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The Power of Progressive Protests: A Narrative Approach

By April 16, 2021No Comments

Human beings are great storytellers. We share what we like, what we care about, and what we want through stories. Who we are shapes our stories, and the stories we share make us who we are. What does the story of a protest share? How can the story of a protest make it powerful, enable it to achieve change?

Human beings are great storytellers. We share what we like, what we care about, and what we want through stories. Who we are shapes our stories, and the stories we share make us who we are. What does the story of a protest share? How can the story of a protest make it powerful, enable it to achieve change?

When journalists were describing 2019 as the year of protests (e.g., Garguilo, 2019), little did they know how it would be another highly active year of protests despite a raging global pandemic. In every part of the globe, civil unrest for equality, freedom, and rights only seems to be intensifying as the years pass by. Consequently, it is critical to understand the impact of progressive movements, and their protests, before dealing with critical topics ranging from racial inequalities to climate change, from women’s rights to political oppression. Regarding this, it is reasonable to ask what makes a protest powerful enough to bring about change. Or, simply put, what makes a good protest?

Not all protests are powerful enough to succeed in their aim. In this article, I will be arguing that protest should have a strong narrative component in order to acquire enough power to bring about change. In the broadest sense, narratives are stories, yet a narrative encompasses more than a story. In their paper, where they provide an account on how the narrative concept can be a ‘root metaphor’ to form a bridge between political science and psychology, Hammeck and Pilecki (2012) define narratives as “the sensible organization of thought through language, internalized or externalized, which serves to create a sense of personal coherence and collective solidarity and to legitimize collective beliefs, emotions, and actions” (p. 78). This definition of a narrative is in line with the various frameworks concerning narratives that have been developed over the past decades.

With his concept of narrative identity, Ricœur (1991) emphasizes how our narratives influence our experience of the world and determines our identity; the story of our life communicates our identity to us (De Mul, 2010). Thus, there is a bidirectional relationship between narratives and life: while events shape our narratives, our narratives can determine the events in our life (Bruner, 1987). The field of psychology has also been utilizing the concept of narrative since the 1990s. Concepts like narratives of the self (Gergen, 1999), or autobiographical narratives (e.g., Baumeister & Newman, 1994) have been used to point out how important it is for individuals to have a narrative in life, which either helps them shape their current actions, or retrospectively make sense of their life events. Clinical research has also demonstrated that narrative writing interventions are successful in improving individual mental health by meaning-making (see Costa & Abreu, 2018 for a review). Overall, even though all these concepts refer to somewhat distinct phenomena, the underlying idea is the same: humans desire to have narratives.

“The power of a movement is intertwined with its ability to further legitimize an alternative narrative”

So, how could collective narratives contribute to the power of a protest? Clearly, as suggested by Polletta (1998) and many others, narratives can be used to explain mobilizing for collective action, in which a group collectively acts with the aim of improving their condition (Stekelenburg & Klandermans, 2013). One such mechanism concerns how humans seek to acquire meaning in their life, as well as group solidarity, by building personal narratives that mirror larger societal storylines, for which there is a collective memory within the social group (Hammeck & Pilecki, 2012). These larger storylines of a culture are called ‘master narratives’, and these narratives are very much internalized by the individuals in the culture (Andrews, 2002). For instance, a person who lives in a post-calamity country might desire to pursue the narrative of serving the nation in the larger narrative of recovery. Though, it should be noted that our concern here is not at the outset, and narratives as predictors of collective action, but rather in how the narrative of a protest can contribute to achieving its main goal, bringing change.

The power of a movement is intertwined with its ability to further legitimize an alternative narrative to these master narratives. For example, just like Camus’s (1951/2012) definition of a rebel as a ‘a man who says no’, the larger storyline of a great nation leaving racism behind can be challenged by individuals who say no to this master narrative: “No! This is not true; we have not left racism behind.” In their essence, narratives are a social construction (Bruner, 1987), meaning that they do not exist in reality, but are constructed through social processes. Thus, they are interpretations of connected events (Hammeck & Pilecki, 2012). These alternative interpretations that resist the master narrative are called ‘counter-narratives’ (Andrews, 2002). In a recent article, Tüfekçi (2020) states that the effectiveness of a protest should be more regarded in a long-term, and “protests work because they can undermine the most important pillar of power: legitimacy”. In most cases, the ones in power find legitimacy through the master narrative. Thus, the counter-narrative critically damages the legitimacy of the authority through damaging the legitimacy of the master narrative.

