This is the fourth post in what has been a kind of accidental series on life narratives. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, Where the Narrative Stops, and Narrative Distress and Reinvention.
In Where the Narrative Stops I briefly mentioned the hippie revolution as a rebellion against the standard narrative of the time. This idea combined in my brain a while ago with a few other ideas that had been floating around, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it. So let’s talk about narrative rebellions.
I’ve previously defined narratives as roughly “the stories we tell about ourselves and others that help us make sense of the world”. As explored previously in the series, these stories provide us with two things critical for our lives and happiness: a sense of purposeful direction, and a set of default templates for making decisions. So what happens when an individual or a demographic group chooses to rebel against the narrative of the day? It depends.
Rebellions are naturally framed in the negative: you rebel against something. With a little work you can manage to frame them positively, as in “fighting for a cause”, but the negative framing comes more naturally because it’s more reflective of reality. While some rebellions are kicked off by a positive vision, the vast majority are reactionary; the current system doesn’t work, so let’s destroy it. Even when there is a nominally positive vision (as in the Russian Revolution, which could be framed as a “positive” rebellion towards communism) there is usually also a negative aspect intermingled (the existing Russian army was already ready to mutiny against Russia’s participation in the First World War) and it can be difficult to disentangle the different causes.
In this way, narrative and socio-cultural rebellions are not that different from militaristic and geo-political ones. You can sometimes attach a positive framing, but the negative framing is both default, and usually dominant.
We’ll come back to that. For the moment let’s take a quick side-trip to Stephen Covey’s Principle-centered Leadership. One of the metaphors he uses in that book (which I didn’t actually include in my post about it, unfortunately) is the idea of a compass and a map. Maps can be a great tool to help you navigate, but Covey really hammers on the fact that it’s better to have a compass. Maps can be badly misleading if the mapmaker left off a particular piece of information you’re interested in; they can also simply go stale as the landscape shifts over time. A compass on the other hand (meaning your principles, in Covey’s metaphor), always points due North, and is a far more reliable navigational tool.
This navigational metaphor is really useful when extended for talking about narratives and rebellions. One of the most important things a narrative gives us is that “sense of purposeful direction” which carries us through life. Without it, as in Where the Narrative Stops, narratives tend to peter out after a while or even stop abruptly on a final event (the way a “student” narrative may stop on graduation if you don’t know what you actually want to do with the degree).
The problem is that rebelling against a narrative doesn’t automatically generate a fully-defined counter-narrative (roughly analogous to how reversed stupidity isn’t intelligence). If you don’t like the direction things are going, you can turn around and walk the other way. But there’s no guarantee the other way actually goes anywhere, and in fact it usually doesn’t; a random walk through idea-space is very unlikely to generate a coherent story. Even when you have a specific counter-narrative in mind, there’s good odds it still doesn’t actually work. See again the Russian Revolution for an example; they ended up with a strong positive vision for communism, but that vision ultimately collapsed under the weight of economic and political realities.
This lack of destination seems to me the likely candidate for why the hippie rebellion petered out. They had a strong disagreement with the status quo, and chose to walk in the direction of “free love”, and similar principles instead. But this new direction mostly failed to translate into a coherent positive vision, and even when it did that vision didn’t work. Most stories I’ve been able to find of concrete hippie-narrative experiments end up sounding a lot like the Russian revolution; they ultimately collapse under the weight of reality.
Given the high cost of a rebellion, be it individual or societal, militaristic or narrative, it seems prudent to set yourself up for success as much as possible before-hand. In practice, this seems to mean having a concrete positive vision with strong evidence that it will actually work in reality. Otherwise tearing down the system will just leave you with rubble.