Try Googling the term “counter-narrative” and see what you get. It is always interesting to see what the Google hive-mind conjures up for niche jargon terms.
A counter-narrative is a message that offers a positive alternative to extremist propaganda, or alternatively aims to deconstruct or delegitimise extremist narratives.
ISD works together with the group Against Violent Extremism (AVE), and has produced a good short “primer” video to introduce people to the concept of the counter-narrative as they are using it. Give it a quick look:
This definition isn’t bad, but it is narrow: not everyone who uses the term “counter-narrative” is focused specifically on combating global violent extremism.
The idea of the “counter-narrative” has had a broader meaning in academia for many years now. In 2014, the Center for Intercultural Dialogue published a good “key concepts” summary essay about counter-narratives, and described the idea this way:
Counter-narrative refers to the narratives that arise from the vantage point of those who have been historically marginalized. The idea of “counter-” itself implies a space of resistance against traditional domination. A counter-narrative goes beyond the notion that those in relative positions of power can just tell the stories of those in the margins. Instead, these must come from the margins, from the perspectives and voices of those individuals.
A counter-narrative is a narrative (a story that can be used to frame and understand ideas, events, and motivations) that serves the specific function of challenging those narratives that a culture takes for granted: the mainstream stories that play off of assumptions held so deeply that without the presence of a counter-narrative they would be completely invisible.
Michael Bamberg, a professor of Psychology at Clark University, describes an example of a literary counter-narrative in one of his chapters in the book “Considering counter narratives: Narrating, resisting, making sense” (of which he is one of the editors):
An excellent example is presented in Munsch’s (1980) story of The Paper Bag Princess, which leaves intact the sequence of events of the traditional heroic story line in which the protagonist saves his object of sexual desire, but switches the characters (the princess is the heroine and the prince the one “being saved”) and changes the ending (the heroine skips off into the sunset alone and the story ends with the words: “They didn’t get married after all”). According to Davies and Harré (1990) this improvisation turns the traditional master narrative around and opens up a feminist reading. However, it should be noted that a story of male hegemony (for instance) does not automatically transform into a counter story by the simple replacement of male with female characters: The way characters are being positioned vis-à-vis one another in order to design an overall orientation that can be characterized as complicit with dominant narratives or counter to them is far more complex.
Bamberg highlights the complexity of creating a counter-narrative within the context of a common (assumed) dominant narrative. He points out that the task of creating a counter-narrative to the standard “heroic male prince battles the dragon to save the beautiful princess so that he can possess her” storyline can’t be accomplished simply by flipping the genders of the main characters leaving it at that. He goes on to say:
In The Paper Bag Princess, Elizabeth, originally introduced as “the beautiful princess,” undergoes a transformation into a dirty, ‘normal’ girl (the girl dressed in a paper bag), who outsmarts a dragon in order to save her prince. But at the end she decides not to marry “her prince,” because he insists on maintaining his male, hegemonic gaze of her as “his beautiful princess.” As I had mentioned, the sequence of events is kept intact, although minor changes had to be adopted and they had to be carefully mentioned to keep the character in line with other master narratives (e.g., girls as non-violent) and maintain intelligibility: for instance, the dragon was not defeated by physical force but by the force of artful smartness. Overall, The Paper Bag Princess documents nicely, how existent (master) plot lines can be appropriated and transformed by inserting “counter characters,” that is, characters that traditionally had to fill slots in “subordinate roles.” However, these counter characters have to be brought off and carefully managed in order to leave intact, and be complicit with, other existing (master) plot lines.
Bamberg uses this example to illustrate the fact that a counter-narrative is necessarily a complex tapestry that weaves together many threads of dominant, well-known tropes, inverting some while preserving others, in order to create a counter-cultural message that challenges people’s default “master-narratives” in a way that is rich and colorful, and that resonates deeply with people exactly because of the multi-layered and complex web of associations that it draws upon.
…and then there is Satan
As an atheistic Satanist, I frequently get asked what I call the “Why Satan?” question, which generally goes something like this:
If you don’t believe in a literal Satan and your main ethical and social goals are to promote secular public culture and act against theocracy, then couldn’t you accomplish all of that just calling yourself an atheist? Don’t you think you might reach more people, and alienate fewer, if you didn’t stir the “Satan” label into the mix?
There are many good responses to this question. If you are a Satanist, you no doubt have a few queued up and at the ready for the next time someone drops the inevitable “Why Satan?” question on you.
Today, I’d like to add another response to your repertoire:
By openly embracing the label Satanist we are creating a cultural counter-narrative.
As with literary counter-narratives (illustrated by Bamberg’s analysis of The Paper Bag Princess), we draw from an interconnected system of symbols and stories that are deeply ingrained in the dominant narrative of our culture:
Satan is rebellious.
Satan is prideful.
Satan is a tempter.
Satan is evil.
Satan is seductive.
Satan refuses to bow down.
Satan gave Eve the fruit of knowledge of good and evil.
The list could go on and on, of course. Drawing on inspiration from the romantic literary tradition, we appropriate and reinterpret these threads of the dominant narrative (or as Bamberg refers to them, the petit narratives that embody and give manifestation to the master narrative) in order to draw our own conclusions and tell our own story. We do this selectively: maintaining continuity by reinforcing certain storylines (e.g. Satan is rebellious; Satan refuses to bow down) and inverting others (e.g. Satan is only viewed as “evil” because he refused to bend to the arbitrary and irrational laws of a hegemonic patriarchal deity). We can take certain well-known storylines and preserve their basic plot points (e.g. Satan giving Eve the fruit in the garden of Eden), but highlight alternative perspectives on the motivations (Satan saw the humans trapped in a walled-off prison and kept ignorant, and simply wanted to free them).
None of this is to say, of course, that the only point to being a Satanist is to create a counter-narrative. Neither does it necessarily mean to imply that evangelical Christians in the United States are violent extremists (although some of them most certainly are). The only point here is that publicly identifying as a Satanist performs the function of creating a cultural counter-narrative, and as such can be understood as part of a larger tradition and practice of using narrative to empower minority viewpoints and marginalized groups.
Satan was, after all, the ultimate “outsider”.