One might reasonably think that the legitimacy of a process might depend on how many people identify with the counter-narrative. However, this legitimizing appears to be trickier. In her book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Tüfekçi (2016) suggests that what makes a protest powerful does not necessarily lie within the numbers that attend the protest. As technological developments like social media have made it easier to unite like-minded people, large protests do not carry the same weight as they used to do. In the age of social media, protests are no longer the end result of a significant cooperation, “nowadays, a big protest is the beginning of the sentence, the first letter” (Tüfekçi, 2019, p. 366). Instead, Tüfekçi suggests that the power of a protest lies within its capacity: movements signal their capacity to bring about social change through protests. For instance, if it required a considerable undertaking to organize a protest, and the protest in the end was successfully organized, this signals the strength of the movement’s capacities. Among other forms of capacities, she identifies the ‘narrative capacity’ of a movement, which is about persuading others about the legitimacy of the particular narrative. If a movement signals that it can, and will, persuade more and more people to its cause, then it is indeed a powerful movement. This is especially troublesome for the ones in power as, in essence, a counter-narrative is a rival narrative (Andrews, 2002). The ones in power will experience a loss in the legitimacy of their narrative, and, therefore, of their actions (Tüfekçi, 2020).

“Governments can use various forms of censorship to obstruct any chance of influence”

The power of the movement depends on the legitimacy of its narrative, but for whom it should be legitimate to? Even though it is important for a movement to recruit individuals who already share a certain collective identity, persuading dissimilar groups about the legitimacy of the counter-narrative is more valuable. Considering the ever-growing prominence of social media as a communication medium, echo-chambers, in which uniform opinions within a closed social network result in extreme views and polarization, are significant barriers for persuasion (Baumann et al., 2020; Vicario et al., 2016). Social media algorithms reinforce these existing dynamics even further. Facebook’s political ads, which are targeted to certain groups, would be an obvious example. Governments can use various forms of censorship to obstruct any chance of influence, for example, by determining the news coverage (Tüfekçi, 2016). Therefore, these dynamics increase polarization within the society, and make it very difficult for the legitimacy of the narrative to spread to other groups.

So how can these structural barriers within society be overcome? More importantly, even if these were overcome, what is the mechanism behind persuading different groups into believing the legitimacy of the counter-narrative, and even integrate it into their personal narratives? This question is especially relevant in an increasingly globalizing world. Considering the global rise in individualism (Santos et al., 2017), and global cultural erosion (Varnum, 2019), it may be argued that most movements are now generally identifiable by more people. Based on western individualistic norms, the post-modern person’s narrative is one of finding ultimate autonomy (Hofman, 2016). He automatically praises revolt, and he is ready to fight for freedom and equality, as this is his current narrative (Gergen, 1999). Therefore, the existence of a global collective narrative that is centred around social progress is undeniable. So, what’s the catch?

It would be naïve to think that the broad nature of the social progress narrative can make it identifiable by, thus legitimate to, many people. In fact, the ever-growing number of conservative-populist-nationalist leaders can be taken as a reaction to this global social progress narrative. What started as a revolt, as a counter-narrative, has turned into a global master narrative, and now, there appears to be a counter-narrative against it. This demonstrates the inadequacy of this global narrative to persuade the individuals from less progressive groups within the society. Maybe, just maybe, we need a different story for our progressive protests. <<

