The field of narrative change is both emerging and eternal. From mythology to marketing, the human impulse – no, necessity – to make sense of the world, to justify values and bolster beliefs, is innate and immutable. We build, inherit and rely on schematic shortcuts for our own cognitive comprehension and physical survival. We learn codes and internalize signals meant to protect us: which colors and sounds represent safety or danger, whose authority we trust or reject, whose lives and dreams matter.
Humans, as pattern-seeking social creatures, assemble collections of mutually-reinforcing stories, in turn establishing shared common sense and constructing stereotypes about people and places, communities and cultures, ideologies and institutions. These core narratives, fundamental to our understanding the world and to our ability to navigate through it, nurture feelings of belonging and marginalization; that is, they subconsciously delineate who is in your group and who is not—who “we” are and what “they” do. We obtain, maintain and challenge systems of power based upon tribal affiliation, nationalist affinity, class and partisan distinctions, and constructions of coalitions. These deeply-rooted paradigms are mental models of how the world works and one’s place in it. Often formed and fed by media, politics and pop culture, and ossified by personal experience, narratives often determine who deserves our solidarity or our scorn, our compassion or our contempt, our fear or fealty.
Narratives are messy. Nonlinear, emotional and contradictory, they often resonate with visceral meaning, feel authentic and ring true, regardless of their relationship to facts and evidence. They provide us with frames of reference that determine how we comprehend complex i realities and define the important boundaries between what we imagine to be possible, probable or practical. They facilitate interpretation of the past, understanding of the present, and a vision for the future.
Narratives are powerful. They can swing juries and elections. They can fill prisons. But they can also fill the streets.
–Jee Kim, Liz Hynes & Nima Shirazi May 2017