Shared narratives, such as the “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans or the triumph of liberal democracy, are powerful cultural forces[i] that sustain collective identities.[ii] They support ways of knowing that define shared realities and determine reactions to new information. They authorize the systems and institutions[iii] that frame much of our social, political, and economic activity. These narratives are so fundamental that future revisions to them or changes in their popularity could alter social cohesion and attachment to the nation.
Some established[iv] narratives face challenges[v] from compelling alternatives.[vi] For example, stories about the Happiness Index,[vii] sustainable finance,[viii] and climate apocalypse[ix] challenge neoliberal narratives of perpetual growth.[x] Stories highlighting anti-Black racism[xi] and residential schools[xii] challenge mainstream understandings of Canadian history. But they also face resistance, some of which takes the form of nostalgic narratives rooted in certain kinds of privilege.[xiii]
Stories that support discrete identities[xiv] rooted in particular anxieties,[xv] geographies,[xvi] or worldviews[xvii] seem to be strengthening. For example, we have seen growth in conspiracy narratives that reject mainstream realities[xviii] in favour of alternatives that fulfill deep-seated emotional needs.[xix] Stories representing a broader range of gender identities[xx] are also shifting models of identity and belonging.
New digital technologies and media business models are shifting the form and content of narratives, making them more immersive and powerful, but not necessarily more reliable. The reach of individual narratives is extending, even as the tools to create and distribute viral stories become more democratic. New social media,[xxi] podcasts,[xxii] and online games[xxiii] are transforming how and to what effect we experience stories.
Combined and pushed into the future, these changes could produce major disruptions. New or revised stories experienced in novel or more powerful ways could shift economic behaviour[xxiv] or strengthen social connections within and between communities. They could tie people more closely to the idea of the nation. On the other hand, stories could emerge that erode collective identity, making it more difficult for people to find common ground and cooperate with one another
[i] Phillip Ball, “The Story Trap,” Aeon, accessed Aug. 11, 2022, https://aeon.co/essays/why-story-is-used-to-explain-symphonies-and-sport-matches-alike.
[iii] Akanksha Singh, “How India’s ancient myths are being rewritten,” BBC Culture, last modified Sep. 2, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190902-how-indias-ancient-myths-are-being-rewritten?.
[iv] Patrick J. Keeger, “Ancient Native Americans Once Thrived in Bustling Urban Centers,” History, last modified Dec. 2, 2019, https://www.history.com/news/native-american-cahokia-chaco-canyon.
[v] Marc Parry, “A new path to atonement,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jan. 20, 2019, https://www.chronicle.com/article/a-new-path-to-atonement/.
[vi] Parul Sehgal, “‘Lakota America’ puts the tribe of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse front and center,” New York Times, last modified Oct. 22, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/22/books/review-lakota-america-pekka-hamalainen.html. Olivia B. Waxman, “‘I was teaching a lot of misconceptions.’ The Way America Kids Are Learning About the ‘First Thanksgiving’ Is Changing,” Time, last modified Nov. 20, 2019, https://time.com/5725168/thanksgiving-history-lesson/.
[vii] James Ellsmoor, “New Zealand ditches GDP for Happiness and Wellbeing,” Forbes, last modified Jul. 11, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/07/11/new-zealand-ditches-gdp-for-happiness-and-wellbeing/.
[viii] Ziad Chaloub, “Sustainable Finance: How early movers drive collective action,” Gulf Finance, last modified Aug. 2, 2022, https://gulfbusiness.com/sustainable-finance-how-early-movers-drive-collective-action/.
[ix] Jeremy Deaton, “Real-life climate disasters are mirroring doomsday myths—and that’s worse than you think,” Popular Science+, last modified Jan. 23, 2020, https://www.popsci.com/story/environment/climate-change-apocalypse-mythology/.
[x] Amanda Rees, “Are there laws of history?” Aeon, accessed Aug. 10, 2022, https://aeon.co/essays/if-history-was-more-like-science-would-it-predict-the-future.
[xi] “‘A specific form of anti-Black racism:’ scholars want Canadian apology for slavery on emancipation day,” CTV, last modified Aug. 2, 2022, https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/a-specific-form-of-anti-black-racism-scholars-want-canadian-apology-for-slavery-on-emancipation-day-1.6009312.
[xii] Allan Woods, “‘A deep hole:’ Murray Sinclar, Romeo Sagansh harshly criticize Pope’s apology,” Toronto Star, last modified Jul. 26, 2022, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/07/26/pope-franciss-apology-fails-to-meet-truth-and-reconciliation-call-to-action-sinclair.html.
[xiii] Paul Best, “’1776 Unites’ releases Black history curriculum to counter New York Times’ 1619 Project,” Fox News, last modified Sep. 17, 2020, https://www.foxnews.com/us/1776-unites-releases-alternative-black-history-curriculum-to-counter-the-new-york-times-1619-project. Matthew Gabrielle, “Vikings, Crusaders, Confederates: misunderstood historical imagery at the January 6 Capitol Insurrection,” Perspectives, last modified Jan. 12, 2021, https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2021/vikings-crusaders-confederates-misunderstood-historical-imagery-at-the-january-6-capitol-insurrection.
[xiv] David Crosbie, “The Far-Right Grassroots Movement Taking Over Canada,” CanadaLand, last modified Jan. 28, 2019, https://www.canadaland.com/far-right-yellow-vests-taking-over-canada/.
[xv] Hunter, “The ‘climate doomers’.”
[xvi] Peter Smith and Matthew Kriner, “The Diagolon Movement and Militant Accelerationism,” AntiHate.ca, last modified Jun. 8, 2022, https://www.antihate.ca/diagolon_movement_militant_accelerationism.
[xvii] A.M. Stern, “White nationalists’ extreme solution to the coming environmental apocalypse,” The Conversation, last modified Aug. 22, 2019, https://theconversation.com/white-nationalists-extreme-solution-to-the-coming-environmental-apocalypse-121532.
[xviii] A. French, “‘The Mandela Effect’ is the perfect film for our age of distrust and doubt,” The Conversation, last modified Dec. 4, 2019, https://theconversation.com/the-mandela-effect-is-the-perfect-film-for-our-age-of-distrust-and-doubt-127903.
[xix] David Jesudason, “Utopia and the power of the conspiracy thriller,” BBC, last modified Sep. 24, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200924-utopia-and-the-power-of-the-conspiracy-thriller.
[xx] Peter Knegt, “New show Sort Of doesn’t just break representational barriers — it’s also more than sort of great,” CBC, last modified Sep. 24, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/arts/new-show-sort-of-doesn-t-just-break-representational-barriers-it-s-also-more-than-sort-of-great-1.6186771.
[xxiii] Aron Garst, “They came to Valheim for war, but now they’re building dream homes,” Wired, last modified Feb. 26, 2021, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/valheim-homemakers.
[xxiv] For Narrative Economics, see Robert J. Shiller, Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral & Drive Major Economic Events, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).