Stories are not just about alternative universes – they shape the current world we live in
“Murgiya, murgiya!” – I found myself shouting, trying desperately to attract a customer to buy some chickens from me. I was in school and I was on stage.
Storytellers have always had the fascinating power to create whole worlds – be it Begum Rokeya, George Lucas, JK Rowling, Steven Spielberg, Rabindranath Tagore, Harper Lee, Satyajit Ray, Scheherazade, Gene Roddenberry, Walt Disney, PL Travers, George RR Martin, Humayun Ahmed, Ursula Le Guin, JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis and of course no list can be sufficient.
This made me interested in being part of the art of creating such universes and drama lessons in school were a perfect avenue for that.
I remained loosely in touch with various aspects of writing, theater, poetry and film until I got exposed to an analytical framework called a Causal Layered Analysis (CLA), developed by the futurist Sohail Inayatullah, through a Futures Studies workshop that he conducted in 2012, exploring the futures of Brac University in 2030.
Imagine an iceberg, where 10% of the ice is visible above the water and 90% is below.
Compare the tip of the iceberg with visible phenomena that is happening around us –the state of the pandemic, education, climate change, air pollution, traffic, etc.
This top, visible, layer in the CLA is called the litany, i.e., the news headlines that really is no secret – you will find it in this paper, on social media, television, radio, etc.
The CLA is an analysis of the layers of causes that results in these visible phenomena.
Usually, when we try to address these issues, we find causes in the system, which is the second layer, the layer below the water.
We come up with new policies, laws, or other systemic solutions to address the litany. In the case of gender-based violence (GBV), new laws or policies may be created to increase the punishment, law enforcement, night-lights, acid prices, etc.
However, it is usually the case that well-intentioned policies and laws are not enough – they do not get implemented and events in the visible layer do not change.
Therefore, we must travel to the third layer, the layer below the system.
This layer is the worldview layer, i.e., the layer of discourse, mindsets, and beliefs.
In the GBV case, for the system to shift, the worldview must change to a feminist, post-feminist, humanist, or another worldview, but if the worldview continues to be patriarchal or male chauvinistic, then policies and laws are likely not to get implemented and litany remains unchanged.
Many theories of change will stop here, but the CLA provides a fourth layer to consider how mindsets can change.
The fourth layer, the bottom-most layer of the iceberg is the myth/metaphor layer, i.e. the layer of narratives or stories.
In the case of gender-based violence, if the myth that “Men are stronger or better than women” continues, then the worldview will remain patriarchal.
The myth must change to some alternative myth, which could be that “Women and men are equal”, a feminist worldview or that “Women and men are different, but each have their own rights”, a post-feminist worldview or that “All humans are equal or different, and each having their own rights,” resulting in a humanist or post-humanist worldview, respectively.
However, if the story remains the same, the worldview, system and litany remain unchanged.
Now, who are the players in these different layers of change?
In the litany level, it is usually the actors directly connected with the visible events – in the GBV case, it is the women or men who are getting affected, it is the men or women who are conducting the violence, it is the security forces who were around the incident, etc. In the systemic level, it is the policymakers.
In the worldview layer, it is the philosophers or fringe writers who create alternative worldviews or alternative “isms”, such as feminism, socialism, post-capitalism, environmentalism, etc.
In the myth/metaphor level, it is the storytellers – the novelists, the artists, the playwrights, the filmmakers, the meme-makers, the TikTok dancers, etc.
In the past, stories such as Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty would usually show how the prince is always saving the princess, but now these stories are changing, where we see Moana or Frozen, where it is no longer about the heroic prince - women are leading characters with their own agency.
Stories are not just about alternative universes – they shape the current world we live in as well and it is through these stories that we make sense of our reality.
Now, the time taken for change at each layer is different – it takes 0 to 5 years for litany to change, 5 to 10 years for systems, 10 to 20 years for worldviews and 20 to 40 years for stories.
The deeper you go down the iceberg, the less planned can be in your thinking. It does not mean that you linearly plan to tell one story and change will automatically happen after 20 years, but if you do not unleash that story at all, then no change will happen.
How can we reflect on storytelling and working towards change and our preferred futures in Bangladesh? That is a story for another column!
The CLA helped me appreciate that artists and storytellers (as well as philosopher, policymakers, and actors on the ground) can have influence towards shaping the world and that without creating alternative myths and metaphors, our cultures will not be able to work towards systemic change.
That is why I regained my identity as a storyteller – life continues to be my school and this universe, my stage.
I invite you to join this stage, as each one of us can be the storytellers we need to work towards a world that works for all of us, not some.
The author is an educator, futurist and storyteller and part of the leadership team at Acumen Academy Bangladesh.