Narrative and Identity Conflict

January 22, 2016

Most of our contemporaries concerned with terrorism and narrative begin by making an assumption about what narrative is—an assumption about its form or structure. Casebeer and Russell, for example, make the standard assumption: narratives are stories with a beginning, middle, and an end. Citing Gustav Freytag (Freytag’s Triangle) and Joseph Campbell’s study of the structure of myths, they relate a structure familiar to western audiences that, “there is some beginning, a problem presents itself that leads to a climax, which resolves itself into an ending.” They are not alone. They follow a long tradition of similar assumptions about narrative form. It is an assumption familiar to lay persons and academics alike, and it has its foundation in Aristotle’s Poetics,


“Now a whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and
end. A beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after
any-thing else, and which has naturally something else
after it; an end is that which is naturally after something
itself, either as its necessary or usual consequent, and with
nothing else after it; and a middle, that is by nature after
one thing and has also another after it. A well constructed
plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one
likes; beginning and end in it must be of the forms just

Aristotle’s poetic structure has become normative in the West. That means that what was once a description has become a prescription for the way narratives are to be structured. That structure has the following elements: it is linear (goes from beginning to middle to end) and is unified (there is a theme into which each component part plays a role) and is temporally ordered (time is an essential feature in the structuring operation.)

In the context of countering extremist recruitment narratives, I think it is important to recognize the non-universality of Western narrative structure for three reasons at least: 1, so we don’t make the mistake of projecting a culturally specific assumption onto those who don’t share it, 2, so we are aware of the ways in which that assumption can be exploited, and 3, to maximize our own ability to exploit that assumption.

While there is general agreement that narrative is both expressive and constitutive of identity (Ricoeur, 1995, 1992; Johnson, 1993; MacIntyre, 1981; Lloyd, 1993; Schaffer, 1992; Bateson, 1990; Bruner, 1990; Linde, 1993) many contemporary philosophers, literary theorists, and psychologists have argued, at length, for the centrality of the classical Western narrative structure because they link a unified linear narrative, in the form just described, to identity. But they link it not to just to any kind of identity; they link it to coherent unified identity in particular.

In his classic text, Acts of Meaning (1990), psychologist Jerome Bruner insists, “What gives the story its unity is the manner in which plight, characters, and consciousness interact to yield a structure that has a start, a development, and a sense of an ending.” Additionally, according to Bruner, narrative has four grammatical constituents: agency, linearity, canonicality, and perspective (77).

Most people would agree that three of four of these constituents are not neutral but rather reflect interest. Those three are: are agency, canonicality, and perspective. I think the fourth, linearity, is not neutral either although linearity deceptively masquerades as neutral so its resulting persuasive power goes undetected. (Maan, 2013) As Bruner says, “the meaning of what happened is strictly determined by the order and form of its sequence.” (90)

It is imperative to recognize that “the meaning of what happened” can be manipulated by enlisting an ancient fallacy that linear narrative form relies upon for its enormous persuasive power; it is the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” (after this, therefore because of this) logical fallacy.

As McAdams and McLean (2013) have pointed out, in recent studies of narrative identity researchers have focused on psychological adaptation and development but more needs to be done to “disentangle causal relations between features of life stories.” Narratives convey a specific understanding of the events they are about. And this understanding involves a particular way of organizing events. And in this way, narrative, by its very nature, is strategic and its strategic nature is inseparable from its form. Narrative bestows meaning on what were previously just a series of events that are sometimes related and sometimes not related. It ties together events in a certain way for a certain purpose. Narratives have “rhetorical aims or illocutionary intentions that are not merely expository, but rather, partisan.” They work to “cajole, to deceive, to flatter, to justify.” (Bruner, 85-86) And its formal elements effect action “what you do is drastically effected by how you recount what you are doing, will do, or have done.” (Bruner, 87)

Narrative is a way to appropriate, or to give meaning to, experience. And in the context of this discussion, involuntary aspects of experience are essential (note that many calls to violence first begin with casting the potential terrorist as a victim). I may not have control over my environment and circumstances but narrative gives me control over how I understand my environment and my circumstances.

We re-create ourselves with the stories we tell, that is, events happen but we determine the status of those events in our in lives through our narratives.

 In classical western narratives, the meaning of present events, past events, and future action, conforms to principles of Western emplotment. Any event or action is going to fit either into the initial stage (harmony) or the second stage (conflict) or the last stage (resolution). 

