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Understanding narratives

Understanding narratives

This text is a compilation of ideas sent in as a result of the last call for comments. This being a subject on which it is easy to be discursive, it seemed right to consolidate what have been wide-ranging discussions.

Trust and the narrative

In the next 10-15 years virtually the entire world will need to create, renew or change a wider range of social institutions. A recent publication in Britain shows that only 5% of the public trust their politicians and around 6%, their press. Only a third trust the legal establishment. The current angels are nurses and doctors, but still only three quarters say that they do in fact trust their doctors. The figures for the US are similar, but with religion replacing medicine as the trusted profession. Commerce is essentially paralysed through a lack of trust in the overall economic situation, the Eurozone in particular and, of course, in the banks.

Trust comes down to three elements. Things that we trust are predictable, in that we feel that we understand how they work and, if they have motives, what those motive are. Second, things that we trust are open to assessment, the opposite of inscrutable: we can see their current state and calibrate that against what we feel that they ought to be doing. Third, there are sanctions which we can apply if what they are doing is out of line with what we think they ought to be doing. Why is the doctor touching me there? Can a company get away with that kind of performance? Are politicians - specifically, that guy - behaving the way that he promised?

All of these bundle into the notion of "narrative". Our narrative tells us how things work as an overall system - a religious, scientific, myth-based or popular set of notions that tell a person how they or their group fit in with this system, and what kind of expectations you as a given individual should have of life. It tells how a person with the following attributes - say, gender, age, social status - should behave, and provides general rules of conduct around which that person should expect others to conform. It explains what is "fair" and "just", it defines the power structure in the society and it defuses many commonplace sources of friction. The narrative is always based on a choice from a range of variables that we have explored elsewhere: fairness, cost-benefit, affiliation, authority, purity. We have explore how conservative and US liberal, libertarian and Euro-liberal narratives emerge.

Narratives are constantly changing themselves or being diluted by rival views. The effect can be destructive, bringing down former narratives and replacing them with nothing but pragmatism and self-interest. This process is reviewed in considerable depth here: The rupturing narrative, collective identity under threat.

External narratives intrude onto societies. Hollywood movies have long been a source of new horizons for children in developing countries. The Internet, bringing everything from opinion to pornography, also serves to destroy old certainties about respect, proper behaviour, decency. The old ways of living are then smashed, but nothing truly replaces them, perhaps for generations.

The always-acute response from the Islamic world to external events stems from the contact between a tight tradition- and community-based narrative and the more extensive, critical, erosive external narrative. Arthur Koestler wrote a book in 1960 - "The Lotus and the Robot" - in which he noted the "schizophrenic quality of the Japanese character, as it swings from irresponsible aestheticism to irresponsible mechanism." He noted that those newly-arrived aspects of life, matters not prescribed by tradition, were solved in raw, dislocated ways. He cited the use of karate trained guards at train stations, whose job was to physically force commuters onto crowded trains. He noted the attempts by the commuters to use (restricted) traditional bows in order to cope with this unseemliness.

Inventing the future

Change has, for the past several hundred years, been "made in the West". These societies - or at any rate, the most assertive and expansionary of them - had very clear narratives, based around property, social hierarchy and order; consultation amongst the elite, a rejection of extremes and a predatory eye for opportunities in less resilient societies. These were attitudes that were forged in incessant war, but war with limits, war consciously supported by industry and technology, war that saw husbandry of resource as the natural aftermath to conquest. After the catastrophe of the Thirty Years war, Europe gave up insensate destruction until 1914.

The intentions of the combatants in World War I are notoriously difficult to define: the war erupts like a pub brawl, with no goals and no purpose save to either establish a German place in the world, or put Germany in its place. The combatants appear to have gone to war out of (French) memories of the past, populist-nationalist pique, economic frustration that the old prescriptions no longer seemed to work. To quote Rupert Brooke at the onset of war:

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

"1914" 1915

Seventeen years earlier, the "world grown old and cold and weary" had been memorialised by another popular poet, the very voice of Empire, Rudyard Kipling:

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

"Recessional" 1897

The narrative had cracked for the superpower of the time: Imperialism had reached its geographical and economic limits. It was costing more to maintain than it generated. Imperial food supplies undermined national agricultural workers, prompting mass urbanisation and miserable conditions. The colonies, women and workers all demanded a new voice and, all over Europe, monarchical government seemed unsafe. New powers with new social and industrial ideas were asserting themselves. Science and technology were developing ever more challenging ideas, religion was on the retreat and not one but many revolutions were in the air.

