I recently stumbled on a very useful term: the “legitimating story”. Nerd that I am, I got all excited, because here is a phrase that – in two lonely words – goes a long way towards articulating a technique of manipulation to which I have often been prey.
I’ve often found that a very powerful way to escape manipulation is to point out how it’s happening, but until now I’ve struggled to articulate just what this problem is, for want of an appropriate label. Here’s my label!
This post owes its origins to a very informative Powerpoint presentation developed by Aidan Ricketts from Southern Cross University, called “Changing the World: A Step by Step Guide to Community Activism”.
In it, he talks about the concept of “sovereignty”. To claim sovereignty over an individual or group is to claim the right to govern them. But what really caught my attention was his description of “stories that legitimise sovereignty”, or “legitimating stories”. (At first, I thought he’d made a typo, and meant “legitimising stories”, but google tells me the conventional term is, in fact, “legitimating”.)
Aidan explains that since the advent of centralised government, conquering cultures have traditionally claimed sovereignty through force of arms and fear, ie “my weapon is bigger than yours, so you have to do what I say”. However, to hold sovereignty for any length of time after the initial conquest, it becomes necessary to legitimise the sovereignty in the minds of the conquered. That is, to manufacture some story that causes the governed to willingly accept the rule of the governing. Otherwise, continual forcible repression is required, and that takes a lot of energy on the part of the conquerors.
Aidan gives some examples of legitimating stories:
- God-given authority (Vatican, Ayatollahs)
- Royalty, tradition and lineage (British aristocracy)
- Social contract (“liberalism”)
Aidan also asks, “What’s your legitimating story?” That is, why do you accept the right of other people, the people who make up our government, to make the rules by which you live? Which is a very good question – one I’ve been struggling to articulate for a while. So thanks, Aidan, for articulating it for me.
My rough guess is that the dominant legitimating stories in Australia are probably “democracy” and “greater good” stories. A “democracy” legitimating story (I’m going to call it “LS” from now on) would go something like this: “the government has the right to make the rules by which I live because ultimately the government is answerable to the people of Australia, which includes me, so I have a say in what those rules are. Every 4 years I get to help choose who makes the rules, and if I don’t like the last lot, I can vote them out”.
A “greater good” LS might go something like, “I obey the rules of the State because the rules are such that if everyone obeys them, we’re all better off. For example, I’ll pay my taxes because if everyone does, then we can have good public services and infrastructure. I’ll refrain from dropping my litter down the drain because if everyone refrains, then we won’t contaminate our waterways”.
(As an aside, it seems to me that these legitimating stories are becoming less and less convincing to more and more people. Or perhaps that’s just the people I mix with? Regardless, I found Aidan’s point – that when legitimating stories of government begin to break down, that’s when force and fear are reintroduced as methods of control – uncomfortable reading!)
I really like this concept, of the “LS” or “legitimating story”. The beauty of it is that the concept can be applied more generally than simply to governments. In the broader sense, an LS would be one that convinces you to accept something that you would normally find unacceptable. (There might very well be an actual term that people use to mean this in the broader sense, but until I find out what it is, I’m going to make use of “LS”.) An obvious example is when “the danger of terrorism” story is used to legitimate (legitimise?) a range of restrictions on personal liberties that people would otherwise find intolerable. Another obvious example would be when the “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction” story is used to legitimate the invasion of Iraq.
It’s important to remember that an LS is not necessarily true, because that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to convince you to accept something you would normally find unacceptable. It’s interesting to note that there are many examples of LSes clouding the CSG issue. “CSG is clean and safe”, “CSG brings jobs” and “CSG is a necessary transition fuel, without which we will not meet our greenhouse targets” are all good examples. Most people, considering the demonstrated risks to clean water, air and food that CSG presents, would not willingly accept CSG activities unless they believed the above LSes.
The value of having a term for this concept is that when you spot it occurring you can call it by its name. And when you call it by its name, it reminds you that (I’ve said it before) an LS is not necessarily true, because that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to convince you to accept something you would normally find unacceptable. That is, its purpose is to manipulate you.
And this brings me to the topic of a number of recent posts: Arrow Energy paying for police services (APthP). Yes, I know I’ve been banging on about this. But one of the reasons having a police force for sale really bugs me is that it pokes a great gaping hole in my LS of the police force. My story goes something like, “We give police special powers and authority in our system of social organisation on the understanding that they will use that authority impartially to uphold the law in order to protect our communities from harm and from infringement of their rights.” APthP and associated police behaviour appears to directly contradict this story. So now I see it as a story (an LS), and not necessarily the truth, and I’m having to come to terms with the thought that I’ve been manipulated by a convenient LS. Again.