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?
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.
This week the big news is the midterm election and there are two competing narratives worth examining. Today, in advance of the vote, I want to use my ethnographic and rhetorical training by loosely applying to them Clifford Geertz’s textual methods for uncovering organizing principles in cultural stories and Walter Fisher’s well-worn criteria for evaluating narratives, namely, do they “hang together” and do they “ring true?”
Today promises to be a tough day for Democrats. Henry A. Giroux, writing a scary op-ed last week in truthout, compares the likely results this midterm election with the advent of a new Gilded Age. He says:
Poised now to take over either one or two houses of Congress, the exorbitantly rich along with their conservative ideologues wax nostalgically for a chance to once again emulate that period in 19th century American history when corporations ruled political, economic and social life, and an allegedly rugged entrepreneurial spirit prevailed unchecked by the power of government regulations. Wild West, casino capitalism, unhampered by either ethical considerations or social costs, has reinvented itself and become the politics of choice in this election year. Enthusiasm runs high as billions of dollars flow from hidden coffers into the hands of anti-public politicians, whose only allegiance is to power and the accumulation of capital.
I have been musing about the ritual process in American political culture and thinking about where we are as a country following the midterm election results. When I think about cultural rituals such as elections in this way I revisit the ideas of Victor Turner, a Scottish anthropologist who studied the Ndembu in Africa and wrote about the social drama involved in, among many other things, the making of a tribal chief.