Societies and organisations at the leading edge are always "inventing the future". This is much less the business of creating new capabilities than it is dealing with them once created. Opinion leaders and activists may create empires, outsourcing, mass commuting, suburbia, democracy, welfare, easily accessible contraception, broadcast media, mobile telecommunications but it is the majority of the society has to learn how to live with these, and in doing so changes its view of itself and of the world. The contraceptive pill altered overall national demographics, female participation in commerce, the position of sexuality in society and probably the spread of venereal diseases: not what the chemist who fund the synthesis path to progesterone had in mind, perhaps. None of these things happened only because of the contraceptive pill, but none of them would have happened so strongly or so quickly without it.

The narrative therefore adapts itself and it changes. It will often retaining the same surface features, "official" truths that everyone acknowledges but with which few comply. We often hop between interpretations as we move between social domains in our lives: we may see ethics in one way when we are at work and in another when with our family; perhaps in a third sense when we are feeling judgemental about something we have read in the newspaper.

There never was "a" narrative in all but the simplest of societies, but dominant social groups asserted their model as the face of the nation, and whatever quiet hypocrisies were practiced, people were expected to conform to this single model. Today, however, the advanced society have a whole set of narratives, ways of thinking and responding which mix and blend themselves so that how we think about issues is intensely contextual. Hypocrisy is the name we give only to dissonance that we recognise, and then ignore. Everything else is 'flexibility', or perhaps pragmatism.

The broad narrative of the West has stood for at least a hundred years. It balances the collective and the individual interest by working with a formal body of law - rather than public opinion, for example - and from concepts of native justice - property and other rights, fairness, avoidance of unnecessary harm. It sees economy as a self-contained and broadly separate aspect of human life. It separates the great social powers - politics, force, law, religion - and binds the powerful in constraints of process and public opinion. The overall system is driven by the desire to improve one's lot, primarily at the level of the individual and the small group, such as a company. Public goods are secured by the operation of the state. The nation, once a central concept, is now much less significant in the narrative.

That model is not shared outside of the billion or so of the industrialised world, save in the desire of the rest of the world to better its lot. Here, the old narratives are either fiercely defended, or abandoned in favour of commercial modernisation. This often occurs in the same society, often across boundaries of class and age. The third element of the triad - collective institutions, the balance of power and opinion - are generally monopolised by one side and despised by the other. Elites may seize the exercise of the law, for example, or the reactionary elements may do so.

The developing world has, in its many formats, a new narrative to find. Who do we want to be? What is our collective identity, and where do the various classes, groups such as companies and indeed individuals fit into this? Societies that have an answer to this are tranquil, productive and confident. Examples such as Singapore, Hong Kong and perhaps Costa Rica have achieved general acceptance of specific trade-offs, and their narrative is clear. Other nations have no such vision, no consensus and not even a framework of debate from which such balances can be achieved.

The Western narrative is both all-embracing and insufficient. As noted, it has deep roots in the realities and social struggles of the previous century; but it also assumes a great deal that may no longer be viable. The balance between the collective and the individual is still set in terms of property and charity, for example. Yet as we know more about everything from education to medicine, from economics to business practice, this view is less and less viable. The best way to deliver public goods - such as healthy babies, educated and safe children, stable and productive workers - is less a matter of individual choice and more a consequence of technical optimisation. Environmental systems do not much care about individual rights, and personal choices do not respect environmental fundamentals. At the same time, individual and group expertise has never been greater, and economic systems have never been so complex. Any notion of top-down management is farcical. Guided choice, tiptoeing through the corridors of optimisation, seems best able to deliver something like an overall optimal outcome.

Yet, our narrative does not reflect this. Rugged individuals are supposed to be able to beat the system. We are embarrassed by differences in ability, by the existence of a myriad of elites - except in sport - and we do not know what to do with a significant fraction of our society that cannot play by the elite rules that are required for commercial survival. We spend our surplus on charity, but its recipients are far from grateful.

Narrative building blocks

Are there potentially dominant narratives that we can identify, archetypes that interpret, explain and guide specific groups? These would be narratives that give answers to the following questions when posed by an individual, organisation of social group:

At their root, most narratives are ontological - that is, they explain how things came to be, and how that effects you. The tend to prescribe more of the same, that is, more liberty, more purity or whatever they hold to be key to their identity. They may very well prescribe conversion of others to this point of view. What they do not prescribe - by their very nature - is how they themselves should change. They do not advise where to go next.

By their very nature, narratives have trouble with novelty. Uniform, patrolled orthodoxies tend to recycle authority and precedent. They oppose novelty and experiment.

Perhaps the single greatest Western invention was the notion of progress. Things could be made better by analysis, by reason, experiment and action. The world and human society could be understood as the workings of predictable forces and systems. These forces could be harnessed towards things that were innately beneficial, such as health, wealth, liberty "from" and liberty "to".

