Okay, I admit it – my last post was grim, grimmer than I like to be. I know I’m a born pessimist but I try to fight against it, but I guess I couldn’t help it – a bunch of political maniacs are threatening the world economy, people are getting murdered in the streets in Syria while, parallel to this, people in London are riotting so they can nick DVDs, and someone near where I live has been messing with roadsigns so that diverted traffic is getting lost. Frankly, some days it’s not worth getting out of bed.
But then I read a couple of articles, one by my friend Sudge about living life between the bookends, the other a devastating New York Times critique of Obama’s inability to promote a narrative. All this got me thinking.
We’re a storytelling people, all of us; we tell ghost stories around campfires, we watch soap operas, we testify in church and pull together 140 character storylines on Twitter. Narrative is hardwired into us, and we always find a way to paint animals on cave walls.
And so what we may have here is a complete failure to tell a story that matters a damn.
Think about it – the rioters in Tottenham and Brixton rioted for… what? Despite there being two potential narratives that coild resonate (“Community rebels against police brutality”, “Poverty-stricken youths rebel against an uncaring society”), you can’t help but think there’s no greater message than “Smash stuff up and steal things”. In the absence of a grassroots story we often turn to leaders – let’s face it, Hitler and Churchill were experts at this, even if they were at opposite ends of the World War II spectrum. We don’t have anyone with that storytelling ability – Obama’s fairly bad at it, but at least he’s present, unlike UK leaders – it’s all very well trying to weave a tale of the Big Society, but before you can do that, you need to pay your dues working with smaller societies.
Meanwhile, London is rioting, and some people are trying to figure out if Twitter or Blackberrys are the story, as opposed to the medium through which those stories are told. No-one has much of an idea of what’s going on, or why people seem to want to destroy their own communities.
No-one knows what the story is.
Maybe the reason for this is that we’ve become accustomed to people telling our stories for us, rather than us grasping the nettle and creating our own narratives. We’re told that our jobs are vulnerable, that our old age will be spent in poverty, that things like healthcare and libraries and security or optional extras rather than fundamental human rights. And we’ve either gone along with this or reacted against it in ways that undercut the good within any alternative narratives.
So how do we tell a better story? Collectively, I don’t know. I’d say it begins with treating each other with love and respect and decency, by building our communities together, by living to create and build up rather than destroy and tear down. But that only goes so far when, as we’ve seen in London, people are willing to burn down their own communities.
Yesterday saw the start of the Jewish festival of Tisha B’Av, a day on which the Jewish community remembers and reflects upon the disasters that have befallen it over the years. That seems instructive somehow, because for all we can lament everything that’s happened in the UK, we need a time to reflect on the crises we’ve seen but, more importantly, we need to uncover how we got to this point in the first place. People don’t hack mobiles or burn restaurants on a whim. And we won’t get to that point by passing laws that promote greater levels of random stop-and-search or that penalise Twitter – there’s a quote in this article from the Telegraph that goes “memory is far better than the law”.
We need our Tisha B’Av moment, to express a lament for the disasters befalling the UK at the moment – the poison of the phone hacking scandal, the explosion of rioting, the panic of the Stock Markets – and then, most importantly, construct a new narrative. And maybe that’s got to be based in loving our neighbour, because the problems that face us aren’t failures of law or economics so much as failures of a common humanity – if we marginalise people, if we see loyal workers or phone-hacked celebrities or disenfranchised young people as collatoral damage resulting from unstoppable cultural forces then we’re dead in the water.
We need a new story; one that we’re proud to tell, one that makes us not only proud to be British but that makes us capable of being in community once more.