A Presidential Campaign, but No Presidential or National Narrative

A presidential campaign is an exercise in storytelling. Each candidate is always seeking to tell the most compelling story of the nation, one that both reflects who we think we are and projects into the future the kind of nation we’d like to be.   The very occasion of campaign, with its promise of renewal, should be a strong backdrop for the symbols, themes, images and practices that tie past and future of a nation together.

This year, both Romney and Obama have struggled to find their foothold in a narrative that works. As the near tie in popularity makes clear, neither has a mandate, and neither has told a story with a powerful sense of forward momentum. Continue reading

Posted in: Narrative forms, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, Strategic Leadership Tags: , , , , , , ,

Narrative Believability Trumps Probability in Decision Making

We may be better at telling the story behind a bet than the probable roll of the dice

We are not statisticians by nature, but storytellers.  Why don’t we make better use of that insight in our effort to predict and understand complex problems?

British economist John Kay presented the following problem in a recent Financial Times column When Storytelling Leads to Unhappy Endings:

Linda is single, outspoken and deeply engaged with social issues. Which of the following is more likely? That Linda is a bank manager or that Linda is a bank manager who is an active feminist?

If you chose the second answer you are in good company. Most of us do. Sadly, we’re wrong. Kay explains:

Many people say that the second option is more likely. Yet, the standard response goes, this cannot be. The rules of probability tell us the probability that both A and B are true cannot exceed the probability that either A or B is true. It is less likely that someone is a female Jamaican Olympic gold medalist than that a person is female, or that a person is Jamaican, or that a person is a gold medalist. Yet even people trained in probability make a mistake with the Linda problem.  Or is it a mistake? Little introspection is required to understand what is going on. Respondents do not interpret the question as one about probability. They think it is a question about believability.

Believability, as Kay explains further, is narrative’s emblem.  In the face of the messy, multi-faceted and open-ended situations that confront us, we humans tend to produce “simplifying narratives” that help make sense of events in a way we find believable, based on our personal, cultural and historical predispositions. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, Narrative and Cognition, Narrative Research Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

How Power Works in the 21st Century

We live in stories.  That is, we are always in the process of trying to make sense of what is happening to us and around us.  That process drives us – to vote, to go into the street and fight for a nation, to make changes in how we consume, or to do none of the above.

Political leadership that understands that stories, perceptions, values, ideas, culture are present wherever there is human activity have a powerful tool for understanding what drives both change and apathy.

There is no name more firmly associated with linking political power and values and ideas than that of Joseph Nye. He coined the term soft power, which is power that stems from the intangible sources such as “institutions, ideas, values, culture …” as he explains in The Future of Power. 

Earlier this week, The Globalist published my article, How Power Really Works in the 21st Century: Beyond Soft, Hard and Smart. In it, I explain how, in a networked, information driven age, the power of symbols and ideas is always an important part of the strategic landscape. Nye’s insight that culture, ideas, perceptions, stories has been deeply assimilated into strategic thinking—a great tribute to him. But the insight has outgrown the categories that once described them. Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, International Politics, National Security, Political Analysis, Politics and Policy, Public Diplomacy, Strategic Leadership, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Numbers as Narratives: Review of World Economics Website

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In popular imagination, narratives and numbers are opposites; the nebulous and imaginative versus the precise and factual. In public policy, narratives our political leaders often rest on numbers in the form of statistics, indices, averages, probabilities. Numbers are so compact, so easily legible, that it is easy to forget they are themselves stories: shorthand renderings of someone’s point of view about which facts are important and how to interpret them.

The World Economics website promises to put an end to any such complacency. The site, whose editor Brian Sturgess I met recently in Baku, has compiled a small mountain of counterintuitive and thought provoking challenges to clichéd uses of numbers to narrate what’s happening in the world.

Among a few of the site’s provocations: Continue reading

Posted in: Decision making, International Politics, Narrative forms, National Security, Politics and Policy, Strategic Leadership Tags: , , ,

Hacker Narrative: Next Chapter in History of Civil Rights?

Peter Fein, self described Hacktivist, recently revealed he is a member of the group Anonymous,  a self-organized group that targets institutions that stand in the way of their vision of Internet freedom with Distributed Denial of Service(DDOS) attacks.  DDOS attacks are a way of effectively shutting down websites by  overwhelming them with traffic.

The hacktivist group Anonymous: the next chapter in the story of American civil liberties?

For much of the U.S. security and legal community, hacktivists are criminals and security threats.  In another popular image, hacktivists are anarchists dedicated to total liberty.

Peter Fein doesn’t see it either way, for him, his activities place him at the center of a uniquely American history of ever progressing civil rights. Continue reading

Posted in: Information Systems, International Politics, Legal Issues, National Security, Politics and Policy, Popular Culture Tags: , , , , , ,

Measuring National Power

Has the Eurozone crisis led to a loss of European Union power?

Washington D.C. was even more full of diplomatic cars and dark suited men than usual this weekend, as the the World Bank and International Monetary Fund held their annual spring meetings. Historically dedicated to shoring up ‘developing’ regions, this year’s focus was on the Eurozone crisis, that ongoing ripple of effects from the near financial collapse of several EU countries.

