How do we change deeply held cultural narratives and open new space for our stories?

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How do we change deeply held cultural narratives and open new space for our stories?

What if the change you want to make is currently seems impossible? How do we achieve the political moments that change what a culture fundamentally accepts as truth?

  • Do you have examples of cultural breakthrough when massive change floods in?
  • How do we harness psychic breaks?
  • How do we create psychic breaks?

Psychic break is the process or moment of realization whereby a deeply held dominant culture narrative comes into question, oftentimes stemming from a revelation that a system, event, or course of events is out of alignment with core values.

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

-- Danielle Coates-Connor


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This is very very difficult.

This is very very difficult. And requires part intellect, research and a capacity to be extremely sly! Its a matter of framing the context in new (seemingly) light.

In my experience, if one digs deep enough, one may always find localized stories in support of one's idea, which can hence be used to fight the normalized cultural notions which maybe against the interests of a certain group of people of a society.

For instance, one does not really consider Pakistan to be a haven for Gay rights, possibly because of religous and cultural reasons. But by doing some research one finds that the sodomy laws present in Pakistan are actually a bi-product of Her colonization by the British, and this fact can be used to the benefit of gay rights perhaps. Likewise, the sufi poet/saint, Madhu Laal, was known to have been in a same sex relationship (or divine love in sufi terms) with a younger male partner who was also a Hindu. This relationship was latter changed to that of father and son by possibly the government of Zia-ul-Haq, as part of the revised history. And hence, this part of history was lost to us. And if some one now says gay rights in Pakistan, one may consider them to be a completely foreign idea. But perhaps by using such localized stories, which may be slightly forgotten, but not lost, one may find a wee bit of success. Nevertheless, i would want to point out, that to the best of my knowledge, no such strategy has been implemented yet!

But cultural sensitivity is the key!

Changing deeply held beliefs around girls' education

Thanks for sharing these ideas, AhsanMasood! Yes, changing deeply held cultural narratives can be very difficult. How do we challenge these narratives and open space for new stories?

We hosted a conversation a few months ago on Powerful Persuasion: Combating traditional practices that violate human rights. Many great examples of persuasion tactics and strategies were shared, along with advice and lessons-learned. Something that was mentioned over and over was the understand the motivation that lies beneath the cultural narratives - what are people getting from sustaining these deeply held beliefs?

An interesting example that was shared was about a campaign in Pakistan to educate more girls. Through many conversations with leaders and community members, the organization learned that there were some in the community that didn't want the girls educated because "people were afraid that their daughters would become too westernized, would stop listening to their parents, and would become too headstrong." After many attempts to change the story by highlighting all the reasons why educating girls is a good thing, what eventually convinced the families to go against the community's deeply held belief was to reframe the opportunity as a 'scholarship'. It took a lot of patience, many conversations, lots of listening, and a little re-branding to finally open the space for a new story and new opportunities.

It would be great to hear about the experiences of the participants in this conversation - how have you challenged deeply held narratives to open space for your story? Share your examples and the lessons you've learned!

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder


MEME WATCH: Bartolome Day @oatmeal reframes #ColumbusDay  Celebrate survival & resistance #IndigenousPeoplesDay

Resisting the Columbus Quincentenary of 1992

Danielle's example reminds me of a 1991-1992 project that was remarkably successful for us here in Toronto, Canada. Using a methodology called Naming the Moment (a form of what's called, in Latin America, "sistematizacion" and similar in some ways to CSS's "story-based strategy") a coalition of very diverse member organizations met in early 1991 to apply a tool called conjunctural analysis in order to anticipate the subsequent couple of years of social justice struggle. With a federal election to happen in the Fall of 1991 we struggled to resist the inevitable "gravity" of such moments that tend to eclipse (or otherwise subsume and subordinate other struggles). Our coalition included indigenous participation but not as robustly as many of us felt it should have. We identified the Columbus Quincentenary celebrations as a key moment into which we could (and indeed must) intervene. Through a summer of biweekly meetings, we crafted a new leadership group (including representatives from many Toronto-based indigenous groups) and chose the resistant framing and naming of "Celebrating 500 Years of Resistance and Survival". The key piece of our effort was a series of 8 monthly Naming the Moment workshops between September 1991 and Spring 1992. There were a series of Summer 1992 workshops (including inviting and producing a performance with Bread and Puppet Theatre from Glover, Vermont) further to prepare for the October 12, 1992 date of the "quincentenary". Long story short: as far as Toronto and Ontario was concerned, our work clearly influenced the dominant discourse that was, until our creative resistance, prepared blithely to celebrate this moment of colonial history. You can read more about Naming the Moment and this project (see links at bottom of post) in particular here. Also, the Naming the Moment manual is available for free download on our (Catalyst Centre) website.