However, the West also learned that it was not necessary to undertake society-wide experiments. It could do this if it was tolerant of different sub-narratives. In this way, teenagers are allowed a modicum of rebellion, scientists scientists their eccentricities. Innovation can then be hived off from mainstream society. Innovators become licensed fools, being identified as artists, scientists, entrepreneurs or academics each of which has their own "safe" sub-narrative.

Naturally, it was essential that society felt confident of these sub-narratives - that they were not plotting against everyone else, or neglectful of their needs and values.


There is, however, a limit to the extent that trust can be extended to these generally useful sub-narratives before they move beyond the bounds within which the rest of the society feels comfortable. The social change in the late Sixties and early Seventies is an example of this. Earlier, however, we noted that the Western nations were reporting very general distrust with many of its sub-identiites - bankers, politicians, scientists. However, those who actively oppose the experiments and innovations which these growups generate - excluding the banking crash, of course! - tend to be extreme groups in their own right. The narrative in which they feel comfortable exclude, for example, science-based discussions. It is not, of course, possible to close an argument between people who cannot agree what woudl constitute a successful outcome. The "proof" advancedby oen side looks like a restatement of the problem by the other. Consider people who deny biological evolution in this light; and how they in turn view scientists.

The existing narrative rather took the ends of progress for granted: economic growth was innately good, and improvements generally started in a small way and spread as people saw that they were good. Excellence self-assembled, an ecology that managed itself through enlightened self-interest. It has to be said that we are a degree sceptical of this as a sole model, and that we want to supplement it with a more thoughtful set of machinery. We need to looks to our big, essential big structures - labour supply, institutional trust - as components of long-run social health. At the same time, this viewpoint tries to address these without being too prescriptive and without blighting of novel enterprise. It asks: How can you be complex and yet coherent, spontaneous and yet stable?

At a practical level, this approach has tended to apply separately to the two complexes that we discussed earlier, that of the state and large-scale commerce and, as a largely separate thing, the relationship between the state and the population. That has led to two parallel narratives, only very loosely connected to the Right and Left of politics, These run in parallel to the party political dialogue. Party politics remains concerned to advance the interest of one alliance of national interests against the block made up by the other interests. This throws up a "fake" narrative that has very little to do with the realities of the choices ahead.

Tolkein's hobbits returned home after saving the world to the utter indifference of hobbit society. Their narrative of beer and pipes, marriages and farming continued undisturbed by elite events. To what extent should modern societies allow for - indeed encourage - this dual track approach? To bring all into the key debates is to weaken and slow them. To exclude them is unwise. Yet public appetite for such things is extremely limited until things go wrong, and debate on - say - energy policy is of no interest to most of the population until nerves are touched. DE facto, therefore, we have a much more than two tier society, we have a multi-streamed, narrative rich environment in which we hope to retain majority trust so that new things can be tried out. As trust is weakened by the sheer complexity of what we have built, and by the inevitability of shocks, and by the hard choices that matters such as demographic change and environmental issues press on us, so we will need a way to bring the population along with us. Or become hobbits, passed by more integrated societies.

The UK Blair government set out to generate a "whole nation" dialogue. The phrase "the people" was never far from the speechwriter's boilerplate. Public broadcasting was instructed to lower the threshold on its programming: "access" became a watchword. Schooling and examinations were adjusted to ensure that all who participated won prizes. Efforts were made to break isolationist class-based narratives - "that is not for the likes of me". The result was not entirely satisfactory: bland, generic, repetitive, often coarse. Whole society narratives are possible in small societies - Singapore is always quoted, but the Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland are European states with remarkably integrated social identities.

In the 1950s, Australia was famous for its homogeneity, its assumptions of common perspectives and values. Australia of 2012 retains something of that, but it is clearly streamed by ability, interest in what psychologists call homophilia, the tendency of like to seek out like, and to deal chiefly with them. Like most of the industrial nations, it operates on a fragmented set of narratives, glued together by generalities. Rather than one tight set of values, Australia and similar nations have a loose balance of values that define a space beyond which it is not right to go, but within which people can vary very considerably. In parallel, though, they have a centre of weight around their a commercial narrative, a welfare-claimancy narrative, a secular humanist narrative, an environmental narrative, a... Change is managed by exposing examples to critique, and those which survive propagate through the system: a Darwinian process in which narratives play the role of what Dawkins called 'memes'.

Is this how we invent our future? The risk is that we lose trust. The commercial- state wing works reasonably well, but the state-society structure has many problems ahead of it, not least recovering from over-ambitions commitments. The pain from this recovery is being blamed on commerce - on banks, with some justification, but on "big business" as being a scary outside, something beyond the camp that preys in the dark. There are dangerous, primitive narratives in play at the moment.

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