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.
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?”
“They had an enormous opportunity to bring about change and they failed, and I don’t say that harshly,” he said, adding: “They really are left-wing elitists and they really thought the country didn’t get it, and, therefore, it was their job to give the country the government that they thought the country needed, even if they didn’t want it.” – Newt Gringich, on the morning after the midterms in 1994
In Permanence and Change, Kenneth Burke introduces the idea that “motives are shorthand terms for situations.” When someone—say, a political commentator—names something as a “motive” for an outcome, what she or he is also doing is associating that motive with an outcome without discussing the complex mix of contributing factors, all of which add up to an understanding of the situation. The assumption is that the audience—let’s say voters—will fill in the details with what they already know. Or, as was the case last night, with what they didn’t care to know because it might have contradicted what they already believed, which was largely incorrect.
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.