example of Greenpeace’s Save the Whales Campaign. When Greenpeace activists took action by literally placing themselves between whaling ships and the whales, it “showed it was the activists, not the whalers, who were the courageous people on small boats risking their lives—not to kill whales, but to save them. In this new narrative, whales were not big and evil; rather it was the giant whaling ships that were the dangerous monsters. The whales were the helpless victims and became sympathetic and worthy of protection...The story changed and the roles of hero, victim, and villain shifted.”
Successful campaigns utilize a “meme,” or a unit of “self-replicating cultural information such as slogans (Just Do It!), iconic images (Abu Ghraib torture), catch phrases (“wardrobe malfunction”) or symbols (the peace sign). Just as engines of dominant culture create memes, so can social change groups. Re:Imagining Change's accessible language and hands-on exercises make it ideal for busy community and political organizers. My favorite feature of the book is the “Reflections” box included in each chapter. An example:
What are some assumptions in the dominant culture you think need to be changed? Make a list. You can carry this assumption list with you and keep a running tab of times when they show up, or when you surface new ones. Choose one assumption to work with for the moment...Are there institutions where it lives? Are there ways it is felt in popular culture? Now think about actions you could take to challenge that assumption and change the story. Are there physical points of intervention that could expose this assumption?
The exercise pushed me to step back and consider a campaign that my organization, Arise Chicago, and other worker centers around the country are engaged in. The fight against the exploitation of low-wage earners is not new, but our “anti-wage theft campaign” is because of its use of the “wage theft” meme. Before, institutions like the Department of Labor and the mainstream media referred to the phenomena of worker exploitation as “non-payment of wages.”
Several years ago, however, worker centers designed the “wage theft” meme. This meme overthrows the dominant assumption that wages are the property of the boss, to be shared with workers. Rather, in this new narrative, wages are the property of workers that have been stolen by the boss.
The wage theft meme is deeply effective, because a common defense narrative spun by an employer caught for not paying his workers is that these are hard economic times; that in a difficult business climate everyone has to tighten their belts—that the boss is doing everything he can to keep things running.
The public is sympathetic to this defense. The employer is understood as benevolent; he is the job provider, the one who can save our economy—the workers, protesting, are ungrateful! They should be thankful to be employed at all in this bad economy! The audience of this dominant narrative will identify with the employer, who is the one struggling to stay alive in this economy. The workers are troublemakers, trying to take wages away from the employer, a property owner, just like you and me!
But through the wage theft meme, workers, not employers, become the victims of the bad economic climate. The boss, not the workers, becomes the unreasonable one. The self-respecting public will identify with the righteous worker who is trying to stand up for their right to recover their private property. Using the wage theft meme, when my organization fights an employer who is not paying minimum wage, overtime wage, or wage at all, we also are fighting some of the assumptions embedded in the dominant narrative about labor. Accordingly, the media has begun to use the meme when they report on our campaigns and legislators have incorporated the phrase “wage theft” in the names of bills.
All of this is to say that Re:Imagining Change has inspired me to evaluate the choices we’re making in designing and communicating our organizing campaigns. Other progressive organizers should strive to do the same. The left is losing the battle over narrative, which means we often lose the larger war over legislation and fiscal policy. Think of common current rhetoric surrounding climate change legislation (“it kills jobs”), public sector jobs (“we have to cut back to decrease the deficit”), gender parity (“it will result in frivolous lawsuits”), etc.
Indeed, Sally Kohn of Movement Vision Lab writes: “Over the past year, much of the left has jealously ogled the Tea Party and its apparently up-out-of-nowhere grassroots movement energy.” Kohn locates the origin of this energy in the proliferation of “an attractive story of power and vision—a story in which everyday activists can see themselves and engage.”
That the left needs to develop strong, compelling, narratives is clear. Re:Imagining Change is the resource that can show us exactly how to do so.