Published by Vaughan Roberts on 25th November 2020

‘The Best & The Worst’ – Stories & Blame

From the Chair – Vaughan S. Roberts

In his book The Art of Political Storytelling (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020) Philip Seargeant provides a stimulating analysis of the role stories have in political life. It includes a section headed ‘Strategic Narratives’ (59-64) in which he argues: “The development of storytelling abilities was one of the key factors behind humankind’s incredible evolutionary success.”

He goes onto outline four functions stories have in our lives. They (i) provide entertainment; (ii) create meaning; (iii) form communities; and (iv) communicate strategy. He quotes a political strategist who worked on George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, who observes: “Voters are attracted to candidates who lay out a storyline. Losing campaigns are a muddle of unconnected ideas and disparate information. Whereas winning campaigns create a narrative architecture that ties it all together into something meaningful and coherent.”

Of course storytelling is not only fundamental to politics. It plays a key role in managing and leading all kinds of organizations from businesses and banks to charities and churches and more. For instance, they create meaning in the board room, form communities over coffee and online, and communicate strategy at formal meetings and informal gatherings of all kinds.

There are various classification systems for stories. Seargant draws attention to Kurt Vonnegut’s eight forms of story and Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots, and observes that there are a number of broadly recurring patterns which are deeply embedded in society and the human psyche. Interestingly neither of these narrative schema’s have a category for blame, which is surprising because ideas such as ‘scapegoating’ are deeply rooted in Jewish, Christian, Islamic and other culture.

MODEM’S 2020 conference will address this crucial but neglected issue. Entitled Beyond Blame: Accountability Now, the conference includes contributions from three people who have been very engaged in stories that have involved blame and how to move beyond it. Our contributors are – Christine Allen, Director of CAFOD; Vic Rayner, Executive Director of the National Care Forum; Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol; the Revd Mike Long will offer a closing reflection linking the day’s presentations to his experience of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry; and Dr Helen Cameron, Regent’s Park College, Oxford.

We live in a world where stories of blame are never far away. Regular and repeated calls for various public enquires can be seen as pleas for authorised stories which apportion fault and responsibility. So why not join MODEM on 1st December and help us to think through this urgent and challenging issue?

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