Against ‘Grand Narratives’

The Sirens

I’ve woken up this morning concerned about a post I read (last week, I think) which promoted the teaching of “Grand Narratives” – big stories that offer comforting, or guiding descriptions of the world and our place in it.

These stories often tell us what to do, or what ‘we’ have done in the past. They simplify and re-package the world, with the aim of making it easier to accept, or remember, or giving ‘us’ easy ways of understanding either the past or ‘our’ current situation.

In some ways I can see why a “GN” is an attractive idea for schools. They offer a pre-packaged way of thinking about the world, one that has been smoothed by the action of popular re-telling, one which is often reflected in the “common-sense”, in the street names, statues, advertising, books and sitcoms and other building blocks of a dominant culture.

In a plural society where things are getting complicated, in a time of global uncertainty and economic difficulty they’re doubly attractive. A clear message about who ‘we’ are and ‘our’ place in the world can cut through this messiness, can remind us of better times, perhaps times in which we enjoyed ‘our’ more rightful place in the pecking order.

I would argue that, especially at such times of conflict, GNs are dangerous siren-songs. Their first victim is the truth. The song is so beautiful and so loud that it stops us from considering alternative explanations – from considering un-attractive or contrary evidence. If we are asked to face these, if someone tries to interrupt the song, we thrash about in the bonds the GN has created and, instead of being able to alter our world view to fit the new information, we become resentful – our sense of self is injured.

The second victim of the siren song of GNs is society. It should be obvious that educational narratives such as these create ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups. ‘You’ were slaves; ‘We’ ended slavery. ‘We’ were brave; ‘You’ were evil. It should be obvious from this that grand narratives will, by their design, create in-groups and out-groups. At the least these groups will readily accept or immediately reject the narrative being offered. At the worst these narratives will cause untold psychological and societal damage as young people think of themselves as superior or inferior, as heroes or victims, as the stories they are told either exaggerate or deny the creativity, bravery, agency and other characteristics of people like ‘us’ or ‘them. It isn’t a long journey from there to a rejection of education characterized by the re-telling of grand narratives, especially where such narratives reject or ignore the stories from home, or the experiences of ones own life.

As well as creating a situation in which education can be engaged with or rejected, the ‘separateness’ that these narratives create actually makes it harder for meetings of minds to occur. The final victim of such narratives is therefore our democracy. Events during this decade have made us think that democracy is something that happens every four years when there’s an election, or perhaps more frequently if we have referendums or instability.

In short democracy is becoming something we do periodically, but often with a sense of inconvenience. But, as a recent episode of the excellent London Review of Books “Talking Politics” podcast reminds us, if you hire a steward, you need to continue to take an interest in the actions of that steward. Without this you risk the steward acting in their own interest, and often against yours. Democracy can only be maintained if we constantly seek to maintain it, by meeting minds, and opinions other than our own, and other than the Grand Narratives, the suffocatingly comforting stories that displace any alternatives.

A meme of underground bomb shelters in London during the Second World War, which compares the ‘grit’ of the blitz spirit, with the complaints of contemporary snowflakes.

A good example of the way that such narratives have these effects is reproduced above. We see quite a lot of blitz spirit memes, comparing the stiff upper lip of the wartime civil response to air raids with the selfish whining or ill informed opinions of contemporary snowflake society. The one cited above compares modern concerns about control, consent, and suspicion of power with a Grand Narrative of the spirit of 1939-40. I’ve seen other similar memes criticising approaches to brexit, the welfare state, immigration.

The interesting thing about this narrative is that it is, to an important extent, untrue. The blitz saw some amazing heroism and bravery, often in the face of terrifying situations. To make of it a pastiche of unthinking foolhardiness, or un-thinking compliance not only denies the agency of those who were living through these conditions, as well as the real courage that it took for many to continue their lives, or to act to save the lives of other or the real generosity at a time of need to help citizens bombed out of their homes.

This pastiche also denies the reality of the human reaction to the conditions of wartime life. It denies that there were terrified people, that people ran away, that they acted, often, selfishly or foolishly or dangerously. The story of the Balham tube disaster, caused by enemy bombs is well known, for instance. Stories of the Bethnal Green disaster, in which a crush of panicking civilians killed more than 170, are much less well known. What is even less well known is that the government had to be bullied into allowing people to shelter in the tube, and only did so when it became clear that the population was taking matters into its own hands and refusing to leave tube stations at night. The necessity to keep government under pressure and scrutiny at a time of crisis is currently being illustrated to us.

The power of a Grand Narrative is not limited to suppressing competing visions of the past in this way. The past is thereby also used to suppress rather than to engage with alternative and often dangerous ideas about the present. Taking the meme above as an example, it’s impact, ironically is to drive such views underground, and through ridicule to strengthen them.

Finally, the “othering” of these Grand Narratives of wartime grit has a terribly corrosive impact on our politics when it comes to our treatment of people seeking asylum, whether from political oppression or from war. We are able to compare ‘ourselves’, with our tradition of ‘grit’, ‘sticking to it’, ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, with the cowardice of ‘the others’, their inability to control their fear or their warlike aggression, their dishonesty in coming to ‘our’ country, not to flee from death, but instead to steal work or take handouts. “We would not act in this way!”, we tell ourselves. “We would take a stand, keep calm, act bravely”, “We would ask for asylum in Greece, or Turkey or the other first country we found ourselves in, if we we real asylum seekers”, our empathy, our ability to think from another’s perspective, drowned in the song of the Grand Narrative of ‘Us’.

2 thoughts on “Against ‘Grand Narratives’

    • Hi Alison, really sorry it’s taken so long for me to see this comment – blame my spam filter. Thanks for the link, I’ll certainly take a look 🙂

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