The classic Hollywood romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally” (1989) is a love story of a relationship that took too long to happen, but was always meant to be. I feel the same way about two fields that I have been involved with. In the movie, I would be among the many friends who see the chemistry, even if the protagonists sometimes don’t.
First, some definitions are in order, to move away from the jargon. Transitional Justice (TJ), sometimes simply called “dealing with the past” or “accountability”, is a field of activity and scholarship that focuses on how societies address mass atrocity in their history, in order to build rights-respecting and peaceful futures. Developed by human rights activists and victims associations on the earlier foundations of post-World War II Holocaust remembrance and justice, TJ came into its own in the mid-1980s in Argentina and then spread throughout the world, first to Chile, where the first of many so-called “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” was established, and then South Africa, and on to Sierra Leone, Morocco, Timor-Leste, Peru, and many other countries. Currently, Transitional Justice is an influential framework for thinking about historical legacies of brutality in the past, such as the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and European colonialism, including the complexities of reparations for past harm (see here for a map of current and ongoing initiatives in the United States, for example).
Transitional Justice is an exciting field in many ways, but it would be Harry in the film. Like Harry, TJ is a bit curmudgeonly. Because fields develop and consolidate “best practices” over time, and because TJ is dominated by institutional and legal structures, like courts, commissions, and policy, and because there are a lot of lawyers and political scientists involved, the TJ field has become a bit stodgy and set in its ways.
Narrative Change Theory (NCT), by contrast, is Sally in the analogy.
Narrative Change Theory is bubbling with innovation, as its practitioners seek to use a diverse set of tools to change the deep narratives and “mindsets” that govern human behavior. As Brett Davidson puts it “Narrative change work rests on the premise that reality is socially constructed through narrative, and that in order to bring about change in the world we need to pay attention to the ways in which this takes place”. By working with cultural producers in realms such as art, theater, television, film, literature, monuments and memorials, public history, pedagogy, and many others, and drawing on multidisciplinary research in the social sciences (such as behavioral psychology and economics) and the humanities, a NCT approach “facilitates storytelling as a way of opening up political space, destabilizing entrenched power relationships, and giving voice to voices that are usually drowned out, suppressed or simply ignored. By letting stories proliferate, we aim to undermine assumptions and preconceptions, and ‘change the narrative’ about stigmatized or marginalized groups”. The vibrancy of the field is represented by some fairly new initiatives, such as the Global Narrative Hive and The Narrative Initiative.
That said, NCT is not a new field -- people like Harvard’s Marshall Ganz have been talking about narratives for a long time, and the scholarship goes back at least to Jerome Bruner and his seminal work “The Narrative Construction of Reality” (1991). But it has developed in a way that is less highly structured and more exuberant than TJ. It finds its strength in storytelling (as well as story listening) and culture, making it less constrained than TJ.
Moving away from the analogy with the film, the robust opportunities inherent in the relationship between NCT and TJ have been obvious, even if not always stated as such, to many human rights and social justice practitioners for decades. This has become apparent when TJ moves away from its disciplinary origins in law, policy, and institutions and towards the power of cultural producers, artists, and social movements, as Felipe Cala Buendía pointed out in Cultural Producers and Social Change in Latin America (2014).
At the core of NCT is the idea of “stories”, understood very broadly to include, on the one hand, the most obvious understanding of the term (e.g. a story being told and recorded by a person about their life) to, on the other hand, less obvious understandings, such as the story being conveyed by a monument or museum, or the thousands of stories being told and recorded by truth commissions (see Susanne Buckley-Zistel, “Narrative Truth: On the Construction of Truth in Truth Commissions”)
Stories are the building blocks of narratives. As the Narrative Initiative puts it, “a story describes an event or sequence of events that include characters, conflict, and imagery. It has a beginning, middle and end”, and “narratives are the ideas and themes that permeate collections of stories. The ideas can appear in any structure, and are articulated and refined repeatedly in a variety of stories and messages”. At Memria, we think a lot about stories, and particularly the importance of storylistening and storysharing.
There is a glimmer of the overlap between these two fields among those Transitional Justice practitioners and scholars who, when focusing on Truth Commissions, demonstrate a sensitivity to the "different kinds of truth” that emerge, including what is sometimes called “narrative truth”, which often surfaces in works like “Truth Commissions: Memory, Power, and Legitimacy” by Onur Bakiner and “Shattered Voices: Language, Violence, and the Work of Truth Commissions” by Teresa Godwin Phelps. But this understanding of narrative focuses more how victims and others narrate the (subjective) experience of the past, than on how cultural producers can influence societal narratives, which is the central idea being explored here (also see “Hacia la no repetición: Producción cultural y recomendaciones de la Comisión de la Verdad”, available in Spanish only). Examples of compelling initiatives in this realm include “Transforming Tears to Energy” Theater and Transitional Justice in Afghanistan", the Art and Culture initiatives and partnerships of the Colombian Truth Commission, and the various case-studies featured in two edited volumes: The International Journal for Transitional Justice Volume 14, Issue 1, March 2020 Special Issue: Creative Approaches to Transitional Justice: Contributions of Arts and Culture, and Peter D. Rush and Olivera Simić (Editors), The Arts of Transitional Justice: Culture, Activism, and Memory after Atrocity.
