Posted by Joshua on Monday, November 24th, 2008
Can Syria change its image? The Power of Narratives.
By S. Farah for Syria Comment
24 November 2008
In an interview on National Public Radio, the great American author Norman Mailer explained his public image by saying, “People have outlandish ideas of me and are often surprised when they meet me. If I heard one remark over a thousand times in my life, it is that, you know, you are not the least bit who I thought you would be.” He blamed this false image on poor journalism. He said, “I am a measure of how bad and inaccurate the news is. The sad truth,” he went on to say, “Is that most journalists are mediocre writers. The mark of mediocrity is to look for precedents; so they look up the file on me and whatever was written about me before gets written again, therefore confirming the error.”
Poor journalism and transcribing precedents without examining the facts goes a long way in explaining Syria’s image. But Syria bares a responsibility as well.
For years Israel promoted a potent anti-Syria narrative — that Syria is a “brutal dictatorship that thrives on chaos”. They argued that Syria supports “terrorism” targeted against the only democracy in the Middle East — Israel — a narrative designed to distract western public opinion from Israel’s occupation of Arab land and its treatment of the Palestinians and Syrians under occupation. To gain further sympathy and western support, Israel also highlighted the tragic plight of the Jews during the Holocaust and emphasized the West’s “Judeo-Christian heritage”. With this, the focus shifted to Syria’s internal politics and Israel became a victim rather than the perpetrator of aggression through occupation.
And for many years Syria allowed its detractors to define her amidst a deafening silence from Damascus. Her political leaders were rarely accessible to the media and its embassies oversees were often described as “vaults”, a place were journalists were not allowed.
All this changed. Syria now has a very talkative, highly educated, and sophisticated cadre of politicians and foreign diplomats who are not camera shy. They are often multilingual and are armed with facts, bits and data. They have been dispatched to set the record straight. Yet despite hundreds of interviews press appearances and talks at the various institutions, Syria’s image remains largely unchanged.
So how can we explain this stubborn resilience of Syria’s poor image? One explanation resides in the power of narratives.
According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the best-selling book The Black Swan, narratives are what the brain uses to store and index information and facts. As we are faced with thousands and thousands of bits of information every day, the brain, like a computer, needs a way to arrange these bits into files. Narratives are what we use to summarize and make these trillions of details we encounter in a lifetime seem less random. One feature of narratives is that they are sticky, our brains clings to them. They are an integral part of the working biology of our brain. Another feature of narrative is they viciously affect the remembrance of facts, so we tend to remember more easily those facts that fit the narrative.
Today the only narrative about Syria is the one presented by its detractors. Syria never presented the world with her own competing narrative. Consequently, information that comes out of Syria today (including those presented by the Syrian politicians and diplomats) that fits the narrative, our brains will store, further emphasizing our established impressions of Syria, and the information that does not fit, confuses us and is neglected by our brain.
Even journalists usually seek information that confirms the narrative, and are doubtful when the information does not fit their preconceived notions. For example, a TV journalist reporting from Syria will find a giant poster of the president and present his or her report standing in front of it.
Many analysts and journalists are confused about what to make of Syria’s peace initiative toward Israel and the reforms carried out by President Bashar al Assad because they do not fit the established image of Syria. They usually doubt Syria’s intentions and explain its peace talks with Israel that are mediated by Turkey as a way for Syria to ease the western pressure on its government.
The Syrian government has allowed its citizens free access to the world’s information through unrestricted access to satellite TV and the Internet. The wife of the president has even helped organize a nonprofit effort to extend Internet access to rural Syria and cell phone companies are now offering high speed 3.5G wireless accesses to the Internet. Journalists will usually ignore this information because it does not fit the narrative of an oppressive dictatorship, yet ill-conceived and often unexplained government actions such as blocking Facebook or a rare political detention in today’s Syria will receive widespread coverage..
So can Syria change its image? The answer is yes. First Syria will have to provide the world with its own narrative. It is unrealistic to expect the public or a busy journalist who is faced with deadlines to examine and analyze a mountain of information. Syria will have to define the issues and what she stands for in a succinct and compelling way. Then she will have to promote this new narrative with programs and facts.