Words have power. The right arrangement of words has the ability to grant life, or take it away. Words can hurt, words can heal, words can save, and words can condemn. It is often said that when we communicate with each other, what we say has far less impact on the listener than how we say it. This claim is evidenced in our everyday interactions with the world. Politicians perform grandiose speeches filled with carefully selected words that are packed with subtext. News outlets choose terminology that resonates with us on a visceral level, telling us exactly how disgusted to feel about tonight’s tragic events. In our personal relationships we manage our interactions with other people in order to project the image of ourselves that we want others to believe. Whether we realize it or not, we all struggle to craft and control narratives every day.
Chinua Achebe once famously said that “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” What he means by this is that so long as the power to control the narrative in slanted in one direction, the party that controls that power will always use it to their benefit. History has shown us that so long as there is something to be gained by controlling the lens through which the great unwashed see the world; those with the power to do so will invest in acquiring and keeping that power. When Mussolini declared that he was going to invade Ethiopia in the second world war, knowing that the African empire held little real power in the League of Nations, he argued that his invasion was for the benefit of the Ethiopians, stating that he was doing so to bring them into the 20th century, out of the short sighted ignorance of days gone by. This however was not the truth, as it was part of the imperial expansionist agenda championed by the great European powers of the day. What he had to gain from controlling the narrative in this manner was the absence of interference from the League of Nations.
In more recent memory, the 2003 invasion of Iraq gained support through a sustained campaign of publicity. Untold amounts of cash were poured into supporting the argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction hiding somewhere in the ancient desert nation that millions of people called home. Despite having been cleared by the United Nations, and having constantly repeated that there were no weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration belaboured the point. Through their multi-billion dollar publicity machine, the United States government was able to not only polarize the global discourse between those against international terrorism and its supporters; they were also able to leave no room for neutrality or nuance. It became impossible to question the motives and tactics used by the “coalition of the willing” without automatically being painted as a terrorist as opposed to a conscientious objector. Over after a decade of war, millions of dead, and nation in shambles later, there were no weapons, and the only justification remaining for the war is that Saddam Hussein was bad man and had to be stopped. What was gained from this war is not immediately apparent. After the dust had settled from the peak of this conflict, billions of dollars were paid out in military and commercial contracts, access to lucrative oil fields, and a “democratic” government to prop up the neo-colonial project.
To be less abstract and focus on more contemporary subjects, consider the rash of news reports on the deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement in the United States. When an unarmed black male is killed by an officer, there is an almost immediate rush to uncover a sordid past, which makes this kind of violence more palatable. Take the example of Alton Sterling, who was pinned to the ground by officers and shot in the chest in what amounted to an extra judiciary execution. The media focus was less on the tragedy in itself, and more on the decades-old and irrelevant criminal past of this victim of police brutality. The goal was the justification of his death by proving that he was somehow worth less, or simply worthless to society. What is the benefit of this narrative and why should anyone important want to demonize a man that sold music outside of a random convenience store? The answer is found in three words: Prison Industrial Complex (PIC).
At first glance this may appear to be a conspiracy theory, and perhaps it very well may be, but follow me. The PIC is a multi-billion dollar system that involves courts, policing, for profit prisons, and large corporations. Without going too far off topic, in order for the prison industrial complex to be profitable for its corporate and government stakeholders, there has to be a consistent feed of inmates. In the United States, that feed is found in impoverished urban communities made up of ethnic minorities, most often African Americans and Latinos. By publicly criminalizing a victim of police brutality, which is a corollary of the growing demand for inmates in this system, it reinforces the narrative that the group that victim belongs to is criminally inclined. This allows for increased policing in these neighbourhoods, the statistics become self-fulfilling prophecies and further support that narrative. Exercising control over not only this narrative, but also shutting down dissenting voices, the system is allowed to flourish and stakeholders continue to profit.
Attempts to control a narrative are often easy to identify. The most common tactics used to seek control are: the use of keywords, repetition, and volume. These tactics are most often apparent in news broadcasts and thought pieces. In cases of police brutality similar to that of Alton Sterling, we often hear the same keywords: thug, criminal, and illegal. These keywords conjure in the mind of the listener images of a person that was dangerous, someone that was a burden to society, and someone that needed to be stopped. This coded language also implicitly delegitimizes the victim’s entitlement to equal rights in the mind of the listen because the criminally dangerous are undeserving of fair treatment. Over the course of any debates that we would hear about a victim of police shooting, those who would justify these acts would repeat talking points that point to the “criminal nature” of the African American population. This often includes the misuse of statistics without proper analysis, anecdotal evidence, and consistent use of keywords. Volume is the strongest tool in the kit of anyone looking to control a narrative. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, often times the loudest voice in this power struggle will always overpower the other, whether the message is righteous or not. Volume is more than just the decibels count; it also means power, and reach. A single witness at a police shooting has little to no control over a narrative when compared to a national news service that can reach millions of people. That one person, even though he or she knows the truth and remembers it perfectly, if a news network with enough followers is able to spread a message contradicting their story, that witness then becomes a liar in the eye of the public. The truth no longer matters.
The question now is how the powerless take narrative control away from the powerful. The first step is to be aware of these tactics and ask questions. Always consider the source of your information and their motivations for sharing it with you in the way that they have chosen. Analyse the words they chose and ask yourself which feelings they are trying to solicit from you. Do they want you to be disgusted, inspired, or angry? Who stands to gain from having you feel this way? Asking these questions will give you the tools to identify when someone is trying to control the lens with which you see the world. Another approach we can use to control the narratives of the events that happen in our world is to band together as a collective, and as a group we use our combined voices. Only by being the loudest can we be heard over the noise of twisted words and half-truths. By being aware and unified against those that would abuse the power to shape peoples’ worldview, we can not only keep ourselves from falling victim to carefully crafted stories and manipulated facts, but we can also protect others from the same and demand real justice.
Be good to yourselves, and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
Mussolini justifying the invasion of Ethiopia: http://mrcatelli.weebly.com/uploads/5/6/5/7/56571255/mussolini-ethiopia_speech.pdf
The coalition of the willing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PKLhdekJs4
Gen. Colon Powell on Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2ZTLmOoPzjs
Some information on contractors in Iraq: https://www.rt.com/news/american-military-contractors-iraq-621/
The death of Alton Sterling (WARNING GRAPHIC VIDEO): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdTtxgoIaoM
More on the Prison Industrial Complex: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prison%E2%80%93industrial_complex