The rise in authoritarianism and democratic decline around the world is well-documented, and yet the analysis of why this is happening and prioritizing what to do about it is not as clear cut. The ways that social movements incorporate diversity and create space for reflection together—including narrative practices—are therefore more important than ever, so that movement actors model the democratic values they are advocating and can find common cause with potential allies who may have different approaches or priorities.
Anti-democratic forces rely on fueling deeply divided societies with a diet of dangerous othering of whatever racial, ethnic, gendered, or religious “out-group” should be blamed for society’s ills. Operating within these divisive contexts, pro-democracy, rights-based actors often struggle with fragmentation among and between movements and potential allies.
The Narrative Engagement Across Difference Project (NEAD) was designed by a consortium of organizers, academics, and philanthropists to take a deep look at narrative practices from a multidisciplinary lens and to reflect on how we can better unlock more effective collective action within diverse, broad-based movements.
The NEAD team starts from a broad understanding of “narrative” as a process of making meaning, acknowledging that humans understand themselves and the world around them through stories (characters, plot lines, and values). There is a burgeoning interest in narrative studies and practice within the field of social change and movement-building. Many narrative practitioners and funders are using creative means to build narrative infrastructure and power, especially for those whose voices have been traditionally marginalized or “othered,” and yet we continue to experience fragmentation and toxic othering within many of our movement ecologies where civic space is closing.
To ground NEAD’s future exploration in existing research, the team recently released the findings of a broad literature review. The report categorizes three areas of narrative practice that support collaboration between groups coming together with the aim of reducing systems of authoritarianism and strengthening democratic values:
- Legitimacy—how narratives regulate and determine the nature of interactions between people (i.e., how we position ourselves and others as legitimate, worthy, good, or bad);
- Power—the dynamics of relations and decision-making in the narrative landscape (i.e., how and where control is exerted or privilege experienced to deem what is acceptable, normal, or transgressive); and
- Complexity—the capacity of any narrative to evolve and change (i.e., when and how the elaboration of nuanced, multifaceted descriptions of people, events, and values produce multiple, complex, and evolving stories and meaning-making).
The research offers several provocations—or cautionary tales—with implications for common narrative practices within social movements that are worth highlighting and wrestling with.
First, should we seek a “shared narrative”? In coalitional work, we often assume that if we share a narrative of the social change we seek, then we will have shared attitudes and we can share work and collective action (e.g., “Immigrants are welcome here”). But endeavoring to negotiate a shared narrative, while common practice for strategic communications goals to reach a broader audience with consistent framing and messaging choices, could impede our ability to bring different perspectives into pro-democracy movements.
Seeking a shared narrative as a starting point for convening allies that then drives collective action also runs the risk of developing overly simplified narratives among those who already think alike and who can become “stuck in their story” without the benefit of being pushed to see beyond their own blind spots. Instead, complexifying narratives can be a movement-building tool, allowing both people and stories of lived experience to have layers, nuance, with multiple identities and contexts that can be woven together.
Second, delegitimizing “others” often backfires and gives fuel to harmful narratives. When people feel heard, they open themselves to reflection, consider alternatives to their own perspectives, and better engage in ways that build trust and deepen relationships. Narratives that delegitimize and promote othering intentionally or not shut down this aperture: for example, “Beware of letting the Trump-a-saurus Rex animals out of the zoo, or they will wreak havoc on our democracy.” Determining when our narrative strategies are undermining our overall movement goals of a pluralistic society in the long term is a crucial reflective practice.
When movements feed into an “us-versus-them” zeitgeist, we give fuel to the authoritarian playbook that thrives on the tactics of divide and rule. This lesson applies to legitimizing across all types of difference (ideological, generational, racial, religious; both within our groups and between groups) not as a call for everyone to just “get along” but to commit to a reflective practice of engaging diverse actors and their lived experience to broaden movement participation, while unmasking the systems of discrimination and oppression that sow division and harm.
Third, there are consequences of activating negative emotions as motivators. In the short term, negative emotions like anger and outrage are proven motivators for movement participation, especially within repressive environments and in the context of online engagement. The trade-offs demonstrated by the NEAD report indicate that using anger to mobilize can often result in a simplified narrative landscape of bad actors and/or righteous anger that sets up a contestation of dominant narratives lacking in complexity. Simple narratives that emphasize the need for security are a common tactic used by authoritarian regimes. While there are situations when moral clarity in a simplified message is needed—for instance, “Police brutality and murder of civilians is wrong and must stop”—the call for movement participation that recognizes justified anger and grieving, while also complexifying the nature of systemic injustices can help to diversify movement participation. In the long term, the report findings posit that simple narratives that rely on activating negative emotions can forestall needed conversations and broader support for critical reflections among potential allies.
This is just a taste of the rich findings within the literature review. The initial multi-disciplinary scoping effort was intended to offer practitioners and funders fodder for reflection on the narrative practices within movements to build stronger collective power to tackle authoritarianism and nurture democratic and civic space. The NEAD team is committed to joining efforts with learning partners within the pro-democracy, pro-rights ecosystem to continue reflecting on and experimenting with these narrative practices in different contexts.