Mahayana Buddhism holds that the world is an illusion. It is also true that our conscious experience of the world is limited to our dozen or so senses. Our views of the world, our ideals, our value systems and our judgement are all contingent on what we have sensed or not sensed since birth. The way we perceive things, or rather more accurately, the way things are presented and interpreted, shapes our view on them, and thereby, influences our behavior. This is the primary basis for marketing, for propaganda, for the images we portray and the stories we tell each other. These combined stories of our perception, or narrative, is what colors, what we call, the human condition.

The private narratives of seven billion people are constantly being imposed on the public sphere. In fact, the public sphere is nothing but an accumulation of private narratives that has its own momentum, with the dominant narrative being run by the dominant group – news agencies, people in positions of power, your elders in your collectivist society, and of course, the various government of the world. Sometimes, the momentum of a certain narrative is so strong, it is almost immune to slowing down. The dissenting voices against a dominant image or a narrative becomes a narrative strong enough to be heard usually decades after the event: the popularity of Nikola Tesla, the fall of Stalin’s popularity, and in the future, Justin Bieber. Religions, of course, are the strongest narratives humans have created.

Saintly Reflections

Saint Teresa

People beholden the public image, and the public narratives of some people are incredibly obstinate . Let’s take the recently canonized Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu a.k.a. Saint/Mother Teresa as an example. She is the symbol of benevolence and charity, a popular role model right there with Florence Nightingale and Henry Durant. What people don’t know is ‘Mother’ Teresa’s campaign against birth control and family planning in Bengal and Calcutta, which, considering their population and poverty, was the last thing they needed. They forget her attitude, or rather obsession, towards the suffering of the poor, or her charity’s stealthy baptisms of dying Hindu and Muslim patients. They forget her involvement with Haiti’s Duvalier family – one of the country’s most repressive regimes in that century, or the fact that her ‘Missionaries of Charity’ was the only charity organization in India at the time to not disclose their public accounts. But most of us brush off hard facts and critical thought when someone is a Nobel Peace prize winner touring the world meeting popes, presidents, princesses and prime ministers on a benevolent ride of compassion.

Mahatma Gandhi

Perhaps no better example of misplaced good narrative exists than that of Mohandas ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi. I will assume no introduction is needed; his narrative is still popular enough to be included as mandatory in school books. But underneath the veneer of Gandhi’s divinity lie many earthly flaws. Obviously, that does not take away the tremendous work he helped achieve and the importance he held at that time. But from his racist remarks towards South African and African-Americans, to his attempts at controlling his sexual energy by sleeping naked with young girls including his own young niece, Gandhi is more than just the khaki spinning national figure he is heroically portrayed as. While he did bring non-violence at the forefront, his own personal variety is simply twisted masochism. Whereas violence upon others is looked down on by almost everyone, self-violence is venerated, even worshiped. Gandhi’s non-violence is only the negation of outward violence. He had simply turned the same violent tendencies inwards. His technique of fasting unto death, a practice that was not unheard of in Indian history, was seen by the public as a sign of fierce commitment to his ideas and ideals of freedom. By being violent to his own body, he successfully generated the reactions he wanted. In a more reasonable world, Gandhi wouldn’t – or rather needn’t or couldn’t – have resorted to such tactics.

The British at the time obviously didn’t know how to square the circle of Gandhi. It’s really ‘un-Britishlike’ to harm a man who is already harming himself. If they did, Gandhi would be proven right and would gain more momentum to both his narrative. It is only fitting that he used the charkha or spinning wheel. So what can a man do in the face of Gandhi’s incredible resoluteness? Quite simple, actually. You beat him at his own game. The only way to out-maneuver a man like Gandhi is to out-fast him. Let it be a grotesque competition of self-harming, a psychological warfare. Considering the waistlines of some British and Asian politicians then, that was simply unlikely to happen anytime soon.

This type of masochism works, and it works wonderfully, especially in a place where people are protesting nationwide against dictatorial injustice and the dominant narrative is pro-sentimental and emotion-driven. If it sounds like modern-day USA, it is. That means it will work in ’17 in the United States of America as well as it worked in ’47 in India. But again, I doubt a country whose obesity rates rise like their blood pressure and insulin levels, anyone would fast. Note to wannabe fastists around the world: it doesn’t work in dictatorships like DPRK or with despots like the Duvaliers and Stalins of the world for the obvious reason that everyone would be hungry in the first place among others.

Now, fasting is just one way of imposing your private narrative on the public image. Fasting is just the follicle of this ingrown hair of this cultural masochism. Self-immolation goes one step further. It is, in fact, thought to be the ultimate sacrifice for one’s beliefs, the ultimate rebellion where even death is preferred to the current narrative and it is an incredibly powerful form of message. The self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức is perhaps what comes to mind for many people when they broach the subject. This method has two flaws though. First, it takes devotion on an ethereal level to commit to the most painful way of dying known to man. It will be another ice age before latte-drinking 30-something second-generation American millennials like myself will set ourselves aflame for anything that we can’t satisfy ourselves with by tweeting from the comfort of our iPhones, luxuriously despairing at problems in the most prosperous nation in the history of the world.

By Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press [Public domain] 
Second, it doesn’t work in a place where media access is restricted – like China or DPRK. While Đức’s picture earned the photographer a Pulitzer Prize, ousted the then-America backed dictatorial regime and was hailed by President JFK as the most emotion-generating picture of all time, the deaths of more than 150 Tibetan monks by self-immolation since 2009 has done absolutely nothing for progressing the cause of a Free (or at least freer and harmonious) Tibet in China. Interestingly, the same communist China distributed photos of Đức’s immolation throughout Asia in the 60s as a sign of ‘US imperialism’ and they completed the annexation of Tibet at around the same time. Ha!