References

– Andrews, M. (2002). Counter-narratives and the power to oppose. Narrative Inquiry, 12(1), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1075/ni.12.1.02and
– Baumann, F., Lorenz-Spreen, P., Sokolov, I. M., & Starnini, M. (2020). Modeling echo chambers and polarization dynamics in social networks. Physical Review Letters, 124(4), 048301. https://doi.org/10.1103/physrevlett.124.048301
– Baumeister, R. F., & Newman, L. S. (1994). How stories make sense of personal experiences: Motives that shape autobiographical narratives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(6), 676-690. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167294206006
– Bruner, J. (1987). Life as narrative. Social research, 11-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970444
– Camus, A. (1951/2012). The rebel: An essay on man in revolt. Vintage.
– Costa, A. C., & Abreu, M. V. (2018). Expressive and creative writing in the therapeutic context: from the different concepts to the development of writing therapy programs. Psychologica, 61(1), 69-86. https://doi.org/10.14195/1647-8606_61-1_4
– De Mul, J. (2010). Cyberspace odyssey: Towards a virtual ontology and anthropology. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
– Garguilo, F. (2019, December 20). 2019: A year of protest. IPI Global Observatory. https://theglobalobservatory.org/2019/12/a-year-of-protest/
– Gergen, K. J. (1992). The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. In R. B. Miller (Ed.), The restoration of dialogue: Readings in the philosophy of clinical psychology (p. 556–569). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10112-044
– Gergen, K. J. (1999). An invitation to social construction. Sage.
– Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford university press.
– Hammack, P. L. (2010). Identity as burden or benefit? Youth, historical narrative, and the legacy of political conflict. Human Development, 53(4), 173-201. https://doi.org/10.1159/000320045
– Hammack, P. L., & Pilecki, A. (2012). Narrative as a root metaphor for political psychology. Political Psychology, 33(1), 75-103. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00859.x
– Hofman, E. (2016). How to do the history of the self. History of the Human Sciences, 29(3), 8-24. https://doi.org/10.1177/0952695116653305
– Polletta, F. (1998). “It was like a fever…” narrative and identity in social protest. Social problems, 45(2), 137-159. https://doi.org/10.1525/sp.1998.45.2.03x0163g
– Ricoeur, P. (1991). Narrative identity. Philosophy today, 35(1), 73-81. https://doi.org/10.5840/philtoday199135136
– Santos, H. C., Varnum, M. E., & Grossmann, I. (2017). Global increases in individualism. Psychological science, 28(9), 1228-1239. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617700622
– Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. Yale University Press.
– Tufekci, Z. (2019). A Response to Johanne Kübler’s A Review of Zeynep Tufekci–Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (2017, Yale University Press). International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 32(3), 365-369. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-019-9317-2
– Tüfekçi, Z. (2020, June 24). Do protests even work? It sometimes takes decades to find out. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/06/why-protests-work/613420/
– Van Stekelenburg, J., & Klandermans, B. (2013). The social psychology of protest. Current Sociology, 61(5-6), 886-905. https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392113479314
– Varnum, M. E. (2019). Social norms are becoming weaker. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(3), 211-211. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0519-9
– Walker, T. (2019). 2019 was the year of global unrest, spurred by anger at rising inequality—and 2020 is likely to be worse. The Conversation, 10.
– Zittoun, T., & Gillespie, A. (2015). Internalization: How culture becomes mind. Culture & Psychology, 21(4), 477-491.

When journalists were describing 2019 as the year of protests (e.g., Garguilo, 2019), little did they know how it would be another highly active year of protests despite a raging global pandemic. In every part of the globe, civil unrest for equality, freedom, and rights only seems to be intensifying as the years pass by. Consequently, it is critical to understand the impact of progressive movements, and their protests, before dealing with critical topics ranging from racial inequalities to climate change, from women’s rights to political oppression. Regarding this, it is reasonable to ask what makes a protest powerful enough to bring about change. Or, simply put, what makes a good protest?

Not all protests are powerful enough to succeed in their aim. In this article, I will be arguing that protest should have a strong narrative component in order to acquire enough power to bring about change. In the broadest sense, narratives are stories, yet a narrative encompasses more than a story. In their paper, where they provide an account on how the narrative concept can be a ‘root metaphor’ to form a bridge between political science and psychology, Hammeck and Pilecki (2012) define narratives as “the sensible organization of thought through language, internalized or externalized, which serves to create a sense of personal coherence and collective solidarity and to legitimize collective beliefs, emotions, and actions” (p. 78). This definition of a narrative is in line with the various frameworks concerning narratives that have been developed over the past decades.

With his concept of narrative identity, Ricœur (1991) emphasizes how our narratives influence our experience of the world and determines our identity; the story of our life communicates our identity to us (De Mul, 2010). Thus, there is a bidirectional relationship between narratives and life: while events shape our narratives, our narratives can determine the events in our life (Bruner, 1987). The field of psychology has also been utilizing the concept of narrative since the 1990s. Concepts like narratives of the self (Gergen, 1999), or autobiographical narratives (e.g., Baumeister & Newman, 1994) have been used to point out how important it is for individuals to have a narrative in life, which either helps them shape their current actions, or retrospectively make sense of their life events. Clinical research has also demonstrated that narrative writing interventions are successful in improving individual mental health by meaning-making (see Costa & Abreu, 2018 for a review). Overall, even though all these concepts refer to somewhat distinct phenomena, the underlying idea is the same: humans desire to have narratives.