Such a beautiful example

Such a beautiful example Danielle! LOVED it!

MEME WATCH: Bank vs. America, lets get ready to rumble!

Powerful meme, Danielle - thanks for sharing! Another powerful meme to share here is "Bank vs. America". CSS documented the case study on their website, including the result of this action:

The "Bank vs. America" meme ran in the New York Times, Boston Globe, The Guardian UK, Democracy Now! and many more. Kenzo Shibata of the Huffington Post called our @bankvsamerica "The Best Twitter Handle in Recent History" while we helped the hash tag #99power trend. With over 900 press hits and UNITY's message and meme dominating the coverage, it was a tremendously successful effort that amplified the voices of people of color and working class families hit first and worst by the  predatory practices and greedy recklessness of B of A.

A video of the epic showdown is on YouTube.

Awesome example!

What other clever and powerful memes are out there? How did they work? What was the impact?

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

I've got the "cranky" on for memes

I'm afraid i'm not much of a fan of the notion of "meme" and worry that it influences us negatively both in promoting an unhelpful simplification and a piece of bad theory, i.e. there are ideas that have an agency apart from human cultural agency. When i first read Dawkins' case for "meme" i thought it a clever metaphor but little more. Having studied biochemistry for several years when young, i have a good vocabulary for how DNA replicates and changes. And meme, borrowing a little from this biological reality, is, as i said, clever. But if you follow the metaphor it breaks down given that the theory of "meme" having any independent existence, lacks significantly, many of the components of biological replication. Thus "meme", for me, apart from "cute metaphor", is a substitue from what scholars of lingusitics and cultural studies have long identified as sign and symbol. I set aside my interest in "memes" some time ago but have welcomed the term back given the practice i have seen in social media - primarily of "lolcats" which, for me, in addition to cute images of cats, includes all the well-intentioned sharing (and endless reposting) of nice images with slogans or catch phrases, etc. This practice of virally reproducing image content is obviously a dominant one within social media. And i tolerate it for the sake of the good content that one finds amdist the endless scroll of cute memes. (But lolcat me more than once and you generally get defriended ;-)

One of the things we struggle with about stories is the instrumental use of stories that is characteristic of advertising industry practice. And therein lies my concern with memes. The concept serves the interest of a culture of advertizing more than one of social movement meaning making. What a lot of people call "memes" were once called slogans and i think slogan still works just fine. The term meme, for me, obfuscates. And it urges us to think in simplistic terms rather than in the complex ways that stories teach us to think and allow us to communicate. Memes are dazzling. They can be communicated fast. Their content and syntax can be reproduced with remarkable little "message loss". They are, perhaps, the lingustic equivalent of bullets and bombs. Stories, by contrast, are more like people. A story is a living thing; a meme has more in common with a zombie. Dissect a story too much and you kill it. Dissect a meme and i expect you'll find a dapper and coiffed Madison Avenue ad exec saying, "Gotcha - welcome to my world."

I find the notion that memes are self-replicating to be particularly injurious to human dignity. And the science on this that i have read simply doesn't support this theory. I'm okay with seeing memes as a function of language and culture and therefore being part of the rules and processes that we have studied going all the way back to Plato. But to theorize a meme as self-replicating is to remove from human agency a fundamental aspect of how we make, resist and negotiate meaning. And that's not cool.

