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Narrative Therapy and Social Justice

Scales of justice

In my previous post, I explored the components of Narrative Therapy and my reasons for using this approach, including the fact that Narrative Therapy is highly compatible with my own value of pursuing social justice. In this post, we'll look more closely at exactly how Narrative Therapy principles align with social justice principles.

Prioritising the Individual

History is made by individuals

Words and concepts each have their own particular meaning, and often those meanings are determined by the society around us. For instance, when a person is described as "successful" or "a success", to many people that would convey something related to their career--that this person had taken on a professional role with increased responsibility, and was making enough money to live comfortably. If the person was involved in creative work, such as an artist or an actor, being "successful" might mean that their creative work was well-known, and, again, that they were making enough money to live comfortably.

However, these socially-defined meanings aren't the only meanings a word or concept can have. Each individual might have their own unique way of experiencing that concept, which might or might not align with the "collective" way of experiencing it. To a particular individual, "success" might mean having a comfortable home life, or being able to pursue a hobby, or getting away from a toxic family setting. Society at large might not consider those as things contained within the meaning of "success", but individual people might.

Narrative Therapy is an approach which prioritises these personal, individual meanings over social, collective meanings, and encourages people to focus on what things mean to them, rather than how others might define these things. This is an essential component of social justice, as these socially-defined meanings often serve to support the current status quo, which in turn often means supporting those currently in power and preventing that power from being challenged.

For instance, consider the women's suffrage movement, and the arguments made against giving women the right to vote; many such arguments were framed around ideas of women being too "emotional", or men having a"responsibility" to women which giving women the right to vote would interfere with. These arguments relied upon these terms having commonly accepted definitions which served those in power; that being "emotional" was a quality incompatible with the "cool head" needed to vote and govern, or that women having more social power would be incompatible with male "responsibility" to provide care. As the history of the suffrage movement shows, however, these socially determined definitions were ultimately subject to change--change which only occurred because individuals empowered themselves to define those words and concepts differently, and in so doing change the way power itself was wielded in society.

This is the type of change that Narrative Therapy supports, by helping individuals look at the ways society has defined the concepts that impact their lives, and supporting those individuals to re-define these concepts in ways that put the power back in the hands of the individuals. For example, a person may come to therapy because they are unhappy in their relationship, but reluctant to leave it because they have children, and society has taught them that being a "good parent" means having both parents together in the same household. Narrative Therapy might help this person consider a new definition for the concept of a "good parent", one which includes setting an example for your children by showing them how to make decisions that support your own happiness, even if that means making difficult choices like leaving a relationship. In this way, Narrative Therapy promotes the principles of social justice by encouraging people to re-define terms and concepts in ways which serve their own empowerment, rather than supporting the status quo and existing power structures.

Considering Context

Context means considering where something comes from

How we define things is often influenced by the context in which we consider them. For instance, most people would define killing another person as an immoral act, and the law reflects this--but the law also makes exceptions, such as situations in which one person kills another in self-defense. This is because same action is defined differently in different contexts; killing someone who poses no threat to you is considered immoral, while killing someone who is trying to harm you is considered differently.

The principles of social justice reflect the importance of considering context when we make judgments. Immigration is a topic of great importance in current discussions around social justice, and context plays a significant role in these discussions; people who leave one country and travel to another without legal documentation are breaking the law, and some would argue that this means they shouldn't be allowed to remain in the countries they have entered illegally. Considering these actions in context potentially changes the way one judges them, however--many people who leave their homes do so because they are in danger there, from war or criminal activity or natural disaster, and they travel to other countries where they believe they and their families will be safer. Social justice demands that we take this important context into consideration, so that we are treating all people with compassion rather than making judgments based on incomplete information.

Narrative Therapy also reflects these principles, because it also focusses on considering contexts. All effects have a cause, and all aspects of a person--including their thoughts, feelings, and actions--come from somewhere. We can only understand people when we understand the context within which their characteristics were formed, as this is an essential component of their personal story.

Substance use is an action which is frequently judged negatively by society, and substance users may face judgments based on socially defined ideas of substance use--that users are lazy, or dangerous, or hedonistic. Substance use, like anything else, is an action which has an origin, though, and Narrative Therapy seeks to consider actions in the context which shaped them. A person who grew up in an environment in which they frequently felt fear, and rarely got to feel relaxed or secure, might feel a strong craving for the experience of escaping from tension and being able to relax. This craving could be met most easily through the use of substances, and once the person found the thing they craved via that route, they would naturally keep returning to it, even when substance use began to have worse and worse consequences for them. Viewed in context, the substance use isn't a manifestation of laziness or hedonism, but rather a way of accessing something all people need, and which some people can't easily find any other way. Once the role played by substance use is understood, it's possible to make changes to that behaviour by finding other ways for the person to get access to that experience, and allow themselves to find relaxation and security without negative consequences.