Some policy makers think that the EU’s loss of economic power will reduce its power on other issues, as the New York Times has reported: Continue reading

Posted in: Crisis Management, Decision making, International Politics, Marketing & Branding, National Security, Politics and Policy, Public Diplomacy, Public Relations Tags: , , , , , ,

“Stand your Ground” Laws Validate Stories of Lethal Force, Silence Others

Yale Law School professor Adam Cohen, advocating the repeal of the Stand Your Ground law that permitted George Zimmerman to claim he killed Trayvon Martin in self defense, wrote in Time Magazine last week that:

If Zimmerman does go to trial, there will no doubt be enormous debates over his guilt or innocence. It is difficult to sort out motives and right and wrong in cases of this sort — especially when one of the critical witnesses, young Mr. Martin, cannot testify about what happened.

There is a direct link between Stand Your Ground laws, which permit those with access to deadly force to use it if they feel threatened, and Martin’s inability to tell his story.

Spirit of JusticeSpirit of Justice, cropped from photograph: Two sculptures "Spirit of Justice," and "Majesty of Justice," Great Hall, 2nd floor, Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

It is a truism when talking about narrative and public life to assert that some stories are sanctioned, and others silenced. Sometimes it is difficult to identify the mechanism through which such sanction takes place, because it lies in community tradition or social discourse.  Stand Your Ground laws press into relief how law can shape which accounts will be viewed as legitimate before they are evaluated by judges and juries. Under the Stand your Ground premise, might makes right. Your ability to lethally harm someone is converted into the credible motivation for doing so, while the victim of a killing is doubly silenced, in court and in life.

When I consider the reported details of the case in the press–the accounts of Zimmerman and his father, the 911 call transcripts,  the reports of the neighbors and Martin’s girlfriend, who overheard the encounter by cell phone,  I hear a story of two young men who each experienced sensations of threat and fear in the presence of the other.  Continue reading

Posted in: Legal Issues, Narrative forms, Narrative Research, News and Journalism, Politics and Policy Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Definition of Strategic Narrative: an Evolving Concept in International Affairs

In an earlier post, I outlined ways in which the term strategic narrative is used in current practice,  in public relations—as an element of marketing—and in the academic field of international relations.  This post returns to the evolution of the term as an applied concept in foreign affairs.

According to International Relations professor Alister Miskimmon (who I asked by email), the first published use of the term “strategic narrative”  was by Lawrence Freedman, a professor of War Studies at King’s College, London.  In 2006, Freedman wrote a paper called The Transformation of Strategic Affairs.   Many of the insights in Freedman’s work stem from the Western experience of war in the post-9/11 years, and the discovery—the hard way, through experience—that the era of large scale land warfare may be decisively over. In its place, the future promises smaller wars, waged by insurgents as well as governments, in which human factors such as behavior, culture and communication play meaningful roles.

In this context, Freedman identifies “strategic narratives” as a kind of secret weapon of networked combatants fighting irregular wars.  In Freedman’s view, a story that connects people emotionally to an identity and a mission “helps dispersed groups to cohere and guides its strategy.  Individuals know the sort of action expected of them and the message to be conveyed.”

Thus, in Freedman’s definition, narrative is a function of strategy in the most traditional sense related to the science of war.  In that vein, he argues that: Continue reading

Posted in: International Politics, Middle East, Narrative Research, National Security, Politics and Policy, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Behavioral Economics Go to War

Review of Behavioural Conflict, Why Understanding People and their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict, by Andrew Mackey and Steve Tatham

I cannot think of any books about warfare’s future that come across as hard-hitting, full of actionable pragmatism, and deeply humane all at the same time.  But Behavioral Conflict: Why Understanding People and their Motivations will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict is all three.  The authors, both career members of the British military, Major General Andres Mackey (Ret) and Royal Navy Commander Steve Tatham (who I count as a friend, having met him in Ankara a few years ago), make their case by drawing on a combination of their own experience, case studies and close analysis of how communication actually factors in war.

Hard-hitting and pragmatic:  Mackey and Tatham are precise and lucid about what they mean by “behavior” and how to make use of it to gain advantage in conflict. They, and behavioral psychologist Lee Rowland, who adds a chapter on the science of influence, are not putting forth any of the following: A call for greater “cultural awareness,” a mushy program about how to change others’ attitudes, or a repeat of the last decade’s focus on consumer marketing as the key to public diplomacy.   They offer instead this thesis based on a simple chain of claims:

  • The world of human motivation and perception is inevitably complex.
  • It is more important to try to shape behavior than it is to change people’s attitudes.
  • Behavior shaping begins with a discrete grasp of the circumstances under which people already behave in ways that are desirable, and extends to efforts to replicate those or similar circumstances. Continue reading

Posted in: Books & Films, Decision making, Intercultural Communication, International Politics, Narrative Research, National Security, Politics and Policy, Strategic Leadership, War and Violent Conflict Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Form of National Myths

Storytelling pole of the Haida nation

I was reminded of the tremendous elasticity of narrative forms when I recently visited the Denver Art Museum’s amazing American Indian art collection for the first time, by the  Haida storytelling pole near the entrance of the collection. The Haida is a native tribe of the Northwest coast of the United States and Canada and, like other tribes of the coast, are known for the immense carved poles through which tribal myths are told.

The story told in this pole is about a man who was almost captured by otters when his canoe capsized.  The figures at the very top of the pole are watchmen.  Next lowest is the man who escaped the otters, holding an otter by the tail. The figure in the middle represents the cave where the otters live and at the very bottom is a cave spirit, who holds a stingray.

My own inclination was to try to “read” the pole in a linear direction, from top to bottom, to find in it the action part of the story, in which the man escapes the otters. But the real story may lie less in the pole itself than in the interaction between community members and the symbolic item, Continue reading

Posted in: Narrative Research, Popular Culture Tags: , , ,