Okay, that's a little rant-y, i'll admit. And I don't aim to offend (which doesn't mean that i haven't). So i would love to hear from CSS how they theorize meme and story. Is meme not simply hip jargon for the perhaps more stodgy "slogan" or more academic (semiotic) "sign/symbol"? What does meme allow us to understand and know that we didn't before?

virality and power

I think you raise some interesting questions here — metaphysical ones as well as practical ones. In one respect, I think you're a bit to quick to dismiss the notion of the "meme" altogether. A meme is a kind of information, and just like a slogan and a story and a gene, it's information that can pass through various physical media. It can have power just as much as any of them, and I don't think it makes sense to set up rigid hierarchies about which is more real, or what impact they have on human dignity. Stories, too, can be crushing to human dignity, e.g. Mein Kampf.

The question of reality and dignity, I think, comes up when we talk about where any of these things — memes, stories, slogans — stand with respect to power. Are they supported by grassroots power and organizing that sustains healthy communities? Or are they disseminated through top-down organs of oppression? Activists, I've found, can sometimes think that simply to make a meme "go viral" is a victory in itself; it can be a rheotrical victory, at least. But when that rhetorical effect is not backed up by power through organizing, it will come to disappoint.

storytelling and memes

one reason i think it important to at least be skeptical (in a critical thinking kinda way) about how we are conceptualizing and using the notion of memes is that we are acting on a theory of how change happens regarding stories, storytelling and, more broadly, narrative (and it's really "theories" that are in play - for we represent a great diversity of both difference and nuance).

i appreciate your points, Nathan, and i certainly don't mean to imply a "rigid hierarchy" about what is "more real", nor do i mean to be dismissive of the notion of meme. Critically skeptical, for sure. Thus my reading of Dawkins and Dennet as well as these two pieces here and here (this latter one is a bit rant-y but also very well written and kinda funny). I remain open to being persuaded that memes are more than simply new jargon for old things (and if it's the jargon of the discourse, i will use it even while remaining skeptical).

And i agree completely, Nathan, that from whom the message (meme, slogan, idea) originates is crucial - as well as who backs up the idea. And i see a connection with your implicit critique that some activists are quick to claim victory simply based on viral success and not on other necessary and essential factors.

My enthusiasm for and commitment to stories is a multilayered matrix of cognition, emotion, spirituality and materiality (or physicality) which is to say that they are beautiful, complex encodings of knowledge and theory, sacred and profane, and a pleasure to share, to tell, to listen to.  An ancient midrash says that god wanted adam's spirit to enter the flesh, the spirit resisted. It was only when god invented music (which could only be heard with ears) that adam's spirit allowed itself to be drawn into the body. Subsitute "story" for "music" in this tale and you may sense my ethics and belief about story.

For over 30 years i have practiced popular education - initially inspired by the work of Paulo Freire, i have travelled both geo-political and conceptual worlds - always to learn more. And i've learned a few things about which i am relatively confident: stories are what make us human and dialogue is the best theory (or praxis) for how change should happen. One of my discoveries of the past ten years was a rediscovery of of Hannah Arendt whose work i read in the 80s as i tried to understand totalitarianism, genocide, stalinism and more. What i missed in my younger reading of Arendt was that she is a theorist of storytelling. Something represented to me in the work of Shari Stone-Mediatore (in Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowledges of Resistance). Arendt's work was a missing piece for me about how stories and dialogue are intimately connected. In brief, Arendt argues that it is through storytelling that we negotiate shared worlds, shared meanings, even while maintaining ongoing dialogues about differences. Here's one choice quote for Stone-Mediatore's book:

  • Stories also encourage critical and inclusive political discussion because stories, at least when they present themselves as stories, make a claim about the world without ending debate. When someone tells a story as a story, that is, as a historically located person's attempt to render intelligible distant phenomena, she does not replace one total explanation of the world with another. Instead, she invites her community to try to understand the particular historical perspective that her way of organizing and describing events makes possible. Such a perspective is always partial and always only one way of telling the story; however, so long as this inherent partiality is acknowledged, it is not a shortcoming but a virtue, for it stimulates reconsideration, retelling, and supplementation from other standpoints.

