Friday, January 29, 2010

Narratives Matter

In an uncharacteristically obtuse response to Adam Serwer's article on how the GOP seems intent on unlearning hard-won lessons about the importance of countering extremists narratives, Spencer Ackerman writes:
“Narrative” and “Framing” have always struck me as intelligence-insulting bullshit. The use of euphemism is a flashing light on the road to Error. First off, al-Qaeda fucked itself terminally by — as Adam notes — the thousands of Muslims it kills without pity, mercy or explanation. It was probably fucked from the start: it wants to create a Caliphate that stretches from Spain to Indonesia. I can cite about five different Doctor Doom storylines that are more plausible outcomes for world domination. (One of them involves the Negative Zone.)

But anyway. The U.S. approach to al-Qaeda’s “narrative” should be to point and laugh. I’m serious. Ridicule is a powerful tool, particularly when aimed at conspiracy theorists. I believe in taking al-Qaeda’s capabilities and its plans seriously and its lunacy about the way the world works not even remotely seriously. The only significant aspect of that sort of crap is the fact that among some people it has social currency. That needs to be confronted.

I don't think that "narrative" and "framing" are euphemisms, any more than "negative externalities" is a euphemism for "bad consequences of your choices that you don't have to bear the cost of but others do." I suppose one could to take the position that all social science terms are, to some extent, euphemistic, but I don't really see the point in insisting that everyone write these things out in long hand.

The second graf I totally agree with. But here Spencer basically acknowledges that Al Qaeda's narrative needs to be confronted, through mockery or otherwise. So I'm not sure what the original disagreement is. If it's just a recognition that we shouldn't put as much effort in combating Al Qaeda's narrative as we should in just making sure we don't do things that strengthen it, while leaving space for them to screw themselves, then fine, but that still requires a recognition that narratives matter.

Related, some comments on the state of Al Qaeda's narrative from Steve Coll in his recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.

UPDATE: Spencer responds:
Matt Duss defends “narrative” as a useful concept and I don’t really know why. Maybe there’s something I’m missing here, but I really do think actions speak louder than framing.

I don't disagree, but I do think that what speaks even louder than actions are actions placed within an effective narrative frame. We all agree that not kidnapping and torturing Muslims while trying to communicate that we are not at war with all Muslims is far better than kidnapping and torturing Muslims while trying to communicate that we are not at war with all Muslims. But even when we've stopped kidnapping and torturing Muslims, it's still important to try to communicate that we are not at war with all Muslims, because extremists are sure as hell still trying to communicate to all Muslims that we are.

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