Narratives are the big stories of our time that help make sense of the world around us. Family values, gender roles, politics, national pride, immigration, war, education, individual identity,… everything surrounding us is given a place within a larger story from which flows a sense of meaning and order.
Narratives are designed to deal with social complexity. Although intricate themselves and difficult to become aware of, narratives empower us with a framework of meaning to understand the otherwise ungraspable realities around us. As a more advanced version of story-telling, our most primal and basic form of sharing knowledge, narratives have a powerful influence on identity and society based on the human necessity to have a sense of meaning and belonging.
As a human construct, narratives are intrinsically bound to social change. Narratives are not created out of thin air, but rather continuously shaped and kept alive by pretty much everyone participating in society, from the individual to the aggregate levels of communities and institutions. In doing so, we all fulfil a role of passive and active gatekeeping. Whereas most of us keep narratives alive by undergoing them, some actively participate in maintaining, deconstructing or building alternative storylines.
When people and society change, narratives evolve. While narratives may feel stagnant and immobile, they are perpetually in flux. Throughout modern human civilisation, narratives have evolved with it. Economic theories, political philosophies, technology development, and artistic movements all ushered in some form of narrative change over time. Just like gravity, an existing narrative faces continuous push and pull pressure from gatekeepers and social change. Narrative evolution, then, is not purely dialectical, but “hybridical”, depending on tremendous shaping efforts and critical mass developments – assembling and accommodating pressures to evolve while remaining intact as a logical framework for meaning.
We believe it is relevant to remain conscious of the reality of narratives, their purpose and their evolving nature, especially as social developments keep unraveling. Narratives can indeed remain flexible, shedding old skin for a new form. What is important, therefore, is not just what the “right” narrative is, but that it is “right” to keep narratives open-ended, permeable to new information and truths. Indeed, a narrative is at its most resilient when it can breathe and adapt itself.
The MENA region, for example, is typically characterised by a narrative of patriarchy and male dominance. Yet, this seemingly inherent and static characterisation is not left unchallenged by social developments. In the aftermath of the Arab spring in Tunisia, social awareness and public attention went towards gender equality, leading to the formal adoption of laws enabling political participation, protection against gender-based violence, and the introduction of gender equality into the country’s constitution. These changes impact women’s empowerment in Tunisia and can ultimately contribute to incremental narrative change.
Besides providing meaning, engaging in narrative building is meaningful in and of itself. We experience narratives on a daily basis – framing our personal stories within the ongoing narrative of the time. But we can shape narratives every day, by choosing consciously what world we aspire to, what narrative feeds into that, what its blind spots are, and in what direction it should evolve.
At ResilientMENA we try to shape narratives because we believe that a better future lies ahead, while fully knowing it will not appear by itself. This exercise is important and necessary in times of war and desolation, which now characterizes the MENA region.
To us, shaping a new narrative for the MENA region involves:
- Approaching the current narrative with an eco-system understanding and with consideration for interlinkages and complexity;
- Sensing the recurring themes of existing narratives (war, poverty, oppression);
- Highlighting stories about less prevalent but equally relevant themes, including evidence of bottom-up societal resilience and hope.
- Applying advanced multi-disciplinary thought in identifying a roadmap for next priorities
We aim to do our part of thinking out loud, conscious of the narratives of our time, while aiming to shape the region into a better version of itself.