The power of narrative

I am writing this as Susan and I prepare to fly to Europe. We will be attending a forum titled Addressing

Europe’s Unfinished Business

at the Initiatives of Change conference center in Caux, Switzerland. While there I will conduct a training workshop with my colleague Ebony Walden. Our theme is “Trustbuilding in a diverse world: history, identity and equity.” Based on a quick look at workshop registrants we will have young leaders 

from Ukraine, France, Switzerland and Germany.

From Switzerland Susan and I continue to the UK where we will spend the month of August visiting family and friends and exploring parts of the country we are not familiar with such as the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. It is more than a decade since we spent any length of time in the UK and much has changed in recent years, not least the present chaos surrounding Brexit. It will be interesting to get a first-hand impression of what people are thinking and feeling – not just in the major urban center like London but in the small towns and rural counties of northern England and  Scotland.

It seems that the US and Europe face similar challenges with the rise of authoritarian leaders, populist movements, anti-immigrant sentiment and distrust of central government. As Roger Cohen pointed out in the New York Times

, “A vigorous counterrevolution against the liberal-democratic orthodoxy of diversity and multiculturalism is under way.” This movement is characterized by attacks on the media and independent judiciary and the growth of a new elite through crony capitalism. It energizes “a national narrative of victimhood and heroism through the manipulation of history.” “Nobody stopped to ask whether the market and liberal democracy were necessary eternal twins. Turns out they were not.” We see the 

growing attraction of Russia, Turkey and China as strong-man models in opposition to values based on universal human rights that are portrayed as “Western.” But as Obama pointed out so eloquently in South Africa recently, Mandela demonstrated that these are not just Western values. 

Key to this populist and authoritarian trend is the power of narrative. Trump may be an appalling president but he does know how to control the narrative. One of the focal areas of our workshop in Caux will be how to understand and disrupt false narratives that divide. Recent events illustrate that when people feel they are not being heard they may act in ways that are harmful their own long term interests. They won’t listen to “facts” if they feel their stories are not respected. So we must learn to listen, even to those we find difficult to hear.

Another thoughtful insight is given by David Broder

 who notes that while national politics takes place through the filter of the media circus, “localism” is thriving in many places. In Washington, DC, politicians throw insults at each other. Local mayors and citizen groups are actually getting things done. “We are in an era of low social trust. People really have faith only in the relationships around them, the change agents who are right on the ground.” 

When localities learn to appreciate their shared history and find ways to work together on practical needs, we may be surprised by what can occur. I can attest to this from our ongoing experience in my hometown of Richmond.

Over the next few weeks I will be sending occasional “notes from the field” as we travel and listen and learn.