Archives for posts with tag: narratives

Now that the incident in Paris is a few days old, I’ve had some time to gather my thoughts about it.

I was struck by a tweet sent out by Michael Deacon of the Telegraph. It made me rethink this dreadful incident.

I agree.

In the end, the terrorists probably didn’t care much about drawings of Muhammad or the insult to Islam. What was more on their mind was attacking something that we in the West hold very dear; in this case, freedom of expression. This was something likely to provoke a response aimed at the wider Muslim community. With the fire-bombings of mosques and the bolstering of anti-immigrant marches, they succeeded in getting the reaction they expected. Our culture holds other things in high esteem: tolerance, sexual freedom, secularism, Christianity, the right to vote. We should expect attacks on them too.

Contrary to some official statements, the jihadi death cults DO have something to do with Islam. But no more so than the Shining Path and the Khmer Rouge were related to socialism, or the Nazi terror emerged from nationalism. It’s not inevitable that religion – even ideology – will create death cults. All they do is to provide a fertile background from which a death cult narrative can emerge. Despite how deep the flaws in the underlying philosophies, we can’t blame all adherents of an ideology for the emergence of nihilistic terrorism from within.

We need to make a very clear distinction between Islam and the jihadi death culture. Jihadism is a narrative, a story that has been carefully concocted to deny its adherents their basic humanity. It’s a story that places themselves as the victim, fighting against a conspiracy of epic proportions, where everyone on the outside is the enemy – men, women and little children. It’s a narrative that appeals to a certain personality and a certain mindset. Even when people are born into the most desperate of circumstances, it is not inevitable that they will radicalise into death cult adherents.

While countering the social circumstances that create fertile recruitment grounds for jihadism, we need to combat that narrative. One way to do this is to show alternatives from within the community itself. We need to celebrate and support Muslim successes and the essential humanism that is as much part of their community as it is ours. Now is not a time to alienate our Muslim compatriots. It’s a time to embrace them. They are as much victims of this horror as we are, if not more so.

Storytelling may be the most important means of verbal communication that we have. Stories were the standard form of imparting knowledge from generation to generation for millennia. To this day, some of the best forms of entertainment: movies, novels, plays; are ones that tell a story. Children learn stories at an early age by their parents. We were born to narrate, and to be narrated to.

via youngdoo (Flickr / CC Licensed)

A key aspect of good stories is their coherence. Everything in the story contributes to the message the author wishes to impart. A case is built up, line upon line, until a solid, inevitable conclusion is reached. The aim of the storyteller is to build up evidence that convinces the reader; there should be no loose ends. Incongruence is disparaged. To tell a good story is to make it flow like water from source to sea. Coherence is the power of good storytelling.

In life, we tell stories all the time. We use the tools of the narrator to make our message heard, to compete for jobs, to seek enrichment. The best storytellers find tales that contribute to their narratives. If there is a jarring note, they try to write it out of the plot. There are many techniques to do this. Our stories create coherence, direction and conviction in a otherwise chaotic world.

Via Local Studies NSW (Flickr, CC Licensed)

Stories package life into digestible bites, but we all know that life is not so simple. Stories, by their very nature, are distortions of reality. They place greater weight on some incidents, facts, people, findings and opinions; while minimising the importance of other aspects of a situation. They gloss over complexities in the interest of maintaining attention. Two people can create totally different stories from exactly the same event. If we want to understand real events, we need to treat individual stories with great caution.

Stories are often central to the world-views of people. At the heart of all great political movements, religions, fads and management theories are narratives – ways of looking at the world that emphasise certain aspects while dismissing contradictory information. The filters are so great that people go to the grave convinced of their certainty, even when all the evidence points in the opposite direction.

We should be thankful that we possess narrative thinking, as it is our greatest communication tool. At the same time, we should mindful of its many weaknesses. There are occasions in life where simple narratives are not enough. There are situations where the distortion field erected by narration needs to be pulled down, so that we can understand reality as it is, faults, blemishes and all.


Fortunately, there is a mode of thinking that recognises the failures of the narrative. It accepts challenges head-on. It seeks to understand the biases that plague our patterns of thought. Through testing and experimentation, it matches our premises to reality. This type of thinking does not come naturally to us. We have only engaged with it, seriously and systematically, over the last 400 years. In that time, it has proven itself over and over again; allowing us to see things as they are, rather than how we think they should be. We have a name for this type of thinking.

We call it science.

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