Our knowledge-world is made up of logic and narrative (see Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning). Logic is based on the principle of non-contradiction. For something to be logical, there can be no contradiction. When such is found within a logical argument it is a puzzle that begs being resolved. Narrative, in contrast, requires contradiction. What story works without the unexpected, without twists and turns, surprises and so on? We love stories precisely becuase of the way that they play with meaning - taking risks, challenging, if not breaking, boundaries. Together logic and narrative, hardly opposed to each other, make for a powerful pair of practices for making and communicating meaning.

Consider Mulla Nasrudin's ferry ride: one day Mulla Nasrudin was on a small ferry crossing a deep river. A scholar, also a passenger, struck up a conversation asking Nasrudin if he knew anything about mathematics. Nasrudin said he did not. The scholar asked if he knew anything about science, biology, astronomy, navigation. About each of these Nasrudin admitted ignorance after which the scholar said, "Well, half your life is wasted for your lack of knowledge." Nasrudin then asked the scholar if he knew how to swim to which the scholar replied, "I do not." Nasrudin then said, "then all of your life is wasted for this ferry is sinking."

Despite all our scholarship, history and science, culture and the world remain things of great mystery. Our struggle to understand and change things is as old as language itself. And our ideas about this have included those which state in many ways, that we change nothing, that it is divine will (fill in whatever god(s) you like) as well as those ideas which posit that it has nothing to do with divinity and only to do with what us toolmakers have been up to. And, of course, many things in between these poles of a matrix. I leave a lot of room for mystery and i practice an active curiosity and skepticism about most things. As i do with memes. Sure, memes could be self-replicating things forged evolutionarily by forces of struggle and selection. And they could be viruses that infect minds, replicating themselves, adapting, and moving on to new minds. Perhaps culture itself is a linguistic virus/countervirus as Neal Stephenson suggests in his novel Snow Crash. I do prefer to leave the notion of memes as viruses to science-fiction writers. As a storyteller, popular educator and activist, i prefer to align myself with processes of dialogue - processes that acknowledge the agency and dignity of people and cultures. A process in which we need to be curious and generous and kind. I'm skeptical that what we see is people serving as a host platform for memes that have a virus-like independent existence. If we believe whatever memes are work this way and we send our own (presumably better) memes into the world, how is this not a form of manipulation? How is this an emancipatory act? I don't see it.

Again, i contrast how stories work. If memes have a material existence then i feel it is akin to a bullet. Whether a meme is a synonym for campaign slogan, or even "idea", it is something that can be targeted and launched and it can skewer other ideas in the contests of meaning that plays out daily (even hourly) in our media-super-saturated world. But do they create more space for kindness and compassion and creativity? Not that stories are somehow more innocent. In fact, given stories' role in inflaming and propelling populations to the extremes of genocide, we could make a case for stories being weapons of mass destruction. Stories are dangerous. Which is perhaps, merely another way of saying that stories are powerful. They destroy. But they also create.

Another midrash: god invented humans because god loves stories.

Please forgive me the length of this response/post. I realize i risk being qualified as a flamer. Alas...

Bank vs America

We worked with that powerful and perfect meme to develop the outreach poster for the actions at the shareholder meetings for UNITY.

When thinking of the story we wanted to tell, we thought of several visual concepts such as "brand jamming" the logo of Bank of America (retooling the logo to tell a more accurate story). But since some of us enjoy Mixed Martial Arts, our first and foremost concept was to do a satire on a boxing theme such as some of the famous boxing tournaments that have been held. After a few rounds of design ideas, (such as a slick big production typical boxing poster where there are two central players), we went for an old school style, wanting to show The People of America as a diverse group of regular people taking on The Bank. We want ed to show that people of color and working class people are the ones who are the catalyst for change, and who are standing up to the big banks.



Yes, another term to throw in the mix: Culture Jamming

Thanks, Nadia! I hadn't heard of 'brand jamming' before, but that's a great way to describe the clever use of the Bank of America logo.

