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The power of the narrative

by on November 27, 2013

One of the most powerful political weapons is the narrative. Narratives paint pictures of the “wild savage” and the “stupid American” and are crucial to our understanding of ourselves and the unknown. Edward Said argues that “stories are at the heart of what explorers and novelists say about strange regions of the world; they also become the method colonized people use to assert their own identity and the existence of their own history.”[i] This means that stories are used to tell the truth that one experiences. Depending on the viewpoint of the storyteller the narrative can wary widely. Furthermore Said argues that “nations themselves are narrations. The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connection between them.” A nation is a narration that describes what connects people of a certain area. The French define themselves as the nation of the Enlightenment, even though the French Revolution was inspired by the English, Scottish and German Enlightenment.[ii] However, the French identify very strongly with their self-made image of being the nation of the Enlightenment, while the world thinks primarily of France when they discuss the European Enlightenment. Part of the system of imperialism is writing narratives for other nations. European novelists have contributed to the 19th century image of savages that roam exotic countries, and thereby legitimated the subjugation of these nations in the public. Today, narrations are still drawn in the cinema and in books. However, the more powerful tool to transport a good story is television and the news media. While we can chose which books we read, and what movies we see, there is hardly any chance to avoid being influenced by the news media. When Saddam Hussein was caught in a hole in the earth, the media didn`t fall short to exploit this part of the story for weeks. That the military lacked to find him for months was ignored, while focus was shifted to this great enemy of democracy and the West who ended up in a hole in the earth. The message that the media produced was that people like Saddam Hussein will inevitably end up trapped in a dirty hole without any power and comfort left. The public`s image of Saddam Hussein shifted from a powerful tyrant to a ridiculous coward hiding away in the ground like a mole.

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The magazine Psychology Today published a short article this summer that mentioned that even good prejudices can increase racism, because people who believe in positive prejudices are also more likely to believe in the negative ones too. Narratives inform our prejudices and we should be very careful how we digest the stories that the media industry delivers. The media industry has more outlets than ever to promote certain images and their messages are often so ingrained in our cultural consciousness that we don`t realize their impact on our feelings for other nations and the feeling for our own nation. Therefore it is crucial to hear narratives that are not written by individuals of our cultural realm, but by peoples from other countries and cultural landscapes, because no matter how hard one tries, we always look at issues through the lens of our own culture.


[i] Edward W. Said; „Culture and Imperialism; Vintage Books; 1994; p. XIII

[ii] Alasdair MacIntyre; „After Virtue“; 3rd Edition; Duckworth; 2007; p. 37

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One Comment
  1. Thank you for this very interesting blog post. The exploration of narratives doesn’t appear often in discussions of public diplomacy, so this is a very refreshing perspective. I think there is a lot of mileage to be had from this approach. The ‘nation as narration’ perspective can help us think about public and cultural diplomacy in new ways. It is often said that we lack a theory of public diplomacy. Perhaps this is one way of developing one.

    When you come to revise this entry, please say much more about how what you have written relates to the main themes of the module. The final paragraph seems to be a plea for more and better cultural diplomacy, to break down stereotypical images of other nations. And I think you could relate the first paragraph to attempts to think more theoretically about public diplomacy as noted above. There seems to be some relationship with the recent concerns about domestic public diplomacy (see the recent edition of the Hague Journal of Diplomacy on this subject). Benedict Anderson’s idea of nations as ‘imagined communities’ may be helpful here too.

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