Terrorism, Democracy & Other Competing Narratives

“You are home,” said our brand new Canadian Prime Minister to a group of newly arrived refugees stepping off the plane at Toronto’s Pearson Airport.

“Welcome home,” he said.

Simple words, yet powerful.

Trudeau seems to have an intuitive grasp of the power of narrative — not as an inevitable annoyance and but as a genuine way to communicate and connect.

Images of warm and smiling Justin Trudeau greeting exhausted, hopeful Syrian families flashed around the world. These pictures were broadcasted alongside other recent news, like clips of Donald Trump telling Americans to close the border to all Muslims, and Parisians or Californians standing over makeshift shrines attempting to cope with yet another terrorist attack.

One result of our hyper-connected world is that information we receive arrives piecemeal. There is a tragic image of a three year old’s body washed up on a beach in Turkey, a grim-faced man whose greatest aspiration is to inflict mass casualties, a Prime Minister helping a little girl with a shy smile try on a warm winter coat. We see all manner of beauty and horror coming at us at light speed.

It is up to us to try to make sense of what we see — to place these bits and pieces within a greater context — and that is exactly what we all naturally do. We understand these images and events according to our own way of seeing things, our predilections and philosophies. Our own guiding narratives.

Of course, others constantly try to persuade us to come over to their side, buy into their perspectives and narratives, or convince us what they are selling us conforms to who we are, or would like to be. This is why companies no longer advertise products but lifestyles, or the kinds of values that their products supposedly represent.

Trudeau seems to have an intuitive grasp of the power of narrative — not as an inevitable annoyance and but as a genuine way to communicate and connect. He appeared to have no trouble framing the welcoming of refugees within a larger Canadian story.

“This is something that we are able to do in this country because we define a Canadian not by a skin colour or a language or a religion or a background, but by a shared set of values, aspirations, hopes and dreams that not just Canadians but people around the world share,” he said.

Not every Canadian values multiculturalism, but a great many do. And because Trudeau made a point of connecting these dots, Canadians who relate to this theme will not only welcome these refugees, but will think that, yes, my Prime Minister understands that this is a Canadian thing to do, this is who we are, it is important to us. This is a part of our identity. This is how we come together as a people.

Of course here Trudeau has taken a risk — not by welcoming this particular group, but by taking an unambiguous stance. In this case, Trudeau made world headlines because he did not hide behind a wall of formality or equivocation. Now everyone knows exactly where he stands. And, of course, with clarity comes criticism and the potential for complications.

But doing nothing, being unclear, shirking responsibility, demonstrating no leadership, and aligning yourself with whatever works right now, also has risks. You may avoid problems if a story takes a turn for the worse. But you also relinquish all the benefits of real leadership, like the allegiance, and respect, of others who believe in what you’re doing. And, of course, you also give up the satisfaction of sticking to your principles or doing what you actually believe in.

In reality, power shifts with every stand that is, or is not, taken. Whatever happens, you earn new followers, lose old ones. It is a constantly evolving, incredibly complicated dynamic. Good leaders must have strong narratives to guide them — strong narratives that others can understand and support.

One thing you cannot say about ISIS is that they are vague in their messaging or that they underestimate the power of storytelling. In an excellent piece of reportage that recently appeared in The Washington Post, you can read about the highly organized ISIS propaganda machine.

According to the story, which appeared on Nov. 20:

“Senior media operatives are treated as 'emirs' of equal rank to their military counterparts. They are directly involved in decisions on strategy and territory. They preside over hundreds of videographers, producers and editors who form a privileged, professional class with status, salaries and living arrangements that are the envy of ordinary fighters.”

Of course the carefully staged narrative that ISIS tells — with its highly choreographed executions and images of a fictionalized jihadist society where holy rules create a fairytale society — may be unambiguous and appealing to its recruits. But, as they quickly learn after they arrive, the story has little to do with reality, and this sets the stage for future disillusionment.

This is true of all stories that start off on a precise footing, for it is not enough to be clear and on point. They must be able to withstand constant testing, questioning and reality checks — a narrative’s confusing and problematic second act.

Canada is a wonderful story, but, for many years, our former Prime Minister enacted policy after policy that was deeply alienating and often unrecognizable to many of us. He was Prime Minister for so long that I think a lot of us are surprised when we feel a stirring from images of Trudeau doing our government’s work, welcoming refugees or walking together with his new multicultural Cabinet on a beautiful fall day. Perhaps we sense his hope that he, and our other newly elected officials, can do a good job speaking for us.

Democracies are always hopeful, difficult, complicated stories. With so many voices and opinions it can seem like a barely functioning cacophony. On the other hand, a strong narrative doesn’t lose sight of a story’s arc. We may have our faults, and, of course, we can lose our way and make mistakes. But the story of Canada is also a beautiful and profoundly hopeful one.
But we can’t rest where we are, and we need broadminded, humane, inspiring stories to help us grow as a country. Even on an entirely practical level, selfish, short-sighted, regressive societies don’t end well for the vast majority of people. Stories where we are reminded that we are all in this together, that we need each other, that we have much in common, and that we wish each other well — these stories are the best antidote to the grim and destructive forces of nihilism and terror.