“The power of a movement is intertwined with its ability to further legitimize an alternative narrative”

So, how could collective narratives contribute to the power of a protest? Clearly, as suggested by Polletta (1998) and many others, narratives can be used to explain mobilizing for collective action, in which a group collectively acts with the aim of improving their condition (Stekelenburg & Klandermans, 2013). One such mechanism concerns how humans seek to acquire meaning in their life, as well as group solidarity, by building personal narratives that mirror larger societal storylines, for which there is a collective memory within the social group (Hammeck & Pilecki, 2012). These larger storylines of a culture are called ‘master narratives’, and these narratives are very much internalized by the individuals in the culture (Andrews, 2002). For instance, a person who lives in a post-calamity country might desire to pursue the narrative of serving the nation in the larger narrative of recovery. Though, it should be noted that our concern here is not at the outset, and narratives as predictors of collective action, but rather in how the narrative of a protest can contribute to achieving its main goal, bringing change.

The power of a movement is intertwined with its ability to further legitimize an alternative narrative to these master narratives. For example, just like Camus’s (1951/2012) definition of a rebel as a ‘a man who says no’, the larger storyline of a great nation leaving racism behind can be challenged by individuals who say no to this master narrative: “No! This is not true; we have not left racism behind.” In their essence, narratives are a social construction (Bruner, 1987), meaning that they do not exist in reality, but are constructed through social processes. Thus, they are interpretations of connected events (Hammeck & Pilecki, 2012). These alternative interpretations that resist the master narrative are called ‘counter-narratives’ (Andrews, 2002). In a recent article, Tüfekçi (2020) states that the effectiveness of a protest should be more regarded in a long-term, and “protests work because they can undermine the most important pillar of power: legitimacy”. In most cases, the ones in power find legitimacy through the master narrative. Thus, the counter-narrative critically damages the legitimacy of the authority through damaging the legitimacy of the master narrative.

One might reasonably think that the legitimacy of a process might depend on how many people identify with the counter-narrative. However, this legitimizing appears to be trickier. In her book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, Tüfekçi (2016) suggests that what makes a protest powerful does not necessarily lie within the numbers that attend the protest. As technological developments like social media have made it easier to unite like-minded people, large protests do not carry the same weight as they used to do. In the age of social media, protests are no longer the end result of a significant cooperation, “nowadays, a big protest is the beginning of the sentence, the first letter” (Tüfekçi, 2019, p. 366). Instead, Tüfekçi suggests that the power of a protest lies within its capacity: movements signal their capacity to bring about social change through protests. For instance, if it required a considerable undertaking to organize a protest, and the protest in the end was successfully organized, this signals the strength of the movement’s capacities. Among other forms of capacities, she identifies the ‘narrative capacity’ of a movement, which is about persuading others about the legitimacy of the particular narrative. If a movement signals that it can, and will, persuade more and more people to its cause, then it is indeed a powerful movement. This is especially troublesome for the ones in power as, in essence, a counter-narrative is a rival narrative (Andrews, 2002). The ones in power will experience a loss in the legitimacy of their narrative, and, therefore, of their actions (Tüfekçi, 2020).

“Governments can use various forms of censorship to obstruct any chance of influence”

The power of the movement depends on the legitimacy of its narrative, but for whom it should be legitimate to? Even though it is important for a movement to recruit individuals who already share a certain collective identity, persuading dissimilar groups about the legitimacy of the counter-narrative is more valuable. Considering the ever-growing prominence of social media as a communication medium, echo-chambers, in which uniform opinions within a closed social network result in extreme views and polarization, are significant barriers for persuasion (Baumann et al., 2020; Vicario et al., 2016). Social media algorithms reinforce these existing dynamics even further. Facebook’s political ads, which are targeted to certain groups, would be an obvious example. Governments can use various forms of censorship to obstruct any chance of influence, for example, by determining the news coverage (Tüfekçi, 2016). Therefore, these dynamics increase polarization within the society, and make it very difficult for the legitimacy of the narrative to spread to other groups.

So how can these structural barriers within society be overcome? More importantly, even if these were overcome, what is the mechanism behind persuading different groups into believing the legitimacy of the counter-narrative, and even integrate it into their personal narratives? This question is especially relevant in an increasingly globalizing world. Considering the global rise in individualism (Santos et al., 2017), and global cultural erosion (Varnum, 2019), it may be argued that most movements are now generally identifiable by more people. Based on western individualistic norms, the post-modern person’s narrative is one of finding ultimate autonomy (Hofman, 2016). He automatically praises revolt, and he is ready to fight for freedom and equality, as this is his current narrative (Gergen, 1999). Therefore, the existence of a global collective narrative that is centred around social progress is undeniable. So, what’s the catch?

