As a scholar of protest, what fascinates me is the narrative of millions of sub-stories told by the protestors themselves. These stories are told and re-told today, each with their own flavor, emphasis, color, and meaning. What unites them is that they are created and re-created by the storytellers themselves.
Even if one was not on Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January, or in Kuala Lumpur this past weekend, one caught a glimpse of what can be achieved through story-telling: a sense of purpose and personal efficacy, a power to create and re-direct history and a unity that is forged among strangers-turned-friends, comrades and allies.
A medical student was arrested by the Syrian security forces, writes a Facebook-er. ”We here, the friends and sympathizers of Samih Bahra demand his immediate release and the release of all other detainees and prisoners of conscience whose only ‘crime’ is speaking out their opinion in a peaceful and civilized way.” It is a far enough reality, but his plea bridged the physical distance between Asia, where I am, and Syria. It bonds and creates understanding and empathy across borders.
In sociology, it’s called the “narrative turn.” William Gamson, a scholar of social movements and an activist, defends narrative on the basis of “a counter critique that focuses on the shortcomings of a discourse that privileges disembodied, abstract, emotionally detached argumentation as the normative standard for discussion of public issues.”
Simply put, when sociologists take these protest stories seriously as a valid source of knowledge, then science itself is turned on its head. We become engaged and involved, we are part of the narrative itself.
We are no longer uninvolved by-standers, and our own so-called scientific practice is tested not by the canons of science alone. Those who validate our studies are not only fellow scientists, but also those who narrated their subjective experiences.
Story-telling is also egalitarian. The content springs from the experiences of the story-tellers themselves. They are creators, authors and experts.
When protestors tell their story of the quest for social justice, they are effectively practicing it. They formulate sound strategy. They look for an effective hook to engage broadcast and print media, or the agencies of power and authority where decisions are made. They appear on global media to tell their story to create a version of a reality that producers sympathizers, not just spectators.
Through the force of concrete stories told in everyday language, media practitioners, policy- and decision-makers plug into the private worlds of living persons.
Which is why protest story-telling is liberating. A new language was borne out of the street experiences in Cairo and Kuala Lumpur. And this language moves, grows, and evolves. New words and phrases find their way into our everyday world. “Breaking the psychological barrier of fear” is by now a common phrase that we have adopted after months of witnessing courage live on our screens and our monitors.
The author Betty Friedan many years ago called it “a problem with no name.” Shortly thereafter, this yearning for freedom among women gave birth to the term “feminism” and was awarded its proper place in the firmament of language.
We are fortunate to be living during this time of reconstruction. Through protest, we are witnessing genesis everywhere. Where some might see chaos and anarchy, others observe a grand rearrangement of social relations, a collective re-imagination of social life that refuses to return to the past. A new vocabulary describes a new reality. In turn, new realities push the boundaries forward of what it means to be a human being today. Story-telling particularly those about protest will make all these happen.
This makes it an exciting time to be a sociologist.
(Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. She was formerly Assistant Minister during the transition government of President Corazon Aquino. She has a background in sociology and social anthropology and specializes in development and development assistance, migration, governance, and social movements. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)