Storylines That Define Us

Part 2 — On Power Dynamics

To understand the use of storylines as a means of perpetuating power, we need to briefly go back in time to see how humans developed from roaming hunter gatherer groups, to agrarian societies that required more geographical stability and cooperation, to the creation of markets for trade and barter and then to more complex societies, with specialist skills, hierarchies and power struggles, and most importantly shared stories. If words are indeed power, shared stories are a form of narrative power that provide meaning and context to the human existence.

Abundant research has been done on how humans began to organize in very large groups along very abstract concepts like money, gods, governments etc., (see the blog ‘Wait but Why’ article on ‘The Story of Us’, or Yuval Noah Harari’s novel ‘Sapiens’) so this aspect will not be explored further here. The key theme goes thus — over time humans learnt to apply meaning to abstract concepts that allow for mass organization on a grand scale. Concepts like the existence of countries, the use of money and numerous other examples are so ubiquitous, that the thought that they are simply widely accepted ideas and nothing more is unheard of in today’s world.

While the benefits of using stories to drive mass organization have been immense, gifting many with knowledge, technology, and other advances, it has also been used as a tool in power struggles. The imposition of power over others via the narrative of ‘the undesirable other’ has been a common theme over centuries, everywhere. The ‘us-over-them’ mantra has led to multiple wars and other struggles and has occurred so often over history that without needing any analysis, one can almost conclude that with us humans, such conflict cycles are feature, not a bug. Whilst history is multi-littered with power struggles over resources, these struggles are simply the recurrent interplay of two philosophies of resource management, happening over and over.

These two resource management philosophies are coined zero-sum and abundance. The zero-sum concept revolves around scarcity, and thus a key tenet is about having more at the expense of others. It indicates that there must be losers and winners in every situation, if you win then I lose, if I have then you must lack. As best stated by Genghis Khan[1], ‘It is not enough that I succeed, everyone else must fail’. Conversely, the abundance philosophy appears more optimistic, as it implies with careful and intentional planning, there should be enough of everything to go round for everyone. Historically, it appears that humans probably evolved around the zero-sum conflicts in interactions with larger groups like other tribes and countries, but with applied shared abundance in smaller groups like the same tribe, kinsmen or family units.

The application of a zero-sum resource sharing view has had severe implications in human history, from wars to slavery, misogyny, racism and much worse. It seems to have always been that those with a power advantage (e.g., weapons, technology, etc.) push a curated agenda, often at the expense of those perceived as less powerful. Ergo, in the mid-20th century, the narrative was that black Americans were poor and crime ridden because they were lazy; this of course obfuscated the fact that the systemic racism via Jim Crow[2] laws and state sponsored segregation expressly forbade banks from lending to blacks, in addition to passing laws preventing a myriad of other resources from being channeled to black neighborhoods. Thus, all the incentives that were used to grow the ‘white’ middle class in America were withheld from blacks, thereby creating the perfect conditions for relative poverty and desperation driven crime. Yet without these details, this narrative held for many years. These and other stereotypical racist narratives were eventually challenged by the Civil rights movement, leading to the Civil rights act of 1964 which enabled a somewhat greater social/economic mobility of blacks.

This ability to craft a narrative to perpetuate power and foster impunity has endured over centuries, from the Romans and the Greeks, to the 2nd world war. In this vein, the role of propaganda as a tool of warfare or oppression cannot be understated. The oft-trampled path by the Oppressors stays the same: first an individual or group gains some superior advantage that can be backed up by force, then they seek to expand their scope by conquering territory at the expense of others, then they create a story that justifies the continued domination of the oppressed, usually by dehumanizing them as ‘less than human’ and therefore deserving of nothing less.

This brings us to the role of the ones I choose to call the ‘Challengers’ — those who are usually part of an oppressed group and fight against the narrative normalizing their constraints, either via protests or by (you guessed it) crafting a compelling counter-narrative to garner mass support. Challengers are those who by nature or nurture are unable to bear oppressive situations and are willing to make sacrifices to right these wrongs. They usually do this by rallying people to their causes and challenging the official stories that were set up to normalize such oppression.

Numerous ‘challenger’ stories exist. In the early 20th century, the suffragettes fought for the female vote in this manner. Similarly, the US Civil rights movement of the 60’s, the multi-year anti-apartheid struggles and the anti-colonial struggles by African countries to name a few, have all stomped down this path. This perennial fight against oppression proves that simply labeling a group as ‘less than’ will never be enough to eclipse their humanity.

This bears that there will always be a group that feels entitled to coercing the ‘others’, to covet the available resources, justifying their actions with self-validating storylines to negate the humanity of others. This in turn leads to resistance by the challengers seeking to reclaim their dignity by whatever means necessary.

The cycle never ends or so it would seem. We seem doomed to always be part of some dynamic storyline that drives one narrative or the other. The next question we should then ask ourselves is, ‘What storyline am I a part of right now, does it still serve me and if not, how do I take charge of my own story?’


[2] Redlining: The Jim Crow Laws of the North | WETA



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