This idea has come up in post after post on Missing Point, the specific language to define it evolving with each appearance. When I began to recognize the commonality, I used the term filter to reference it as a set of questions to apply to any given narrative. I found myself using these questions, though not in a specifically formulaic manner, to reveal the intent and motivation of those who script such narratives. The first question was generally some form of “who benefits from this narrative?” followed by the question “who benefits from my acceptance of this narrative?” I separate these two because it may not be necessary for the narrative to be accepted for it to be effective. Its very proposal is often enough to constrain the dialogue, which is more often than not the narrative’s underlying intent.
Recognizing these dynamics, and having the language to do so, can empower us to move beyond the scripted duality of picking a side and preparing for battle. I believe this conscious choice to liberate oneself from the constraints of these us against them narratives is a fundamental first step in shifting the society as a whole from a restrictive vision of what we don’t want to a dynamic vision of what we do. To be clear, my ultimate objective in writing this piece is to neutralize this methodology of manipulation and control by providing language to name it, expose it, and reject it. With this in mind I am proposing the widespread adoption and use of the following specific language:
Conflict Narrative – Any dualistic narrative that is employed as a method of manipulation and control in order to minimize, marginalize, and misdirect the legitimate outrage of the people away from those actually responsible for their common oppression.
The primary function of conflict narratives is to seize and secure all space that might otherwise be available for discovery and dialogue through relentless repetition of a single predetermined dualistic narrative. These narratives are scripted as win/lose scenarios, contests for survival, competitions where one side gains only at the expense of the other. Such narratives identify those involved solely through their opposition to one another, effectively silencing their individual voices. With the competition clearly defined, participants are now free to “choose” sides, establishing a shallow sense of belonging and purpose through this essential act of “choosing.” This “choice” between sanctioned options is intended to supplant any personal exploration and experience that might cause deviation from the narrative. The spectacle of impassioned argument from both sides is meant to seduce us into declaring our allegiance, but if we are to break free of these narratives there is one thing we must be clear on:
Those who script conflict narratives do not care which choice we ultimately make. They have provided two “choices” (rather than one) for the sole purpose of seducing us into declaring our allegiance and joining the fray.
Jobs or Environment. Freedom or Security. Democrat or Republican. Coke or Pepsi. Paper or Plastic. Conflict narratives often provide “choices” that are almost identical, but they can be equally effective tools of manipulation when the “choices” are actually different. Apples and Oranges. The phrase is used to reference two objects so completely different that their comparison is all but meaningless. But really though, which is better, Apples or Oranges? If you could eat only one for the rest of your life, which would it be? C’mon, you know you have a favorite! Viewing difference in the frame of conflict, as a contest for dominance, keeps us from realizing the benefit of having multiple options. Oranges may not make for good pie (Damn right – Apple Pie RULES!), but they make excellent marmalade (You got to be kidding – NOBODY eats that garbage!).
When we look back at the root narratives for so called western civilization we find the Greco-Roman hero on a great quest, courageously facing adversity and overcoming obstacles to manifest his destiny. “Choosing” Apples over Oranges may not seem like the stuff of which legends are made, but again, this story isn’t really about “choice,” it’s about the conflict itself. Not the conflict between Apples and Oranges, but between those who “choose” one, and those who “choose” the other. So you’ve never had a taste for Apples? Not a problem so long as you really, really hate Oranges.
But the exclusivity of our allegiance need not end there. Pears, tangerines, and bananas, all suspect by association. Why would anyone eat those other fruits when they could be eating Apples instead? For that matter, how could anyone wise enough to recognize the clear superiority of Apples even harbor a desire to taste the obviously inferior Oranges? To do so would only show a lack of resolve and serve to ridicule all the great heroes who have sacrificed everything to make Apple their one and only choice.
This is the ultimate objective of the conflict narrative, not simply to discourage alternative experience, but to insure obedience through the systematic substitution of vicarious “experience” in place of first hand experiential knowledge.
The conflict narrative takes this even further. It focuses in on the confrontation with as little attention to setup and resolution as possible, keeping us perpetually trapped inside of it. Hollywood films that feature an enemy that cannot be reasoned with, one that must be stopped at all costs, are big money makers at the box office. The emphasis is on entertainment, pure vicarious spectacle, two solid hours of perpetual conflict requiring no participation from the viewer beyond their passive consent.
