In this essay we examine the core narratives and rhetorical techniques that extremist groups use to explain their worldview. We show that extremists in North America as well as throughout the world, regardless of their political or religious background, demonstrate great similarities in their construction and deployment of narratives. We also identify key features of what we call “the root war metaphor” that characterizes extremist narratives and apply a schema for analyzing “narrative trajectories” to suggest a relationship between these extremist narratives and acts of violence. What we can learn from shared narrative elements among extremist groups may help answer questions about the relationship of words to violence as well as speculate about how core narratives may be used to construct more compelling stories to promote social justice.
According to The Global Language Monitor (GLM), the word “narrative” tops the list of political buzzwords for 2010. But what is a “narrative?” And what does it mean that whatever a narrative is, it tops the list of buzzwords?
When you spend as much time as I do studying extremists’ narratives, whether they are in the global social movement we call Islamist jihad or in the national political movement I call the Teapublican Party, you will find a common pattern. It is, if you will allow the metaphor, a crazy quilt sewn from seemingly disparate extremist threads but with the same narrative needle.
In Friday’s blog I compared the basic core narratives of extremists representing radical Islam and those representing the Teapublican Party here in the U.S. I promised that I would begin offering some possible counter-narrative strategies. Today I will discuss one that has demonstrated some promise at home and abroad.
First, a word about counter-narrative strategies in a “war of ideas.” Unlike the usual counter-narrative strategies found in marketing campaigns, the idea here is not to claim a superior brand (e.g., the U.S. offers a better way of life than does al Qaeda or the Taliban; Progressives/liberals offer a better vision for America than do Teapublicans). Nor is the goal of a counter-narrative strategy to find an instant message/slogan/image capable of changing the target audience’s mind about our product. While these strategies may work well enough in a competitive business environment, they do not so work well in a highly charged political environment. Why?
There are two answers to this question. The first one is drawn from communication theory: “meanings are in people, not in words.” As my colleagues in the Consortium for Strategic Communication have argued, it is the audience that determines the meaning and worth of a message, not the sender or source, no matter how much money is put into the effort. For people who have grown up in a radicalized family or neighborhood, or who have gained exposure to it through a mediated environment saturated with a particular anti-U.S. or anti-Progressive worldview, no degree of branding, and certainly no instant slogan or image is likely to change minds already well accustomed to fending off challenges to the dominant local narrative. As Alex Baldwin points out in his blog this morning, there are still people in Nevada who never carry a dime in their pockets because it bears the image of FDR.
Images and icons are important. For example, the image of the U.S. as the “crusader” is particularly damaging in our efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Those of the Islamic faith are reared from childhood to recognize that crusader archetype within a particular narrative tradition, one that begins with the Pharaoh (Rameses II), a “tyrant” who dared to challenge the God of Moses and paid for it with his life, as well as the more recent historical crusades, where Western armies invaded their lands, stole their treasure, raped and killed their women, and otherwise did what invading armies generally do—wreak havoc and destruction while trying to convert the faithful to a different (and it is always claimed, a better) way of life. Put simply, our “brand” is tainted by deep historical associations that will not be easily remedied by trying to repackage U.S. efforts as anything but the work of a new tyrant (President Bush originally, now President Obama) and breed of Western crusader. Put simply, no one is listening. At least, not with an open mind.
This observation is as true among Tea Party members and the 70% of Republicans who, according to the most recent Gallup poll, identify with them. Our Progressive/liberal brand is one that many of them have been acculturated to hate, or at least to shun. Our archetypal Democratic heroes—FDR, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now Obama, for example—are, for these citizens, the true villains who created and perpetrated a big government model to control society, and that use taxation and regulation to redistribute wealth, rob us of our liberty, and subvert the original intentions of the founders. And this is putting it in polite terms.
For right-wingers steeped on these core beliefs and historical associations, no business-like rebranding effort is likely to work. Bad enough that the left can be ridiculed as having given up the label “liberal” (around 1988) in favor of “Progressive,” but even worse is that those of us who share that political affiliation don’t offer a common definition for it. For those on the far right, Obama is a socialist (despite rational arguments to the contrary); Obamacare is government takeover of health care (despite the fact that Medicare and Medicaid already exist); taxes are the problem (despite the fact that under Obama we pay far less tax than ever before in history); and so on. Neither making rational arguments nor simply stating the facts, m’am, are likely to sway their opinion. Put simply, again, no one is listening. At least, not with an open mind.
