Changing the Story: Story-Based Strategies for Direct Action Design
By Doyle Canning and Patrick Reinsborough, smartMeme Strategy and Training Project
In the Middle of the Whirlwind
Direct Action as Storytelling
Direct action is an age-old, common sense method of communal problem solving. Direct action is (quite simply) people organizing ourselves to make the changes we want to see in the world – whether it’s a community putting up their own radio transmitter to give voice to local residents, or mass civil disobedience to shut down a corporate war profiteer. Direct action is a good catch all term for any action where people step out of their scripted roles (be it as consumers, “good citizens” or apathetic spectators) and challenge the dominant expectation of obedience. When a direct action intervention is effective, it shifts power relationships in the moment it is happening, as well as builds lasting movement by leaving an imprint in our imaginations of new possibilities.
Every direct action is indeed part of the larger story that people powered movements are collectively (re)telling ourselves – and those whom we are inviting to join us — about the ability of ordinary people to organize, to govern ourselves, and to create change. Mass actions that are mobilizing large numbers of people to engage in direct action are an attempt to build a collaborative power for change that is compelling enough to confront and transform the coercive power of oppressive systems. Effective mass actions can build movement through alliances and organization, as well as reframe possibilities by effectively employing story-based strategies that can shift the assumptions underpinning our political status quo.
Narrative Power Analysis
A narrative analysis of power is the simple (but radical) recognition that humans understand the world (and our role in it) through stories, and thus all power relations have a narrative dimension. Stories are embedded with power– the power to explain and justify the status quo as well as the power to make change imaginable and necessary. Which stories define the cultural norms? Which stories are used to make meaning and shape our world? Who is portrayed as the main character, and whose story is ignored or erased? These questions are the narrative components of the physical relationships of power and privilege, the unequal access to resources, and denials of self-determination that define much of the global system.
Although the coercive aspects of physical, brute-force power are often more familiar and visible (police brutality, military occupation, economic intimidation etc.) narrative power can be equally coercive. The mythologies of Plymouth Rock, Manifest Destiny, Ellis Island and the American Dream are the pop-cultural histories that still haunt much of the political discourse today. Powerful interests routinely use propaganda, information warfare and the alluring buzz of the global advertising and marketing complex to de-mobilize social movements. When we are working to change the dominant stories about race, immigration, war and protecting the planet, these narratives are already in people’s heads acting as filters to our social change messages and often times limiting people’s sense of what is possible.
Telling a good story can provide new information, but more importantly it can also be help change attitudes and assumptions by reframing an issue or engaging people’s values to mobilize them to take action. Movements and campaigns that are pushing for sweeping changes in current policies must first and foremost win in the realm of ideas by changing the story that the public has around an issue. This means critically applying a narrative power analysis to identify the underlying assumptions that need to shift, and then telling a story that can challenge and change those assumptions.
Direct Action at the Point of Assumption
Across the planet people from all walks of life are taking action to intervene in the systems of domination and control. These interventions come at many places – from the point of destruction where resource extraction is devastating intact ecosystems, indigenous lands and local communities, to the point of production where workers are organizing in the sweatshops and factories of the world. Solidarity actions spring up at the point of consumption where the products that are made from unjust processes are sold, and inevitably communities of all types take direct actions at the point of decision to confront the decision makers who have the power to make the changes they need.
All of these physical points of intervention (and many more) are essential. However, our direct actions must do more than just temporarily disrupt business as usual because business as usual is a lot more than any one corporate meeting, event or specific destructive policy. Business as usual is a product of an elite world-view that defines the norms and priorities of the system and the parameters of the possible. Beyond the economic and political connections of the global system, business as usual is a dominant story told by the power holders that justifies their actions. A story-based strategy ensures that as we are intervening at a physical point of intervention (say the carefully stage managed spectacle of a modern political parties’ national convention) that we must be intervening in the power holder’s story as well.
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