It would be naïve to think that the broad nature of the social progress narrative can make it identifiable by, thus legitimate to, many people. In fact, the ever-growing number of conservative-populist-nationalist leaders can be taken as a reaction to this global social progress narrative. What started as a revolt, as a counter-narrative, has turned into a global master narrative, and now, there appears to be a counter-narrative against it. This demonstrates the inadequacy of this global narrative to persuade the individuals from less progressive groups within the society. Maybe, just maybe, we need a different story for our progressive protests. <<

References

– Andrews, M. (2002). Counter-narratives and the power to oppose. Narrative Inquiry, 12(1), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1075/
ni.12.1.02and
– Baumann, F., Lorenz-Spreen, P., Sokolov, I. M., & Starnini, M. (2020). Modeling echo chambers and polarization dynamics in social networks. Physical Review Letters, 124(4), 048301. https://doi.org/10.1103/
physrevlett.124.048301
– Baumeister, R. F., & Newman, L. S. (1994). How stories make sense of personal experiences: Motives that shape autobiographical narratives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(6), 676-690. https://doi.org/
10.1177/0146167294206006
– Bruner, J. (1987). Life as narrative. Social research, 11-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40970444
– Camus, A. (1951/2012). The rebel: An essay on man in revolt. Vintage.
– Costa, A. C., & Abreu, M. V. (2018). Expressive and creative writing in the therapeutic context: from the different concepts to the development of writing therapy programs. Psychologica, 61(1), 69-86. https://doi.org/10.14195/1647-8606_61-1_4
– De Mul, J. (2010). Cyberspace odyssey: Towards a virtual ontology and anthropology. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
– Garguilo, F. (2019, December 20). 2019: A year of protest. IPI Global Observatory. https://theglobalobservatory.org/
2019/12/a-year-of-protest/
– Gergen, K. J. (1992). The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. In R. B. Miller (Ed.), The restoration of dialogue: Readings in the philosophy of clinical psychology (p. 556–569). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10112-044
– Gergen, K. J. (1999). An invitation to social construction. Sage.
– Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford university press.
– Hammack, P. L. (2010). Identity as burden or benefit? Youth, historical narrative, and the legacy of political conflict. Human Development, 53(4), 173-201. https://doi.org/10.1159/000320045
– Hammack, P. L., & Pilecki, A. (2012). Narrative as a root metaphor for political psychology. Political Psychology, 33(1), 75-103. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9221.2011.00859.x
– Hofman, E. (2016). How to do the history of the self. History of the Human Sciences, 29(3), 8-24. https://doi.org/10.1177/
0952695116653305
– Polletta, F. (1998). “It was like a fever…” narrative and identity in social protest. Social problems, 45(2), 137-159. https://doi.org/10.1525/
sp.1998.45.2.03x0163g
– Ricoeur, P. (1991). Narrative identity. Philosophy today, 35(1), 73-81. https://doi.org/10.5840/
philtoday199135136
– Santos, H. C., Varnum, M. E., & Grossmann, I. (2017). Global increases in individualism. Psychological science, 28(9), 1228-1239. https://doi.org/10.1177/
0956797617700622
– Tufekci, Z. (2017). Twitter and tear gas: The power and fragility of networked protest. Yale University Press.
– Tufekci, Z. (2019). A Response to Johanne Kübler’s A Review of Zeynep Tufekci–Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (2017, Yale University Press). International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 32(3), 365-369. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10767-019-9317-2
– Tüfekçi, Z. (2020, June 24). Do protests even work? It sometimes takes decades to find out. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/
technology/archive/2020/06/why-protests-work/613420/
– Van Stekelenburg, J., & Klandermans, B. (2013). The social psychology of protest. Current Sociology, 61(5-6), 886-905. https://doi.org/10.1177/
0011392113479314
– Varnum, M. E. (2019). Social norms are becoming weaker. Nature Human Behaviour, 3(3), 211-211. https://doi.org/10.1038/
s41562-018-0519-9
– Walker, T. (2019). 2019 was the year of global unrest, spurred by anger at rising inequality—and 2020 is likely to be worse. The Conversation, 10.
– Zittoun, T., & Gillespie, A. (2015). Internalization: How culture becomes mind. Culture & Psychology, 21(4), 477-491.
Arda Ergin

Author Arda Ergin

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