Another term that we may want to add to this discussion (not to be too jargony) is "culture jamming". I think this is another form that our stories can take (as well as our "memes" and our narratives). Here's an explanation of this concept from Tactical Tech:

At their core, all culture jamming actions have a central intention: to challenge or disrupt dominant discourse with a dose of subversion and creativity. These actions use hacking and the spreading of disinformation as tactics – and they often use the same tools as mass media and marketing to create their disruptions. The Yes Men, for example, conduct pranks where they impersonate CEOs of big corporations or put out false press releases. Molleindustria create games revealing the darkside of institutions and industries, while Occupy George distribute revealing information about wealth distribution to US citizens. 

Mark Derry, one of the first people to study and write about culture jamming as a tactic, called it “artistic terrorism" directed against the information society in which we live.” That was in 1990. Now, as technology has become more accessible and new tools appear daily to help us produce video, audio mash-ups, print media and websites fairly easily, the opportunities to conduct this kind of information “terrorism” grow.

How have you used this idea of culture jamming in your campaigns? Has it worked? What was the impact? What lessons did you learn?

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder


Culture Jamming could be so much more

When i first heard the term "culture jamming" in the mid-80s (living in Montreal where i grew up more or less) i thought it a perfect naming of things we'd been doing for years - lots of graffiti, protesting with puppets, insurgent 'zine distribution (i later learned to call this droplifting), billboard alteration and so on. I quickly riffed on the idea of "jamming" and thought, "how wonderful that there's a term that simultaneously names three things: blocking or oherwise gumming up a 'machine', hacking and/or stopping a broadcast signal, and preserving something tasty and sweet." I imagined a movement of culture jammers that hacked and pranked the dominant messaging while simultaneously examining/discussing how the world should be. I thought of "culture jamming" as an act that named an activism that fought both against and for something, resisting oppression and prefiguring the world yet-to-be. (At least you oculd argue that the playful spirit of culture jamming is part of the prefiguring of a better possible world.) Alas... "culture jamming" pretty much came to name the first bit - the "against" part. So it goes. Dery's work was important to me as well. And Kristin's examples including the Yes Men, are excellent (incidentally, we had a workshop with "Andy Bicklebaum" of the Yes Men at York University here in Toronto last spring. It was awesome!)

One wonderful thing we did here in Toronto - during a demo against the second Gulf War - was to mess with the phrase "Shock and Awe", the US military naming of the tactic of "rapid dominance" used to describe US action in the 2003 Iraq invasion. My colleague at the Catalyst Centre, who has a knack for playful naming of things, coined the phrase "chalk and awe". Taking inspiration from the late 80s "Shadow Project" (commemorating the deaths by nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and using this phrase we organized teams of demonstrators armed with buckets of liquid chalk. During the route of the demonstration, someone would shout out "chalk and awe" and several people would drop to the pavement while others chalked their body outlines, leaving what, of course, looked like a horrendous crime scene. It was funny and silly and surprisingly poignant. Many onlookers who, until our "chalk and awe" squad came along, were silent, felt compelled to ask what was going on. And the conversations that ensued were excellent opportunities for some mutual learning. One surprise was when several cops also asked what it was all about, one of whom nodded approvingly at our explanations.

One way that i have tried to build a productive/prefigurative element into our popular education approach to culture jamming is always to include some element of production of meaning such as 'zine making, mural making, puppetry and popular theatre. I have been a part of the Bread and Puppet world since the early 80s and, in addition to attending and participating in the "Annual Domestic Resurrection Circus" (until its demise in the late 90s), i have three times brought Bread and Puppet to Toronto to perform as part of various campaigns. The most recent example was as an act of resistance against an oppressive York University "use of space" policy that banned students from assembling in a main hall that had been designed for public assembly. The university had over-reacted to an incident in which a demonstration against Israeli policy against Palestinians got out of hand. A campaign against this policy was waged for a couple of years. And a few of us thought, "why not mount a massive puppet show in the hall. Who's gonna shut down a puppet show?" And it worked like a charm, attracting an audience of a couple of thousand. The campaign, before much longer, won.

