Friday, February 24, 2012

The power of the narrative

TO the rational mind, it is in comprehensible why groups like the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army (CPP - NPA), the Abu Sayaff, Jemaah Islamiya, Al Qaeda and all other extremist groups who advocate senseless violence to further their cause, continue to thrive and still manage to attract followers from some quarters of society. More puzzling would be the extent to which members of these organizations can and will do to advance their beliefs no matter how twisted they appear to be. Thus, we see members of these groups engage themselves in the wanton destruction of lives and properties all in the name of principles which they bound themselves to live by.

It is fundamental that the modes wished to be employed by the aforesaid groups are anathema to civilized rules and societies. It thus behooves upon the legitimate authorities to prevent their senseless desires from being executed. Putting a stop to their actions should however, be focused on formulating strategies that are pro-active in stance; such as, pre-empting their acts so that they can never be implemented, for in doing so, damages to lives and properties are substantially prevented or minimized.

Taking pro-active strategies against these groups, however, is easier said than done. Solutions may be simple but they will definitely provide a challenge to legitimate authorities. For instance, one simple pro-active strategy is dissuading potential members from joining said groups. Again, I reiterate that this seemingly simple solution is certainly not easy to put into effect. One has first to consider the driving force which entices members to join the group before providing courses of actions that will counteract this driving force. According to various eminent social and political analysts, one alluring force that creates a strong bond among members of groups of aforesaid nature is the so-called narrative behind their organization. The narrative behind the group is what entices members to join and which later will nurture their dedicated cohesion to the attainment of their goals, no matter what the cost.

The narrative

To those given the task of formulating strategies to counteract a group’s narrative, a better understanding of the concept of the narrative is essential. What then is a narrative?  

Steven R. Corman, in his position paper entitled “Understanding Extremists’ Use of Narrative to Influence Contest Populations” submitted to the Workshop on Mapping Ideas: Discovering and Information Landscape, provides a very definitive description of what a narrative is.

According to Corman, a narrative is a system of stories that share themes, forms and archetypes. Every story in a narrative need not have exactly the same characteristics; the point is that they relate to one another in a way that creates a unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Another ideal explanation of a narrative is one provided by the article “Unraveling the Narrative” written and published in the volume 3 number 1 issue of “UNIPATH”, a publication pertaining to defense and security matters.

Said publication describes the narrative as a story with a beginning, middle and an end, however at a deeper level, they are complex themes (cultural items transmitted by repetition) that reflect social, cultural, and religious identity. They are the ideas that form a society’s worldview, that explains its history and legitimize its power structure. They form the cultural references that give people a common framework of beliefs.

Based on the two above mentioned characterizations of what a narrative is, we can simply put it as a story, which serves as the framework for one’s views on every aspect and issue affecting one’s way of life. Man being a rational being seeks an explanation or rationalization for all his actions. The narrative therefore provides this need which he may use to give explanation for his acts. This is also the one being utilized by insurgents, extremists and terror groups in the attempt to validate their acts, especially those which run counter to the norms of civilized society.

A caveat on the narrative behind these organizations however, is that oftentimes, it is crafted to deliberately manipulate emotions of potential and established members to suit the groups’ interests. Further, the narratives do not reflect an accurate and true account of the different issues on hand, making those who are less discerning become susceptible and easy prey.

For the CPP-NPA, their narrative would often dwell on the necessity of an armed revolution to offset the inequities in society. They continue to hammer their followers with this single narrative to make members believe that this is the absolute truth. Their leaders would discourage anything that runs counter to their avowed narrative.

For the Abu Sayaff and some other extremist groups, their narrative centers on the establishment of an Islamic state where the unbelievers or those who do not conform would be annihilated. They twist Islamic principles and ideals contained in the holy Quran to suit their interests. They try to frame their abhorrent acts such as hostage taking and kidnappings to Islamic principles when the truth says otherwise.

Countering the narrative

Countering the romanticism presented by the mentioned groups indeed, poses a difficult challenge to legitimate authorities. Among the ways to counter the pernicious effects of the narratives of the aforementioned groups would include the presentation of true and accurate versions of the issues on hand. Educating the potential audience particularly the masses to make them more discerning on the information and be aware of the available alternative at hand is likewise a good course of action.
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