Activists in America are faced with a narrative crisis. Confronted with a resurgence of far right organizing, with Nazis and other white supremacists marching openly in the streets of American cities, we are casting around for ways to engage a wide coalition of people to fight against hate – and our narrative resources our running low. We need new stories.
The far right has a simple and compelling story. It tells people that life is a competition between peoples, a zero sum game with winners and losers, and that white Americans have been losing for too long. It points to immigrants, people of color, and Muslims as scapegoats, and promises to do better for the “real” American people. It hearkens to the past, a supposed era of greatness, and promises to put things back to the way they were – when these people could feel unchallenged in their social supremacy. This story is completely false, a literal inversion of the truth. But truth doesn’t matter much when a story grabs the gut.
The narrative the far right is peddling piggybacks on genuine anxieties. Many of the angry white people drawn to white nationalism, white supremacy, and even Nazism are doubtless worried about their economic security, frustrated with a rigged political system, and feel threatened by cultural change. They are certainly feeling privileges slipping away, as their assumed superiority and position atop the social heap is challenged relentlessly (and righteously) by people who want to be respected as full human beings too. It is on these pages of fear and social anxiety which the hatemongers have written their tried and tested story and, at least to some extent, it is working.
In response there is a “social justice story” which my activist colleagues and I love to tell. This story stresses the historic injustices and structural oppression faced by people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, women, etc. It is uncompromising in its commitment to intersectionality, and recognizes that none of us are free until we are all free. It problematizes American history, revealing the contours of domination which have always shaped the nation’s past. It is angry, fiery about injustice, willing to shut shit down when necessary to get people thinking. It is increasingly comfortable with limitations on speech judged to be hateful. It sometimes advocates responding to purveyors of structural violence with physical violence.
It is a kick-ass story. It fearlessly tells the truth. It has achieved a lot. I think we should keep telling it.
There are problems with this story, though. It is frequently overly focused on the deconstruction of injustice, at the expense of conjuring visions of justice. I often find myself offering critiques of existing power structures without offering, with equal vividness, descriptions of the future we want to build – and I see this in activist spaces all the time. The social justice story forcefully challenges some sacred commitments of mainstream liberals (to unfettered speech freedoms and non-violence, for example), without always actually offering persuasive arguments in favor of the shift in position. It has a tendency toward rather rigid moral demarcations, such that people are either “inside” the story-tribe or “outside” of it. This makes it a tense narrative space to occupy. We turn people off who we could engage.
Also, there is a very high barrier to entry into the social justice story. The social justice spaces I work in frequently expect that people enter the work already equipped with the correct terminology, thinking in the right way. They are sometimes actively unwelcoming to newcomers, partly because the narrative we have created is couched in language which is alien to most people’s experience. This, combined with a low tolerance for mistakes, and a sometimes rather superior approach to people outside “the movement”, makes our narrative rather prickly. It is not inviting.
At the same time, the traditional narrative of American progressivism is hopelessly broken. The standard narrative of American progress, which harks back to the Founding Fathers and the supposed American tradition of freedom, trips easily of the tongues of Democratic politicians, but cannot withstand the criticism from today’s activists. That tired old story has buckled under the assault of truth: American freedom was never for the many and always for the few, and was built on the backs of people who never shared in the prosperity this nation offered white men. The United States was built on genocide and slavery, and narratives which gloss over this history in order to fire up white progressives will not find acceptance by today’s activists.
That is good. We cannot truly progress while ensorcelled by delusions of an imagined past grandeur. At the same time, I have observed (as an outsider to these shores) that most Americans are deeply patriotic. They are wedded to an idea of their nation as fundamentally a good place, a place where people can thrive and live freely. A narrative which tells them that their country is a miserable and unjust hellhole, which only a fool would love, will not sit well with them – even if it is true. Sometimes truths are too difficult for people to hear, especially if you want them to work with you.
Which leaves those of us who fight for justice and equity for all with a huge narrative challenge. We are faced with a powerful narrative opponent, and our toolbox, while not empty, has limited appeal. While we have successfully engaged and excited large numbers of people, who are getting involved in activism when they never have before, there are so many people we could reach who we are not reaching, or even who we are pushing away.
We are not even consistently reaching other self-identified liberals and progressives. I have a wide circle of colleagues and friends, ranging from hardened Antifa street warriors to broadly progressive people uncomfortable with street protests, and I cannot count the number of conversations I have had with well-meaning, thoughtful, intelligent, liberal-minded individuals who feel put off by the story we activists are currently telling. I think with some creativity and humility we could fix this problem, and make our movement stronger.
This is extremely important: we social justice activists don’t have to agree that our narrative is off-putting, or feel there is any merit to the concerns of mainstream liberals, in order to recognize that, as a matter of fact, our narrative is turning some people off. This is just a fact, and a rather obvious fact if we are honest with ourselves for a moment.
We could respond to this fact in any number of ways. We could make a judgment that we don’t need these people, and that therefore we don’t care if they come along with us or not. We could decide that they will eventually come round to our way of thinking if we repeat our narrative enough times (and, surely, I have seen people come on board – usually not, though, because an activist has convinced them, but because some piece of outrageous news has activated them). We could decide that the unwillingness of people to join with us, even when we acknowledge that our narrative is somewhat unwelcoming, is a sign of some deficiency in them, rather than a problem for us to solve as communicators and educators. Or we could think about other stories we could tell, alongside the social justice narrative we are comfortable with, which might provide an on-ramp for more people who currently feel pushed away by our rhetoric.
My preference is for the latter approach. I think that while contemporary social justice activism has had some extraordinary success, that we could be more successful if we found ways of conveying our values which are more welcoming to people who are a bit iffy about our current narrative. Who are unsure, a little scared perhaps. Ways which combine our deconstructive intellect with a warm prophetic voice which seeks to shape an inclusive future.
I have said that we cannot go back to the “standard progressive narrative.” I also argue that we cannot simply continue with the narrative tools we have in our toolbox right now which, like it or not, and for whatever reason, actually turn off too many progressives. So let’s write new stories. Let’s think about what a new American story would sound like, one which can include not only nervous liberals but (perhaps) people who feel the pull of the far right. This will be uncomfortable, and it is not work for everyone, but it is work I think is necessary to broaden the appeal of the social justice movement I care for so much.
I often hear activists say “there are more of us than there are of them.” To an extent, I agree: there are more people who are not neo-Nazis than who are neo-Nazis, sure. More people who voted against Trump than for him. More people who hate hatred more than they are nervous about the social justice narrative. But simple numbers don’t make a movement. Shared stories, an emotional commitment to a better future, make a movement. So we need to tell better stories: stories which are inviting, constructive, imaginative. If we can imagine a vision of a Just America, and enroll people in that vision, I think we will have greater chance of winning. And nothing is more important.
Enjoy my writing? Support me on Patreon!