Saturday, May 21, 2016

Thinking about narratives...

The last piece posted here had to do with "pushing agendas". The "aha" experience elaborated on in that writing continues to come into my awareness again and again....and again.

One of the links I furnished went to a page that provided some information about something called the "master" narrative. In part, that page reads:
The Master Narrative is generally described as the colonially-derived story of events, emphasizing European perspectives. In contrast, the Counter Narrative offers accounts of history from diverse perspectives, with a critical examination of the widely accepted, colonially-derived story. Reading or writing counter-narratives is part of a process of de-colonizing, or dismantling and questioning the histories that are regularly read, repeated, and studied in mainstream education.
Sometimes this "master" narrative is also called the dominant narrative or discourse.

In other words...stories (narratives) that we tell ourselves to "explain" the U.S. (and pretty much everything else) are derived, in part, from mainstream (public school) education. Another take on this idea of master narratives can be found in this interview that Bill Moyers conducted with Toni Morrison a few years ago. Ms. Morrison says, in response to a question about what constitutes the master narrative:

....It’s white male life. The Master Narrative is whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else: The Master Fiction . . . history. It has a certain point of view. So when those little girls see that the most prized gift they can receive at Christmas time is this little white doll, that’s the Master Narrative speaking: ...
The master narrative(s) here in the U.S. is/are told (almost exclusively) from the viewpoint of a white male (although that's never ever made explicit or overt) but that viewpoint is presented as though that is (or should be) everyone's viewpoint or perspective. What is implied is that the viewpoint of the master narrative should be your viewpoint too...or at least it should be if you're a right thinking and sensible and 'normal' person...unless you're "pushing an agenda".

A white guy...his experience is universal...right?
Above is a photo of a white man...he's well dressed, friendly appearing, what the heck...his viewpoint is everyone's viewpoint...right? His experience of society and school and work and and and...that's the way it is for everyone...or so we're subtly and persistently encouraged to believe.

But...we're never told outright that his way of seeing things and experiencing life is what we're being ooched toward believing or accepting as universal. And...we're encouraged to believe that if our experience isn't like his...well...that's because there's something wrong with us. Maybe we're not trying hard enough or we're not smart enough or we're deficient or warped in some way or other.

I'm still struggling to get a good feel or comprehension for what is meant when folks talk or write about narratives...there are master narratives and counter narratives...and various terms are used by different folks that refer to aspects or features of these narratives. Therefore, I'm working to stay open about what is meant by all this. Right now I'm tentatively operating off the definition that narratives are stories people in a society use to explain events and history and identities (e.g. what it means to be a "man" and such) to themselves.

For example, Joe Feagin...a sociologist who writes about these notions regarding race...uses a term he calls a racial-frame to describe narratives that 'explain' race and factors associated with race. He references a white racial frame and a black counter frame...he also writes about counter frames associated with different racial groups. My presumption is that he's meaning something like a master narrative when he writes about the white racial frame and counter narrative when he refers to, for example, the Native American counter frame and other counter frames. I especially liked his writing about how the liberty and justice frame is distorted by white people. 

It has been transforming for me to move to a way of thinking that takes into account the unspoken fact that most all originators of widely disseminated stories about the U.S. are created by white men. And...those stories...purposely or not...pretty much tend to uphold the notions that the experiences of white men are the experiences everyone has...or should have...and the ways of experiencing or understanding things should be from the viewpoint...or position of...a white guy.

When I write all that out it seems ludicrous...and yet...frighteningly enough...that's pretty much the way I wandered through my life. What's more terrifying...that's the way most people I've known perceive things. It's really rather embarrassing. I owe everyone and myself an apology for being so clueless. Good grief. 

The links in the paragraph about the racial frames go to different posts on the personal blog of Julian Abagond. One of the steps I took to work at breaking out of the fog of whiteness that the U.S. zeitgeist encourages is to find writers who have different lived life experiences than that of a white guy. I find most of Mr. Abagond's writing to be cogent and understandable and seriously informative. I also pay very close attention to the writings of Breeze Harper and Aph Ko and Syl Ko. There are a number of other online authors I follow but these folks probably are definitely among my main ones right now.

I've read a multitude of articles by academics and non-academics, I've also read a large number of books by authors of who aren't raced as white and who occupy various positions on the spectrum of sexual identities and behaviors. The social world of human beings is much much much more complex and different than that which is encompassed by the main or master narratives here in the U.S.

If you are/were like me...I'm reluctant to say it...but say it I must...then you are probably (like me) pretty clueless and oblivious about many, if not most, things to do with the social aspects of human beings...and lots of things really. We're much more often taught how to not think than how to think. That's one of the prime tools those in power use to hold onto their power.

It's almost as if there's a 200 piece orchestra playing a composition but when I was a child I was carefully taught to listen only to the woodwinds and told that the complete experience of the composition being played could be understood and appreciated by listening only to those instruments and...even worse...the rest of the orchestra was superfluous and inferior to the woodwinds and if any part of the orchestra sounded different than those woodwinds...well...those other instruments were just "pushing an agenda" and probably didn't know what in hell they were doing. I bought into these absurdities...mostly...not quite all the way...but way too much.

I was re-reading Marylyn Frye's excellent little book titled: The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. In one of the essays she offered the story of two people, one looking at a statue from in front of it and one looking at that same statue from the back. Their positions are different, hence what they see is different even though they are looking at the same statue. It's a nice reminder that position impacts what you're able to see. You can find this little book for a very low price from a used book dealer and I highly recommend it.


The idea of dominant narratives or discourses is pointing out that the story of what the statue is like is often determined not by what's actually there (the statue) but by which viewer of the statue has the most power and can thereby squelch or disregard what might be seen by different viewers who are not in the same position as the viewer with the power.

That's why it is critical to become familiar with information and viewpoints from folks who don't have social identities or positions (race, gender, age, sexual orientation, social class, etc.) that are the same as those who have power. Like Toni Morrison noted...if you don't do some work...you'll simply end up believing that everything is as it seems from the perspective of a white male. And that will make you rather ignorant and oblivious to much of what's real in a society and in the world itself. And...as you can easily see...that sort of narrow perspective doesn't work out too well for most of us...or for mother Earth.

 

 

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