The application of his poetic structure to autobiography (individual identity) and cultural narrative (group identity) is not what Aristotle intended, however, that lack of intention is not itself problematic (ideas don’t have to be used as prescribed to be useful or not). The problems that result from this unintended application are:


  1. The exclusive application of Aristotelian poetic structure, to the exclusion of any other restricts information content.

  2. The structure and the meaning of action is therefore similarly constricted. 

  3. Forms of narrative, identity, and action that are inconsistent with Aristotelian structure are not recognized or mis-identified.

Classical Western narrative structure is a foundational myth that has served a purpose and continues to be useful but emergent sensibilities are overly restricted by it. Linear narrative restricts re-framing by restricting the structure of the new narrative to the culturally sanctioned structure of the old one, so that there will be a new theme but it will be coerced into the same structure with all the same attendant problems and we are back in the business of gathering together experiences that cohere with the dominant theme and editing life of its exceptions and inconsistencies. The only way that experience of chance, luck, accident, or tragedy enter in is if they are the dominant theme.

One of the concerns of Steve Corman and other strategic communication scholars, restoring U.S. credibility while keeping in mind that Western notions of credibility may not translate (Corman, Trethewey, Goodall, Lang, 2008). I want to add that an essential aspect of credibility that may not translate is the value of unified selfhood and the attendant association with credibility in the Western mind. The self-consistency associated with Western ideals of credible selfhood may not translate. Conversely the lack of self-consistency may not be universally perceived as a threat to credibility. This is a good thing from a strategic perspective as it allows for changes in policy without threatening credibility.

If, as those of us who argue for the centrality of narrative understanding insist, identity and action are correlative to narrative, and if unity-wholeness-linearity are not universal characteristics of narrative, then they are also not universal characteristics of identity or the actions that result from it (them).

And this is good news for counter-terrorism strategists. Alternative narrative structures leave more room for changes and re-association and re-framing.

It is possible to be inconsistent without any threat to identity. So while one with a traditional narrative orientation will think of himself or herself as the same consistent self no matter where he goes or when he exists in time, another person with a less rigid narrative orientation may think in terms of various aspects of self in various contexts at various times, and this sort of orientation is not understood as a threat to the stability of selfhood because consistency and uniqueness are not universally recognized central features of selfhood. What to some may seem to be a “talking out of both sides of one’s mouth” may in fact be a rational and functionally obvious way of being in different contexts, with competing demands, at different times.

Nothing is as persuasive as a story. There is no form of argument, no logical process, that can move us the way a story does, because stories encourage us to identify.

Who one sees oneself as, and the story one sees oneself as a part of, both compel action consistent with the self story. And if the narrative form privileges “unity” and “wholeness” then identity and the actions that result from it will be consistent with this form. What is the problem with that? One problem is that identity, whether personal or group, will be made up of consistent experience. Only the experience that fits into a whole and unified form is included in the narrative. The form doesn’t admit anomalous experience or action. There is no room for exceptions to the dominant story line. And as philosopher/novelist Rebecca Goldstein warns “the aesthetic preference for wholeness will often lead us to actions we would not otherwise undertake.”

The over-emphasis on self-consistency is incongruent with change brought by changes in external circumstances, or changes occurring as a result of time passing, or changes brought about by critical reflection, or from gaining new information. The problem with understanding a self as that being who narrates a whole and unified story, a story with one dominant authorial voice and consciousness, linearly over time, is that potentially meaningful experience will be left out of a unified and whole plot structure if it is anomalous or if it cannot be synthesized. Experience will be dichotomized as meaningful/trivial, anomaly/pattern, and will be included or repressed depending upon which category it falls into.

Culturally varied and contextually specific ways of being are at odds with a consciousness directed toward discovering, or creating, unity between diverse phenomena and its attendant orientation toward inner integration and consistency. That sort of orientation can cause acute problems in situations of narrative conflict.

Because cultural and ideological conflict is inevitable it is strategically pragmatic to negotiate a narrative framework that is not threatened by change. 

A unified/whole/sequential narrative is a narrative that can be easily manipulated and easily be manipulating. ISIS and other terrorist groups have manipulated it very effectively. A narrative with one theme, a fundamentalist narrative, silences information that is consistent or contrary to the theme. Again, the features that make a fundamentalist narrative structure tactically manipulating are:

  1. temporal order (because simply switching the order of events will alter moral responsibility), 

  2. unity or coherence (because this type of narrative leaves no room for anomalies or exceptions or change) 

  3. linearity (because all current events fit into the middle which is the conflict stage. The end is only projected and there will be endless disagreement about when the “beginning” was, for example, did the war on terror begin after Sept 11 or years before?)

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