I am referring to narratives as the stories that we use to make sense of the world and of each other. They are sometimes provided for us by the social structures that we are brought up with, though political ideologies, all sorts of media, what we are taught at school and university, and through our families and communities. They can be deeply historical and play a major role in how we are led to place ourselves in global positioning and politics – constructed from the myths of ancient battles and invasions, national or religious victories or defeats. In this sense they can be negative and destructive within the spiral of a Self and Other politics – the blocking narratives that lead to war and persecution.
Narratives do not however always have to be negative. Narratives of all types are around us all the time and also provide the material with which we understand and connect with each other and with places. We are not isolated individuals or groups who simply go about our business in a mechanical, instrumental manner. Whatever we experience in encountering each other we connect in multiple ways to the stories we bring with us that are constructed from multiple images and memories.
This is evident anywhere at any time. But let’s take the more ‘exotic’ example of sitting in the foyer of a hotel in China and talking for a moment to the young woman serving me coffee. She seemed as uncertain as me whether the group of people walking in a loose procession nearby were a wedding party – because the European-style dress of the woman at the front who might be the bride was pale blue. The narratives I brought to this were: large hotel foyers being places where weddings spill out; wedding dresses are special to the people who wear them but follow traditional styles; people who work in hotels have local knowledge; people don’t know everything about their traditions; people share the desire to talk about what puzzles them; weddings have strong resonances of some sort with everyone; white European wedding dresses are popular everywhere (reference to brides posing for photographs on bridges in Cairo); particular wedding dress styles are particular to particular communities for particular reasons; the people we talk to also have multiple narratives that influence what they say at different times for different reasons.
The presence of these narratives means that a lot is going on between people that fills the space even though it cannot be seen, and is in effect real and powerful material that brings us together. They can populate the threads that bring us together.
There could however have been other, bigger, essentialist narratives that I could have employed, which would have blocked the possibility of me coming together with the waiter, blocking the potential for us to share our thoughts about the ‘wedding procession’. These blocking narratives would be the dominant stereotypes that we inherit – that we are essentially different – that we can never really understand each other – ‘collectivist and hierarchical’ versus ‘individualist and democratic’.
All of these narratives are there. We have the moral responsibility to take action and choose with knowledge.