Our identities really are a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narrative our societies like to recite. – Thomas Chatterton Williams
A paper by Kenneth Mølbjerg Jørgensen and David M.Boje called “Resituating narrative and story in business ethics” is helping answer something that’s been puzzling me for a while.
It has to do with interventions in situations that are considered problematic by the people involved in them. This is pretty much everything that’s going wrong, from arguments over having cereal at bedtime at home to the way in which an organisation to respond to the challenges of climate change. How should we approach these situations and what does it take to improve them?
When we’re not certain what to do we tend to fall back on the narratives we’ve grown up with. It’s a little like being stuck in treacle – we find ourselves anchored to the thinking that’s surrounded us when we grew up and it’s hard to pull away. My tendency, for example, is to default to the relatively ascetic nature of my upbringing. If there is a problem the best way to resolve it is to get rid of everything. If you have less then there is less to worry about and logically if you have nothing other than what you absolutely need then you have no worries.
This approach does not go down well with anyone brought up with a predominantly Western narrative where the world exists for humans, where God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” The dominant institutions of the West have internalised this belief, along with a few others to do with rationality and truth that can be traced back to the Greeks, and the result is that they do things for their own benefit and let society pick up the costs.
Society, in general, has been less than amused by the results and has tried to push back. The problem, of course, is that the richest in society benefit from the status quo. The pandemic has shown that rather starkly, with those who have getting more and those who have not suffering most. The disadvantaged, which the paper helpfully lists as including “immigrants, refugees, homeless, landless, poor, sick, underpaid and exploited”, are not heard.
When we enter a situation we tend to take on the views of those that are in there. As parents, we have certain beliefs. When working with organisations, we accept their view of looking at the world and then we try and work within those views. But what if we’re doing it wrong? I have friends who parent very differently. And we see organisations who are doing things differently. What does that tell us?
It tells us that they are listening to a different story, one that may even have more value than the ones we have grown up with. My ascetic story does not burden the earth but it creates new value and if you are born into poverty it makes no effort to change your fate. The materialist story consumes the planet and there isn’t enough for us all to have the same standards of living. But we all want our children to have a better future, and we want our societies to work better for everyone. So we have to watch out for these stories, for these new, inclusive, diverse tales that show how things can be better.
Take a company like BrewDog, for example. They are in an old business, the one of making beer, but they tell a very different story, one where buying their product is not just about good beer but also about saving the planet. It’s a good story and it’s one their competitors will have trouble matching, especially if they are invested in their existing narrative – one that their investments in carbon reductions have to be profitable. But to be profitable you have to stay in business.
The paper argues, however, that stories have been crowded out by dominant narratives, that we are much less tolerant of things that don’t have a simple beginning, middle and end – ones that try and say that they’re telling you the truth. This leads to polarisation, one narrative versus another rather than the understanding of living stories, what’s actually happening in people’s lives. But that’s a larger problem and we’re only going to address it by being open to listening.