The second reason for not choosing a rebranding counter-narrative strategy is a bit more complicated. Just as the Internet and global media have expanded access to information, so too have they narrowed the channels, websites, and/or news sources that we pay attention to. We have managed to create gated communities in cyberspace as well on the airwaves, with the result being that most of us only tune into those channels that carry commentators we already agree with. Jihadis replay cassettes featuring the fiery rhetoric of radical clerics. Tea Baggers listen to Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck. In neither case do radicals trust news sources outside their own belief systems.
It isn’t that the truth isn’t “out there”; in fact, it may be. The problem is that any source that contradicts our core narrative with challenges to what we hold true is suspect, with the result being that no one outside of our worldview is a credible source for a message. This is true, obviously for the radical left as well. But unlike the radical right at home or the jihadis abroad, the left isn’t calling for a violent revolution or supporting armed insurrection against the government.
So here’s the problem: Unlike business marketing strategies that rely on saturating the airwaves and Internet with the same core message/advertisement/image in order to firmly implant a brand into our heads, when it comes to radical politics and ideologies, it won’t work because we only tune into those with whom we already agree. And there, on that bandwidth, the saturation is far more consistent and competent on the right than it is on the left. Doesn’t matter if the source is pro-Islamist or pro-Teapublican, the right at home and abroad is far better organized for message saturation than we are.
So what to do? One strategy is stop selling ourselves, period. Instead, we must use what we have learned about interpretive communities to defeat their narrative, their distortions, and their propaganda. As Jim Glassman, former U.S. Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs put it, “the priority is not to promote our brand but to help destroy Al Qaeda’s. …Think of American values and political system as orange juice. Think of the Al Qaeda system of violent extremism as lemonade. Our job for the short term is not to put all of our efforts into getting people to drink orange juice, but to get them not to drink lemonade.”
In short, don’t try to counter their narrative with ours; counter their narrative with the reasons why theirs is wrongheaded, unproductive, unhealthy,and/or is less likely to lead to the better life it promises, and so on.
How should we best accomplish that strategy? If they won’t listen to reason and don’t respect our facts, what may be done instead?
One method that holds promise across the political spectrum is the strategic deployment of humor and ridicule. It’s no secret that The Daily Show, the Colbert Report, Rachel Maddow, and maybe even Bill Maher have done more to counter the Teapublican right than any concerted effort from the often feckless and ineffective Democratic Party. Unfortunately, this claim is also true for Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, and a host of right-wing commentators who also deploy humor and ridicule to their listeners.
Similarly, the use of ridicule has been used against radical Islamists in Indonesia (for example, the Mas Selamat Kastari “jailbreak” caricature stemming from his escape from a Singapore prison) and is reportedly used by Special Forces troops to draw out Taliban fighters from hiding places in Afghanistan. It has also been reported that bin Laden fears ridicule more than he fears kinetic weapons. Students of politics and communication can also point to a long tradition of political cartoons as vehicles for challenging or resisting political and public figures, including the infamous Danish cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad that led to death threats and to mocking cynicism of Islam that contributed to the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh.
So there is a downside. More than one. For in addition to risking the wrath of those who are humiliated, the use of humor and ridicule as a counter-narrative strategy may lead to political inertia. As communication and society scholar Neil Postman expressed it years ago, as a society saturated by media opportunities, we risk “amusing ourselves to death.” Given that we have retreated to real and virtual gated communities, we may find ourselves laughing at humor and ridicule that is only fun to those who share our beliefs and values. Again, if no one is listening, how effective is the use of humor as a counter-narrative strategy?
So in the end it comes down to this one unfunny fact: it is unlikely that the use of humor and ridicule will change the minds of those who are seriously aligned against us. But it may help disrupt their narrative. Deflect their attention. Expose their vulnerabilities. And that is a good start …
Tomorrow we investigate a very different approach. Stay tuned!
Yesterday I wrote about the difficulties associated with launching an effective counter-narrative campaign against extremist ideologies. Within that context at home and abroad, I examined the relative strengths and weaknesses of the use of humor and ridicule. Today I want to explain why the use of reason alone seldom works against emotional appeals yet still has a place—although a different place and in a different deployment than you may associate with “rationality”—in any counter-narrative strategy. I know this claim seems to contain an internal contradiction, but as I teach students in communication classes, never trust a theory that doesn’t contain its own contradictions. They often prove the most robust and resilient in actual practice.