Narratives change everything; let’s change our narratives.
Firm rocks and out-of-reach places where good men used to meet,
And the ancient ovoos-the standing stones to gods and ancestors;
This, this is my native land–D. Natsagdorj, My Native Land
There was a recent debate on Question Time – a televised opportunity for Joe Public to debate politicians – in which a voter complained about Labour’s tax plans. He accused the party of lying about only raising taxes for the top 5% when he realised it would affect him.
Despite admitting to a salary worth over £80,000, the audience member was adamant that he wasn’t even in the top half of earners. But the median income is less than 30K, meaning that he does indeed earn more than 95% of Brits.
How can someone be so out of touch with the facts, so caught up in a warped perception of the world?
We’re all trapped in our bubbles
If you live in Lambeth or Hackney, where nearly 80% of voters wanted to remain in the EU, it probably came as a shock to know the majority of the country didn’t. Yet for Boston residents, the decision seemed obvious.
“I don’t know anyone voted to remain, so of course the country voted out”.
I’ve been noticing this trend of being trapped in bubbles recently. On one podcast, someone said he didn’t know anyone who smoked – an amazing achievement since one in five does.
Another man was dumbfounded by the idea that there are people who don’t own an iPhone, despite the fact that this is true for 42% of Americans. He couldn’t believe it because, in his social circle, Apple holds a monopoly.
These facts aren’t difficult to find but, even so, we can’t just be constantly Googling. At some point, you have to navigate through life with a certain worldview; a specific set of perceptions beliefs about how the world is.
These worldviews come in part from our experiences – who we associate with, what we see around us – and in part from stories passed onto us by friends, family, and – perhaps most importantly of all – the media.
These narratives tend to be racist
They put your country of birth at the centre of the universe. An Englishman’s perception of the world comes from a mixture of Shakespeare, the Daily Mail, and the BBC. It certainly doesn’t arise from the poetic works of Tsegaye Gebre-Medhin, nor from tales of the Yacumama.
To be clear, this isn’t just the case in England. I’m sure the Chinese, Kazakhs, and Tuvuluans are just as wrapped up in their own culture.
But this is a problem.
It’s a problem because it means that our perception of how the world is, is warped. It’s led to the belief that most of the world generally sucks, but it’s great to be at home. Where I’m from, it’s led to an overwhelming and widespread sense that West is best.
England, America, and the West generally are certainly great for their own specific reasons. The philosophy of John Locke, the benign dismantling of an empire, the constitutional enshrinement of freedom of speech: these are just a few ideas that spring to mind.
But we’re not the best at everything.
Asian countries have coped better than Europeans at beating Coronavirus. Japan has the most efficient train service. Bhutan is the only country to measure and tailor government policy towards national happiness. Uruguay, Mauritius, and Costa Rica are ranked as more democratic than France. Thailand is decades ahead of Europe in its accepting of trans people’s right to exist.
The truth is far more complicated
Yet, like the 80K earner on Question Time, many have a hard time accepting it. Even when the facts are pointed out to you, it’s hard to get over the sense of supremacy that we attribute to our own green and pleasant land.
That, I contend, is because of narrative.
The stories and mythology we grew up with excludes foreigners and creates a sense of camaraderie with our own kind. And so we grow up utterly ignorant of different cultures and engulfed by our own bubble.
The solution? Let’s change our narratives. Let’s explore and create stories that include foreign cultures.
As a writer, I am of course bound by what I know, so my stories are Anglocentric. That’s why this piece began with an anecdote taken from BBC Question Time rather than Qipa Shuo.
But now, more than ever, we need to do more to overcome rising xenophobia and racism. We’re battling Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duda, and Modi: nationalist leaders spanning four continents.
We’ll win through storytelling; by taking an active interest in the myths of other nations. In doing so, we can begin to unravel decades of brainwashing by the bubble into which we were born.
We’ll smash racist narratives by becoming interested in hearing and telling diverse and global stories.