Lies, Lies and Damned Narratives

In this series on the nature and value of public narrative to community organisers, we have reached a stage where we can move on to look at the wider implications of storytelling. In the early parts of this overview, we explored the sheer ubiquity of story and its power to shape our appreciation of issues. We looked at frames and the way myth is fundamental to human existence. We also considered how memes carry key elements of story through our culture, being shared, transformed and reinvented constantly. In the last three posts, I have outlined the practice of public narrative as a way for community organisers to harness the power of storytelling to their work.

story_warsAny reader who has browsed this site or read more than a few of my posts will know that I am absorbed by power and its influence on our society. Today I want to consider how stories are used to powerful ends. My thinking on this has been essentially formed by Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs who lays out in strong prose the development of marketing and public affairs. He argues convincingly that we are in an age when the story is king. Policy making, economic development and social relations are fundamentally structured by the stories we believe. I will illustrate this with three current examples and then next time draw out the implications for organisers.

An Ageing Population

We are continually reminded that the demographic profile of our country – and indeed most of the global North – is growing older. We have declining levels of fertility and mortality which in plain speech means fewer children are being born and more people are living longer. Now the story of most coverage tells us that this means a growing number of older people dependent on a shrinking number of wage-earners and tax-payers. The grim future predicted is one of strained services, declining standards of family care and millions living with “dementia sufferers”. This narrative has been successfully used by government, media and civil society to engineer a specific set of policies, to frame a policy debate that has foregrounded some issues and placed in the background others of equal merit.

An alternative narrative points out that this trend is nothing new and that society whilst challenged by such changes has so far managed to deliver increased standards of living and improved prospects for most people. Currently we are enjoying the work of over 1M people in the UK who are working when over the age of 65, still active, participating, earning and contributing their wisdom and experience. As those numbers rise, so will the income to the state and the quality of life for most people. The real issue is that we still associate older years with poverty (because we do not pay people sufficient in their younger years to ensure they have reasonable means to sustain their lifestyle as they age) and dependency (because we assume that ill health mushrooms when people pass a certain age when in fact it’s greatest impact is in the last five years of life, now in the late 70s and early 80s for many). The reality is that we are becoming ‘younger’ as the decline of old age is increasingly postponed to later and later in life. We need a different focus for policy development!

DWP targetting fraud poster by Richard McKeever CC FlickrStrivers and Skivers

Another narrative that has the media and government in its thrall is the story about the danger of scroungers to our nation and its character. Whilst this story is expressed as a party political one, nonetheless it can be unpicked by careful analysis and checking with the research data. The story is promoted through many channels such as several national newspapers and some broadcast media. Its power comes from the sense of unfairness that is triggered by the comparison of our own righteous hard work and deserving effort and the lazy, lying and undeserving characters who appear regularly as benefit scroungers. The key to its insidious nature is that the word ‘scrounger’ is only used sparingly but the underlying frame remains in place, reinforcing the perception that the UK has a major problem with benefit fraud and large families perpetually dependent on state handouts.

The picture is clarified when the facts are laid bare. Whilst the survey results from respected Ipsos MORI show people in general (the mean) estimate for the number of people unemployed is at 22%, the real figure is closer to 8%. The mean estimate for people not born in the UK but resident here (read immigrants) is 31% whilst the true figure from the 2011 census is actually 13%. To return to our theme, out of £100, people estimate that benefit fraud totals £24 of the benefits budget whilst the reality is 70p. The problem is blown out of all proportion to promote a particular view of society and its ills. If benefit fraud is low, then it cannot be justified to place claimants under such draconian scrutiny; if most people on benefits are honest and law-abiding, we cannot impose such stigma and humiliation on those who need society’s help. Yet we do because the story is king!

Woodcock St food bins by Birmingham News Room CC FlickrAusterity and Neoliberalism

Great work has been done by the new economics foundation (nef) to reveal the story told the British public about the necessity of cutting services to the bone, pulverising the NHS, radically reducing or removing welfare payments all together (reform?) and exasperating the divide between rich and poor. The story goes that debt is dangerous to the nation’s well-being, that Britain is broke and that austerity is a necessary evil. It goes on to suggest that big bad government is the problem, that welfare is a drug that builds dependence, the country can be classified into hard-working families and the lazy, fraudulent benefit cheats and that its all Labour’s mess anyway. This story allows the Coalition government to place itself in role of hero and calls on values such as ambition, wealth, self-discipline, independence and reciprocity. No other narrative so well defines the current situation and nothing coherent has yet been constructed to challenge its legitimacy. It is in the interests of those who profit from this story to prevent an alternative being developed and promoted; the oppressed and marginalised continue to suffer the consequences of such a narrative.

If we as organisers are to be effective in countering such stories, we need to attend to four things:

  • Getting our facts straight
  • Sorting out our own frames and values
  • Telling stories that inspire and resonate
  • Creating the broader myth with others

But more on creating counter-narratives next time!

Resources

Jonah Sachs (2012) Winning the Story Wars: Why those who Tell – and Live – the Best Stories will Rule the Future Harvard Business School

Great Britain: The Way we Live Now – Ipsos Mori End of year Review 2013 http://www.slideshare.net/IpsosMORI/ipsos-mori-great-britain-the-way-we-live-now

Carys Afoko and Daniel Vockins (2013) Framing the economy – the austerity story nef Available as a pdf from http://www.neweconomics.org/publications/entry/framing-the-economy-the-austerity-story

John McInnes and Jeroen Spijker ‘Hard evidence: Can we afford an ageing population?’ in The Conversation at http://theconversation.com/hard-evidence-can-we-afford-an-ageing-population-21386 dated 18 December 2013

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