Beautiful Trouble

Just want to shout out Beautiful Trouble as an amazing resource for creative action! This page links to a ton of content that relates to many of the topics explored in this discussion: Beautiful Trouble

More examples of tactics that utilize puppets & theater

Inspiring examples, Chris - thanks for sharing! Including an element of production, as you mentioned above ('zine making, mural making, puppetry and popular theatre), certainly adds another level to these culture-jamming, story-changing tactics.

You ask "Who's gonna shut down a puppet show?" It made me smile because sometimes it's when the police come and shutdown a puppet show that really brings the message home.

We hosted a conversation last year titled Cultural Resistance: The arts of protest with Nadine Bloch. In this conversation, there was an interesting thread about the 'policing pf puppets'. The Puppet Underground folks mentioned that they purposefully used butterfly puppets because it would create such an extreme image if the police were to do anything about it. Mike Klein responded to the example by pointing out: When art portrays vision and ideals – rather than just a critique of the status quo – the scene of authority crushing beauty adds another dimension to cultural resistance. Security forces become part of the drama, actors in the scene that reinforce their identity as protectors of entrenched powers rather than the citizenry.

Many more examples like this were shared our that conversation, including MasasitMati's finger puppets to mock the regime in Syria. And you might also be interested in our conversations on: Using Humor to Expose the Ridiculous and Using Theatre for Human Rights Education and Action. I think we're due for a new conversation on theatre, puppets and other production tactics!

-- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Biuilder


Puppets triumphant

So right, Kristin! Love the butterfly puppet example!

At the same demonstration i mentioned above (which was the concluding action of a Toronto Social Forum event) me and the Catalyst Centre organized an impromptu "puppet" studio along a main concourse that all conference attendees would eventually walk by. We set up stations for banner making, posters, papier-maché masks, rod-puppets (and other kinds), 'zines and more. I think my budget had been about $200 which was enough to buy acrylic paints and corn starch (better for papier-maché than wheat). All other supplies were donated or scavenged (garbage day in the financial district is awesome for good cardboard, heavy cardboard tubes and sundry other goodies). As the conference proceeded, several interesting things happened. First, not surprisingly, the puppet studio became a de facto daycare - we had lots of enthusiastic kids who were quick to dive into the fun. Next i noticed that many conference goers realized that spending time making something (if only simply taking a brush and painting in an area on someone else's banner or poster) was a wonderful way to take a break from the typically information-heavy workshops and panels. One fascinating participant was a well-known city councillor who spent a couple of hours with us sculpting a mask (turned out she had training as a sculptor).

All this production (once dried - and not all was) was then mobilized for the demo. I had also invited other puppet companies to bring their work and join the puppet contingent of the demo. It was a rare moment of glee in for an otherwise somber moment of resistance. And many people said it was their favourite demo ever, citing the presence of music and puppets and other kinds of playful resistance.

It was a step in the right direction. Though we still have too many demonstrations that do little more than "two, four, six, eight yadda yadda yadda."

great question

How do we change deeply held cultural narratives and open new space for our stories?

This is a great and deeply challenging question. If you had the million dollar answer you'd be very popular with writers, academics, activists, NGOs and governments the world over!!

There is clearly no magic formula for getting ideas to stick, to gain traction and to go viral. And even if they do there is no garauntee that they will go deep enough to create a shift in core values, perceptions, culture and behaviours. There are however a zillion pop psych airport books, research projects etc on creativity and innovation, memes and virality. A lot of them seem to be selling the idea that you can templatise this stuff, but I think the beauty of culture is that it is very hard to control and harness and it relies on critical mass for transmission and change.

I think this question points to culture and story as the most fundamental and critical area for social change agents to be working in - we are the stuff of story, culture and meaning drives us. Therefore I think the cultural and poetic are the most powerful tools at our disposal. I use the word poetic deliberately because I think activist communicators need to use more poetry - take more risks with the way we tell stories and move away from traditional activists forms.

I am experimenting a lot in film and theatre and this feels powerful and risky all at once - risky because it can be a huge amount of energy for uncertain results, but powerful as cultural forms; film, music, theatre, apps, etc can reach new and unusual audiences and carry ideas beyond the choir.