Expensive Mistakes

The second flaw mentioned above regarding media access is the main condition for a successful corporation’s narrative, especially when it concerns corporate social responsibility. Corporations, by their nature, aren’t in the humbleness business. They don’t do anything if it doesn’t make noise – noise that will make profit later. The public narrative about the corporation is the most important thing to them. Furthermore, a good corporation seems to have a knack for knowing exactly what is currently ticking their customers, knowing what the current narrative is. It used to be sex, and don’t get me wrong, it will always be sex in the long term, but right now it is activism – widespread, liberal, progressive activism.

Ever since Trump elected himself to be The Antagonizer for the next four years, corporations have now steadily increased the share of their marketing budget towards whichever direction the dominant culture’s moral compass is pointing. After all, nothing unites people like a common enemy. A good narrative will easily wipe away ethical lapses, rinse off moral hypocrisy and any possible ill-repute is swept under floods of hashtags and shares towards whatever issue people are interested in. But don’t get this wrong. They don’t do it out of any inherent ‘evil’. They aren’t run by green monsters or lizards (although they can look like monsters when going after the green). As it is with countries and its citizens, corporation too want fairer relations between their employees and customers. They too want a progressive world, but only if it serves their interests first and not at the expense of it. Narrative, like relationships, combine, rejoinder, fall out and eventually disappear – always bittersweet. There is, like in relationships, always one party taking another party for granted.

Take for example the case of Cristal champagne which was perennially featured in hip hop and rap songs since the 90s. From the Notorious B.I.G. to The Game, Cristal champagne was used to signify a deeper, more refined richness. Buying a $200 bottle of the champagne was a ‘I made it’ moment for young rappers who could now feel they were living the life that rappers who made it live, or at least sing about it. Cristal was enjoying a fine sense of respect in the hip hop culture and community until the managing director of the company that produces the champagne made a dismissive remark about the entire hip hop clientele that offended Jay-Z. Consequently, he called a boycott on the champagne and all Cristal bottles were removed from his clubs. Now, hardly anybody ever mentions the bottle in rap songs anymore. Just watch him reject Cristal for his own brand of champagne ‘Ace of Spades’ from ‘Show Me What You Got’ in the video. As Jay-Z later said to Time magazine, ‘We gave those brands a narrative, which is one of the reasons anyone buys anything: not just to own a product, but to become part of a story.’

Public and the Private

Modern Day Treason

And what people love more than anything is feeling that they are part of a story, a part of something bigger, that they are a (hopefully important) wave in the ocean of destiny crashing against the rocks of angst. In their deepest hopes is seated a desire for more than just a performative expression of solipsism. It is the crux of social identity – the source of in-group and out-group (we vs them), false choice and false consensus. It is also the story weaved into myths and legends we tell ourselves, after all, storytelling and group identity has been crucial towards our survival since our hunter-gatherer days. It is therefore anything but surprising that ‘treason’ (betrayal of group identity) has been in all times and places throughout history, one of the most severely punishable offences. Today, a slightly diluted attitude towards treason apply in its subtler modern form of ‘political dissent’.

Take the case of Amos Yee, then a 16 year old Singaporean teenager, who criticized the Singaporean government and its founder Lee Kwan Yew. Although the Singaporean constitution, like my very own, guarantees freedom speech without condition, Amos was charged and arrested for 50 days for speaking his mind. There were comments on social media calling for him to be caned among other punishments. Singapore, after all, has a zero tolerance policy for insults to race and religion, and most people who speak against the dominant narrative of the government are ripped to pieces online. Amos chose to go against the narrative he felt was wrong even though he was raised inside it and most of his peers were to timid to do anything about it. He went through the monomyth -the hero’s journey. Governments know that this is a huge problem, i.e when dissidence against their narrative completes the conditions of widespread awareness and achievability, either the dissidents must be assimilated back to society or else the government’s core value systems will have to be altered. Revolutions occur only when dissidence becomes the dominant narrative in the public space, and succeed when dissidents cannot be assimilated back and when core value systems are replaced or altered.

What makes Amos a hero is his unapologetic attitude and lack of remorse – reposting all of his offensive material and criticizing some more as soon as he got bail. He stayed true to his private narrative in the face of overwhelming opposing public narrative. As his mother described him, he truly is ‘a child born in the wrong place.’ Amusingly, he is currently seeking asylum in a country whose main narrative is being overrun by its own leader, who, as it so happens, is making it harder for refugees like him to enter in the first place. This same unapologetic insouciance is also what makes Trump a flawed but a very interesting character and it is also why, despite the barrage of attempts, the media can’t answer his ascendancy to power. They are, along with the rest of the world, still reeling in from the daily bewildering racist and xenophobic undertones to take much notice. I get the feeling that these past years and the years to come will be reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 hit Inner City Blues. The song is truly prophetic for our times, at least here in the USA. It truly makes you want to holler and throw up both your hands.

“Crime is increasing

Trigger happy policing

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading”

And there is no doubt that the American media – regardless of where and how much they lean – are not going to pass up on one of the most effective narratives in the history of humanity – the ‘good’ masses against the evil dictator. Especially so, when Trump has basically outdone himself to give it to them on a silver plate with immigration bans and a bordered America. On a lighter note, amidst all the uncertainties of the upcoming years, one thing is fairly certain – the White House Correspondent’s dinner is going to be something to look forward to each year, for more than just the present situation.


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Aretha Livingston
Aretha Livingston is a filmmaker and scriptwriter based in New York and Islamabad. Ever since she realized her childhood dream of collecting foreign stamps for a living wasn't coming true, she found solace in visiting the countries they were made in - over 35 before 35!
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Kathy McGraw
Kathy McGraw

This just blew my mind away. Very unique perspective!