Decolonising Narratives: Part 2 The Crumbling Foundations Unpacking the narratives at the foundation of our broken systems

“Narratives are powerful. They can swing juries and elections. They can fill prisons. But they can also fill the streets.”

The Narrative Initiative

As we shared in our first blog of the series, we believe that our societies are built on narratives. These narratives—of our past, present and future—provide the scaffolding for our political systems, for our social structures, and for our own thinking. They shape how we understand and value our relationships, how we classify ‘us’ and ‘them’, how we treat others, our expectations for ourselves, our communities, our leaders.

“Narratives shape the way in which problems and priorities are identified; they limit the types of solutions that are viewed as acceptable and possible, and determine how certain types of people are categorized and treated.”

Brett Davidson

The old narratives have told us things would only get better; if we work hard, we’ll do well in life; and ‘we’ are better than ‘them’.

These narratives have failed us. Across the world we have seen a rise in authoritarian, nationalist and isolationist narratives, whilst our collective belief in our power to change things has fallen away.

And the roots of many of these contemporary narratives trace back through history. They have been taking shape and shaping change for many many years. Back in November, we held some space to start digging up the stories, beliefs and deeper narratives that colonialism has been sowing into our societies:

  • Binary thinking: humans are good or evil, what we do is right or wrong, ‘us’ vs ‘them’.
  • Humans are separate from the natural world.
  • Othering of specific groups of people: Queer and Trans vs Hetero and Cis; Black and Brown vs white; and foreigners, immigrants, Gypsies and Travellers vs settled populations;
  • Power and wealth disparities are natural, inequality is inevitable.
  • The status quo is beyond our control, change is impossible.
  • Individuals are responsible (tied to blame and shame of individuals and common people), rather than systems (gentrification, classism, white supremacy, colonialism) and institutions (corporate power, gov’t policy, etc).
  • There’s only so much to go around—aka ‘Zero sum thinking’.

The colonial mindset—formed by these interconnected stories and beliefs, and more—laid the foundations of so many of the issues we’re struggling with today, across our social and environmental movements.

These deep narratives and beliefs threaten progress on a huge range of social and environmental issues. That we can deny rights to people based on their country of origin, sexuality, or gender identity, is only possible due to a set of beliefs, or stories, about one group being more deserving than another. That our governments can licence new fossil fuel extraction projects is only possible because of deeper narratives that tell us we don’t have the power to stop them, and that change isn’t possible at the scale and speed that we need.

We can be whatever we have the courage to see.

From ‘A Message From the Future’ – The Intercept, illustrated by Molly Crabapple

And yet we know that we’ve risen to great challenges in our past and won great change—toppling empires and dictators, winning workers rights and civil rights, protecting our ozone, winning equal marriage and ending apartheid, to name a few. We know that many cultures have lived in balance with nature and difference. We know that the strength of these toxic foundations are beginning to crumble, as people wake-up to the harms—historic and contemporary—dealt out under what bell hooks calls the imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. And we know that there are many many many paths forward, as yet untrodden.

“We are all constantly placing tiles in the narrative mosaic, and without conscious effort, we’re likely to be recreating the same old familiar patterns.”

Elena Blackmore

So, we’re going to need new stories, to help bring new worlds into being.

Stories that offer up visions of the new worlds we are labouring for together. Stories that show change is possible. Stories of healing, liberation and joy. Stories of just transformation and ecological repair. Stories that help us to make big imaginative leaps into world-changing action. And stories of celebration, as we dismantle the master’s house, brick by brick.

Coming soon: The “HOW” matters…

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