It's important to note that understanding actions in their proper context isn't the same thing as "excusing" them. In the above example, it's still true that substance use has negative consequences for the user and the people around them, and as such they would still benefit from changing that behaviour. Similarly, understanding that someone who abuses those around them does so because they also grew up in an abusive household doesn't mean "excusing" the abuse they have perpetrated, nor does it negate the effects of that abuse on those they have harmed. The purpose of Narrative Therapy isn't to excuse actions, but to understand them, because through understanding them it is possible to change them. In the same way, when we understand the context in which social injustices occur, we are not excusing them; we are giving ourselves the proper context so that we can understand how to create change.

Giving Ourselves the Power to Change the World

We lift one another up

To serve the cause of social justice, we must view ourselves as powerful, and recognise our ability to exert change upon the world. The world isn't an easy thing to change, though, and often we may feel powerless and hopeless in the face of social injustice, and the systems which keep it in place.

Narrative Therapy can be a tool for reclaiming this power, by helping us reconsider the stories we tell around making change happen. We might look at the current systems of power and feel helpless, because no matter what we do, those systems seem impervious to change--no matter how much we argue, or protest, or organise, those systems remain in place.

Narrative Therapy gives us an opportunity to re-tell this story in a way which highlights our ability to make changes, even if those changes aren't always immediately obvious. One hundred years ago, the idea that someday people might have the legal right to non-heterosexual marriages, or to legally change the sex on their birth certificate to match their gender identity, could have seemed impossibly far-off--indeed, it would have been difficult to even discuss such things openly. And yet, those conversations still happened, first quietly, then loudly, and eventually at such volume that things which once looked as though they would never change did change, and now those changes are a part of our everyday lives. The people involved in those conversations a century ago might not have seen themselves as part of a process which would create real change, but history proved that this is exactly what they were. When we apply this story to our own lives, we see that by talking about the things we want to be different, we bring those changes about, little by little. We may not feel powerful, but this is a power which no one can take away: the ability to continue these conversations, always getting louder and insisting on being listened to, until change can no longer be delayed or resisted.

All of the elements of Narrative Therapy so far discussed come together in this principle. By challenging social definitions and prioritising personal ones, Narrative Therapy pushes back against existing power structures and turns up the volume on individual stories, empowering those individuals to live lives defined by their own standards. By considering social and personal context, Narrative Therapy puts the focus on individual experiences, and promotes understanding of people and their actions based on the full picture of who they are and why they are those people. By changing the story around the fight for social justice, Narrative Therapy offers a path out of despair and into empowerment, recognising the value of each person's contribution to that cause over the long-term.

The Story, and the Fight, Continue

The fight continues

The pursuit of social justice is always a struggle, one that will last throughout all of our lifetimes--likely, throughout all of history. While that can be a daunting prospect, Narrative Therapy offers a form of support that can help people navigate that struggle while taking care of themselves and balancing their own needs with those of society. Narrative Therapy teaches us that we have the power to change how we define things, and in that way, change how we live in the world. It also teaches us to be kind to ourselves and recognise that, while none of us is perfect, we all have reasons for being who we are. If there are things about ourselves that need to be changed, that is something we have the power to do, given enough understanding of why things are they way they are--and the same principle applies to changing the world.

It is not uncommon for elements in society or the media who are opposed to social justice to portray those who engage in this struggle in the most negative possible light. We are portrayed as obnoxious whiners, or immoral degenerates, or predators and criminals. Sometimes, these portrayals dominate society's perception of the social justice movement, and we see ourselves defined in these negative ways wherever we look. Narrative Therapy can help us find sanctuary when this negativity erodes our self-confidence, by helping us remember that it is how we define ourselves that matters, not how others define us--even when those others seem to outnumber us.

History is a story of those with less power gradually gaining more, and while that path is never a straight or easy one, it is one we follow with each step we take towards a more just society. By helping us understand the power of stories, Narrative Therapy can be a source of strength to continue that journey and carry on the fight.

If you feel that these principles could be helpful for you on your own journey, please reach out to me to talk about how I can be of help. Thank you for reading!

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