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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Narratives, from the personal to the political

I keep harping on this, I know, but it's for a reason – acknowledging the importance of the stories people tell themselves and the weight they attach to those stories is frequently the first step in effecting change, whether it's at a purely personal level or at the macro/social level.

Those stories, whether they're accurate reflections of fact or fucked-up dysfunctional compensations, form touchstones. They are the scripts whereby we live our lives. They provide the cues and the guideposts we use in responding to events, to new information. They provide the internal filing systems we use to organize what we know and what we learn and slot it into categories; how we react to things depends very much on how they fit into those categories. The stories may or may not be true. They don't have to make sense or even appear coherent to external observers, objective or otherwise. As long as they make sense to us, we hang on to them.

So much of your identity and sense of yourself is wrapped up in that narrative, in fact, that it provides a psychic and emotional touchstone. To have it challenged, in whole or in part, is akin to having your psychic anchor taken away. The more you have invested in your storyline, the more resistant you're going to be to any attempt to redefine or rewrite it. And that's true, I'd submit, regardless of whether you're talking about a single person attempting to deal with personal issues or a defined group attempting to deal with social and political change.

Could that be part of the explanation for Susan Crean's account of her encounter with Stephen Harper in 1992? She recalls:
When the man learned that she had co-authored a certain book about American domination of Canadian and Quebec politicians, the man responded: "You should not have been allowed to write that book."
The man: Stephen Harper. Crean never forgot his words, but especially the word allowed. The room full of writers in Ottawa issued a gasp.
Crean later elaborated on the encounter. "Harper spoke to me first and asked if I had written 'that book.' I asked which one, and he mentioned Two Nations, which I wrote with Quebec activist/sociologist and well known independentiste Marcel Rioux. ... Harper was clearly still angry about having had to read it at university. In his view, I took it, the book was treasonous. I was so shaken by his words, and his open hostility, that I immediately left the dining room."
-- Lawrence Scanlan, A less proud country, Ottawa Citizen, July 28, 2010

Perhaps Stephen Harper has a different recollection of the encounter. I'd be delighted to hear him share it. Scanlan argues, however, that the exchange suggests an impulse on Harper's part to suppress and control viewpoints with which he disagrees, and that his government is being criticized, almost two decades later, for exactly that.

I haven't read the book in question, and I've never met either Susan Crean or Stephen Harper. What I'd like to believe, however naively, is that we can affirm our individual and collective rights to disagree among ourselves, and to advance the storylines of our choosing -- without bringing the coercive power of the State down upon our heads, and without inviting the rhetorical bludgeons of the Sun Medias / Fox News Corporations of the world.

Disagreement and dissent are fundamental to citizenship in open societies. They're inseparable from civil discourse, free speech and free inquiry. In these times, remembering that is more important than ever.

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