Another area of synergy is the exciting work being done on Gender Justice. While much of this work remains in the realm of law and policy, some of the many exceptions focus on the social construction of gender and cultural production, including the work, for example, of Tuft’s Kimberly Theidon, such as “Gender in Transition: Common Sense, Women, and War”. Practitioners like Alfonso Marrugo, from Cartegena, Colombia, focus on cultural norms and especially the construction of gender and sexual identity. He argues that one of the biggest threats to peace in Colombia comes from masculine identity that tends to equate male strength with violence, and that draws too heavily on tropes of machismo that dominate cultural life, from the media to schools to the home. This kind of work focuses on cultural change and anti-stigma Initiatives, such as the work supported by ViiV Healthcare's Positive Action programs.
A third area of connection is the work on peacebuilding and narratives, perhaps best captured by the Narrative Peacebuilding Hub, organized by the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT), which argues, among other things, that "Lasting peace does not come from imposing a narrative and everyone telling the same story – it emerges in societies where many complex, diverse narratives are encouraged to thrive together".
Perhaps the clearest example of the relationship between Transitional Justice and NCT, however, can be found in yet a third field -- what I elsewhere have called Memorywork -- which, at least since the 1980s, has been motivated by a deep understanding of narrative change while still being an important component of transitional justice. Indeed, the United Nations has even suggested that “memorialization” is a “pillar” of transitional justice (although among the cognoscenti this is a weirdly controversial point, argued by each side of the debate with the passion of Talmudic scholars focused on a theological detail).
Memorywork is focused on influencing shared narratives about “who we are” by creating physical representations of the past in public spaces, with attanetion to the "memoryscape", or the landscape of memory. These markers and symbols are often largely invisible (consider the many times you have walked by a statue or a street sign without really taking notice), but their cumulative effect on all of us is to establish what Andreas Huyssen has called the palimpsest of constructed memory: multilayered expressions of identity that remind us of a shared past as a way to forge a shared future. We see these, perhaps out of the corner of our eyes, or perhaps with the intentionality of visiting, for example, Washington’s National Mall, and “hear” the stories being told. Sometimes, this is quite literal. For example, Memria has worked in numerous contexts to collect and share stories. One example is the VivaVoz project (website in Spanish), which worked with the Colombian Truth Commission to collect and disseminate stories about the Colombian conflict, with the tagline “the key to ending conflict and to non-repetition is in the voices of communities”.
Specific efforts to explain memoryworks as the shared space between transitional justice and narrative change theory include, for example, Memorialization and Democracy and the reports of two different UN Special Rapporteurs -- Farida Shaheed (Cultural Rights, A/HRC/25/49) and Fabián Salvioli (Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, A/HRC/45/45).
One pathbreaking institution in this field is the The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, a worldwide network of “Sites of Conscience” – historic sites, museums and memory initiatives – that activate the power of places of memory to engage the public with a deeper understanding of the past and inspire action to shape a just future.
The Memoryscape is both physical and, increasingly, virtual, as the internet is also a form of public space. Indeed, what is discoverable "above the fold" in internet search also contributes to narrative construction of reality. In this sense, focusing on invisibility and enhancing discoverability of memory narratives on the internet is an exciting new area of work in the online memoryscape.
What Does This Mean in Practice?
These two fields have a lot to offer each other. Transitional Justice has a solid track record of best practices in confronting the legacies of mass atrocity in the past, but it has tended to focus on law and institutional frameworks. Exceptions to this include memorywork and some of the important work being developed on transitional justice and gender. Narrative Change Theory is a vibrant field that takes culture, discourse, and the social construction of norms seriously, including societal norms and mindsets concerning violence and impunity. Together, these two fields have the potential to truly make a difference in the massive challenges associated with “Never Again”.
From a practical perspective, this all suggests that Transitional Justice practitioners should integrate more of an NCT approach in their work, understanding that a key goal is indeed to shift narratives in cultural space. Of course, this has indeed been one of the goals of, for example, the social dialogue dimension of the truth commission in Colombia, where former museum director Lucia Gonzalez, in particular, sought to Involve cultural producers (filmmakers, theaters, artists, museum professionals, designers, etc.) for ideas about how to establish a lasting peace in Colombia.
Another implication involves how TJ practitioners think of "memory" and memorywork. Complementing the need to mourn and create new cemeterial forms for healing, most memory work is truly about narrative change, seeking to shift societal narratives about "who we are" and "who we want to be".
The ending of the film When Harry Met Sally is, unsurprisingly, considering Hollywood’s proclivities, a happy one, with the couple finally realizing their deep connection and the inevitability of their relationship. The same may be true with Transitional Justice and Narrative Change Theory.
By Louis Bickford (6 February 2024)
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