August 16, 2013

Beware Of Narratives

On January 4, 2012, I wrote a piece about media and politics. I never published it because I try to stay as far away from politics as possible on this blog. However, being on vacation from blogging, I went back and took a look at some of my unpublished stuff and felt that in light of the horrors going on in Egypt, I would post this. It's a year and a half old, but I think it holds up pretty well.

January 4, 2012

Our imprudent media love a good "narrative." A narrative is a generally accepted account of what's going on --  a story that explains a story.

For the media, it is a way to talk about events without bothering to understand or explain them in a mature fashion. Instead, they use a shorthand that assumes we all know the story, what it means and where it is going. A "narrative" often is represented by a catch phrase or cliche that sums it all up for us.

There are two big problems with "narratives." First is that they are usually born at the beginning of a phenomenon when the true nature of the phenomenon is not at all clear. The second is that they ignore cross-currents. There are very few actions in this world that don't have opposite reactions.

In the marketing world, there are certain narratives that have dominated press coverage of advertising for the past decade. The most obvious are the "advertising is dead," "television is dead," "social media is magic," and "the new consumer." It's taken about 5 years for the first two of these to be seen for the nonsense they are, but the second two are still going strong.

The real danger in believing in narratives does not reside in the silly sciences of advertising and marketing, it is in the real world of politics and power.

Last year our global media invented a narrative called the "Arab Spring." The Arab Spring took its name from the Prague Spring. The Prague Spring occurred in 1968 when Alexander Dubcek was elected first Secretary of the Czech Communist Party and instituted a series of liberal reforms. It ended when unopposed Russian-controlled forces invaded Czechoslovakia amid massive student protests and imposed "normalization."

By association with the Prague Spring, the Arab Spring narrative has taken a phenomenon --  the popular outbreak of dissatisfaction with a bunch of brutal dictators -- and has given it a story. The implied story -- or narrative -- is that liberal forces in the Middle East are uniting to create a democratic movement. In other words, the narrative already assumes an outcome of greater freedom and liberality.

It would be lovely if it were true, but thus far the evidence is thin on the ground.

In Egypt, the 10% of the population that is Christian has been persecuted and in some cases murdered. Women have been brutalized. The recent election has brought to power a coalition of ultra-conservatives and the Muslim Brotherhood -- an organization not renown for its tolerance. In Libya, black Africans were reportedly lynched by triumphant rebels. Organized rebels and militias armed with heavy weaponry are back to battling again. In Syria, thousands have been killed in unspeakable brutality. Even in Tunisia, where the "Arab Spring" was born, one week after elections riots broke out.

It is not unusual that between dictatorships and democratic reforms there is a period of excessive brutality (e.g., French Revolution/Reign of Terror) and we can hope that what we are seeing is just a brief period of violent reaction before the coalescence of democratic forces. But count me officially skeptical.

So far, it appears the "Arab Spring" is turning out to be just a stop on the road from brutal secular dictatorships to brutal theocratic dictatorships.

The Prague Spring was a period of liberalization and no fighting. Thus far, the Arab Spring has been all fighting and no liberalization.


steveschildwachter said...

Bob, thanks for publishing this after all. I've noticed many times over the past few years that Advertising and Journalism are being buffeted about by the same forces -- and as you've pointed out, by the same misperceptions. To be sure, there have been real economic consequences in both cases. Yet there's no reason to abandon the principles of great advertising or great journalism. We distract ourselves from doing great work by investing too much in "narratives".

Roy Kissel said...

It seems as though today's media feels the need to compartmentalize every story into its barest bones representation in order to help us "understand" what it is that is exactly happening and how we as viewers should feel about it. Some examples that come to mind are "Jonestown", "Whitewater", and "Flashcrash." This thinking has crept into advertising as well--a cheeseburger, fries and a shake are now a "number 2 meal." Hopefully there will always be representatives of global media that do not feel emboldened with the task of reducing every significant news event into its lowest common denominator.