So how does this relate to our Apples and Oranges metaphor? Well, this narrative model acts as a basic template for our understanding of the world around us. Instead of seeing Apples and Oranges as just two among a multitude of possibilities, we are likely to insert them into the roles of protagonist and antagonist, our champion and his foe, reflexively imposing a hierarchy on the fruits, making value judgements that set them in opposition to one another. Rather than simply enjoying both fruits, we insist on defining them through their differences relative to one another. We are so culturally conditioned to perceive any pairing as a contest, a competition, a conflict, that we can scarcely even conceive of the pairing as complimentary or simply coexistent. And this pattern, this story as it were, is imbedded in the narrative structure that we use to communicate practically everything.
I recently read a blog post that brought an example of alternative narrative structure to my attention – Kishōtenketsu. From what I understand this is a four-act structure: Introduction, Development, Turn and Reconciliation. The first two acts introduce and develop a situation/idea, the third act introduces a seemingly unrelated situation/idea, and the fourth act serves to connect the two, or to present them in a broader context that allows the reader/audience to make the connections for themselves. While the conflict narrative demands that we use relative difference as a basis for conflict, kishōtenketsu seems more concerned with how it is possible for these differences to coexist, how they may in fact compliment each other. Reconciliation in this context is not make up sex after the fight, it is the realization that seemingly unrelated situations/ideas can (and do) exist in tandem and conjunction among an infinite number of possibilities. The form invites us to consider the relationship between the ideas and how they fit into a larger context. Difference is not presented as a threat to be defended against, something to be converted or eradicated; it is instead presented as an opportunity for reflection and growth.
Survival of the fittest and similar tropes are often cited to encourage and justify our “participation” in conflict narratives. The term, coined by Herbert Spencer (often incorrectly attributed to Charles Darwin), is frequently used in place of Darwin’s natural selection to promote the argument that innovation arises only through competition. In a free market of ideas the best thought wins.
But natural selection is not actually about being the “best” or the strongest, it is at its core about variation and reproduction of that variation. If a new trait enables an organism to survive and reproduce then that trait is passed on to successive generations, becoming more and more common over time. “Survival” in the context of natural selection doesn’t even necessarily equate with longevity, it is simply being around long enough to reproduce. “Fittest” in this context is a reference to how well an organism is suited to the multitude of variables that comprise its existence, not the number of repetitions one can do in the gym. Kind of like a puzzle piece being introduced into an existing puzzle, a tiny variation (resulting from genetic mutation) may improve the fit.
The variation here isn’t a “choice,” nor is it a function of defeating the competition, it just is. But just is doesn’t provide the value judgement necessary to perpetuate the struggle for scarce resources that we have been conditioned to believe in. Just is doesn’t provide a mechanism for control, and its not particularly useful for securing and validating power over others. It needs to be replaced by something more hierarchical – something that frames difference as dangerous, rather than the key to our evolution.
Conflict narratives are employed as divide and conquer strategy to dismiss, disempower and delegitimize social and political movements, to break down existing unity while simultaneously preventing new bonds from emerging. Throughout my years of activist organizing I have seen this dynamic play out again and again, with devastating results. A central focus of my writing on The Missing Point has been to address this dynamic not simply as political strategy, but with the understanding that it is a central tenet of American (as in USA!) cultural identity. The cultural propensity for judgement is visible at all levels of our lives. The punitive nature of our culture has us policing one another at work and at home, in our social circles and political affiliations, in our backyard and around the world. Everything is fair game. What you wear and how you do your hair. What job you do and how well you do it. Where you were born and how you live. What you believe and how you practice... it’s all so endlessly entertaining!
There is something particularly disturbing to me about this. It’s not just the ease with which we are swept up in conflict narratives, but our tacit acceptance of their use throughout our culture. I wonder why we don’t reject wholesale this cynical manipulation, why we don’t simply refuse to “participate.” Perhaps the next time you find yourself reflexively picking a side and preparing for battle, you will ask yourself “who benefits from this narrative?”
The significance of plot without conflict by Still Eating Oranges