To respond effectively to urgent political problems we should look for answers in unlikely places. Narrative scholars offer many ideas and insights, writes Dahrendorf Forum Postdoctoral Fellow Josefin Graef.
The many ruptures that have dominated western politics in recent years—including the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum, and changes in national party landscapes—have exposed a need for innovative thinking and collaboration across sectoral and disciplinary boundaries both within and outside academia in order to meet pressing political challenges.
However, even within the social sciences and the humanities (SSH), genuinely interdisciplinary work is still comparatively rare. The impact of these disciplines on policymaking, moreover, remains limited, although several important initiatives have begun to tackle this problem.
The recent conference, “Uses and Abuses of Storytelling” at the University of Turku, organised by the Nordic Narrative and Memory Network, is therefore unlikely to have been on the agenda of any policy actor. Still, the conference focused on the very questions that confront many of them on a daily basis: How should we understand and communicate current migration dynamics? How can we combat the spread of disinformation? What can be done to stabilise liberal democracy?
One of the key issues they identified concerns the link between authenticity, truth, and identity in contemporary democratic politics, and how it relates to populism.
The Era of Political Authenticity?
According to Francis Fukuyama’s new book entitled Identity, a competition between rampant “political correctness” and the expression and recognition of “one’s true inner self” has taken hold in western politics. Donald Trump, he writes, “was the perfect practitioner of the ethics of authenticity that defines our age: he may be mendacious, malicious, bigoted, and unpresidential, but at least he says what he thinks”. Authenticity no longer means sticking to one’s campaign promises or appearing to be in touch with ‘ordinary’ people. Instead, it has become part of identity politics.
In narrative terms, this demand for being ‘real’ by expanding the range of that which is accepted as morally legitimate, has—as Mark Freeman argued in his conference keynote—led to the creation of entire story worlds that do not correspond to social reality. Importantly, however, many of the stories do have a core of truth,—but their tellers let this core stand for the story as a whole.
One of the most prominent examples of this mechanism is Trump’s insistence that (illegal) immigrants bring crime and therefore need to be kept out of western states altogether. The actual story, for both the US and other immigrant-receiving countries such as Germany, is that on the whole immigration does not increase crime levels. If at all, there is a statistically higher tendency towards criminality among young, less socially integrated men—who constitute a major share of migrants in Europe—regardless of nationality. Because of this truthful core, these stories and the worlds they create are not easily challenged. The problem is reinforced by the ‘age of outrage’ in which even broaching the subject of what constitutes ‘truth’ is difficult.
A Crisis of Truth?
Should we therefore be speaking of a crisis of truth? On the one hand, this label appears justified. If the very idea that there is such a thing as a common world that helps us assess the truthfulness of a claim is questioned, then something is at stake that cannot be saved through debate alone. These are the networks (composed of cultural practices, media, political institutions, etc.) behind the creation of knowledge itself. Trump’s promotion of the popular demand for ‘true self-expression’, therefore, not only disregards existing moral conventions, but actively challenges their social foundations.
This replacement of honesty with authenticity is at the core of post-truth politics. Its denial of (the necessity of) a shared social and political reality has become part and parcel of everyday political competition. This also applies to many countries outside the US. The many lies told during and in the aftermath of the Brexit campaign, for example, have consistently been glossed over by stakeholders across the political spectrum who have instead emphasised the need to implement “the decision of the British people”.
On the other hand, the notion of crisis may do more harm than good. As keynote speaker Andreea Deciu Ritivoi explained at the conference, ‘crisis’ does not merely capture an emergency situation that demands an immediate response. Instead, it provides a particular frame of reference for making sense of lived experience. It limits the kind of stories we can tell and displaces, rather than promotes, agency.
It is therefore no surprise that crisis rhetoric forms an important part of populist political communication. By focusing on threats posed by immanent external change, it justifies taking recourse to familiarity and intuition—not institutionalised procedures—as a way of returning to immediate stability. The constant linking of failures across different policy areas allows populist actors to normalise a sense of crisis, which in turn multiplies and preserves uncertainties. Consequently, if we want to challenge ‘post-truth politics’, we are well advised to refrain from crisis rhetoric and instead address the collective uncertainties that underlie this phenomenon in the first place.
What conclusions can we draw from the narrative perspective on authenticity, truth, and identity offered by the conference participants? The following recommendations are of particular relevance for political communication, journalism, and education:
1. Be transparent about how knowledge is produced. Creating knowledge is always political, because making sense of the world is always rooted in social practices and institutions and serves particular interests. Only by acknowledging this is it possible to actively disentangle our storytelling from identity politics.
2. Challenge narratives with integrity and moral clarity. It does not suffice to be moral, we also need to talk about morality. If Trump, for example, speaks of heroes and villains, this moral opposition should not simply be ignored, but integrated into the response. Remember that stories are not meant to be factual, but affective—they are designed to make you feel something. Facts alone cannot be used as an effective narrative tool.
3. Tell the whole story. Media coverage and political communication need to take into account that the public is well aware of the connections between major political issues such as migration, the future of work, and levels of social security. Professional communicators need to offer more reflections on the big picture by showing how everyday stories from across the social, political, and economic spheres are linked to each other. This may also help in countering the populist reduction of multidimensional stories to their core truth.
4. Promote the reading of literature. Whether as part of school curricula, at book fairs, or through community projects, reading literature is essential for developing a feeling for complex, evocative, and multi-voiced storytelling. It teaches us that being authentic is not about renouncing social and moral norms, but about recognising the complexity of one’s own human condition—and that of others.
Josefin Graef is Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum based in Berlin.