We Need New Stories exposes the desperate techniques used to deepen inequality and diminish movements like Black Lives Matter – the author discusses the book’s pertinence in an era of protest and pandemic
As we continue to navigate a global pandemic, with useless but dangerous men like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson leading the charge, the weight of the world feels heavy on our shoulders. For those fighting the establishment, it feels like things will never get better. But, as author Nesrine Malik writes in her eye-opening book, We Need New Stories, “the good news is, things seem to be getting worse because they are in fact getting better – we just can’t see the tip of the iceberg of things getting better”.
First released in July 2019, and out in paperback today (August 20), We Need New Stories is a revolutionary and uplifting piece of work that exposes and unpicks the toxic myths that aim to isolate the individual and stop the resistance. Malik deconstructs the “six key myths” of modern western society: gender equality, a political correctness crisis, a free speech crisis, virtuous origin (airbrushing history to remove, for example, a country’s colonial past), and the reliable narrator.
Malik meticulously exposes the ways in which the media and those in power construct and indulge the narratives that suit our so-called “default values”, namely: white supremacy, conservatism, and gender conformity. For example, the public has been led to believe that ‘political correctness has gone mad’ or that their freedom of speech is under threat, when in reality, the internet has simply given marginalised communities a voice to speak out against hate speech. Because the powers that be don’t want these communities rising up, they create myths to keep them down.
“When the powers that be, or I call them the ‘winners’, run out of ideas, they use propaganda to scare people into thinking someone further down the food chain is coming for your status,” Malik tells Dazed. “When racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-feminist rhetoric intensifies, that’s usually not a sign of the strength of the system we’re fighting against, but its weakness.”
Since Malik wrote We Need New Stories, the world has completely transformed. The coronavirus crisis has irresversibly altered our world, exposing the lies our governments have been feeding us. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum against this backdrop. As Malik says: “What the pandemic made very clear is that being of a certain racial background entails that you have a certain job, live in a certain type of housing, and have certain – or no – access to healthcare.”
Malik has just finished writing the US version of We Need New Stories, which analyses myths amid COVID-19 and BLM, and will be out later this year. Here, she discusses her galvanising book, how its themes have felt even more pertinent in 2020, and how we can access new stories.
The world has changed hugely since We Need New Stories came out last year. How have the themes of your book felt more pertinent amid the pandemic and urgent Black Lives Matter protests?
Nesrine Malik: The last chapter of the book talks about this state of social injustice can’t go on, and how there’s a real subterranean change in demographics, in the empowerment of youth, people of colour, the LGBTQ+ community. There’s a big expansion of space that minorities and marginalised communities have been let into, and this creates a tension that cannot last forever.
The last paragraph of the book says: ‘The good news is, things seem to be getting worse because they are in fact getting better – we just can’t see the tip of the iceberg of things getting better. As far as the establishment is concerned, it is already too late, they will be hearing from us.’ It was amazing with BLM because that’s exactly what happened! It was the pent up energy and extremely vibrant community of different identities who had been finding their voices over the last few years. The pandemic gave us a pause in the political cycle, enabling those forces to come to the surface – and so, the establishment has heard from us.
One of the big themes of the book is the myth that we don’t need to organise ourselves along the lines of identity; that identity politics is a disruptive force that asks for special treatment, and that actually we have no grievances specific to our identity. What the pandemic made very clear is that being of a certain racial background entails that you have a certain job, live in a certain type of housing, and have certain – or no – access to healthcare. This meant that we had a three to one ratio of Black and ethnic minorities to white casualties. The Black Lives Matter movement was empowered by this realisation, so the myth that identity is not relevant has really been debunked over the past few months.
“The pandemic gave us a pause in the political cycle, enabling a vibrant community of different identities to come to the surface” – Nesrine Malik
To what extent do you think the public has been rejecting these narratives more during these times? Do you feel like there’s been a seismic change?
Nesrine Malik: What we shouldn’t look for is an overnight change in attitude or politics. Enough has happened over the past few months that it has been incredibly promising, but there’s also a backlash. Change has a counter resurgent movement that comes up against it, and it’s important to identify the tools used by this movement. These tools are sinister, insidious ones that usually come from parties who you don’t expect. For example, the BLM momentum in the UK wasn’t stalled by the usual suspects – it came from the liberals who were like, ‘Let’s quit while we’re ahead. Don’t pull down statues, don’t talk about defunding the police’.
Nesrine Malik: Yeah, exactly! It came from unexpected quarters, right? That’s because change is really hard because you have to put your reputation and career on the line. I think we’ve made enough inroads with Black Lives Matter that won’t be clawed back, but we’ll just be in a different phase where the discrediting of the movement is going to be about ‘being realistic’ and ‘having clear targets’ and ‘not making outrageous demands’ – all ostensibly reasonable demands that people throw at you. But what they’re saying is something quite sinister, which is, ‘We get your grievance, but we’re not prepared to make any serious changes’.
How do you think we can go past that phase?
Nesrine Malik: The first thing is to identify it for what it is, and then we have to avoid getting bogged down trying to mitigate these arguments. When you’re coming from a disingenuous place of fear, cowardice, and establishment-thinking, I’m not going to engage with you. An important thing is to understand that when people are making those arguments, there’s no convincing them to come along with us.
You say it’s difficult to change people’s minds – one interesting thing that’s come out of BLM is the movement to decolonise the British curriculum. In the book you say, ‘There is no mainstream account of a country’s history that is not a collective delusion’, how do you see this movement playing out?
Nesrine Malik: That was one of the things I was surprised really took off from Black Lives Matter. People have been banging on the door of the empire and colonial history for decades, but it was always a ‘niche’ preoccupation that was seen as for the preserves of radicals, but now it’s become quite mainstream. The fact that BLM in the UK fastened on history shows that there’s a huge sense of amputation of where racial minorities in Britain came from.
The myth in the book about empire and history is that we all need some sort of narrative; some sense of origin. No one is expecting that we just sit and self-flagellate day-in and day-out about our history, but a shared narrative can include the truth. If we have an honest appraisal of our history and how it was shaped, then that can be our shared narrative – it doesn’t have to be one that excludes people.
“The biggest myth of the free speech crisis, or the cancel culture crisis, is that we apply our free speech laws and our expectations to everyone equally. We do not” – Nesrine Malik
Absolutely. Another thing you discuss in the book is the freedom of speech myth, which is used by the far-right and people like JK Rowling to excuse their hate speech. Why are those on the right afforded this ‘freedom’, while minorities who don’t want their identities or experiences erased are accused of threatening this freedom with ‘cancel culture’?
Nesrine Malik: The ‘free speech crisis’ myth in the book could as well have been called the ‘cancel culture crisis’, because it’s the same thing. The reason why JK Rowling or far-right figures are excused and given this path for free speech – and minorities are accused of being thin-skinned or hysterical when they exercise their free speech – is because our society has inbuilt biases that bend towards the values that we hold most dear. These are: white supremacy, conservatism, and gender conformity. So, when people make comments that put other people’s lives or mental health at risk, most people aren’t scandalised because it’s coming from – as far as they’re concerned – our default values. When people of colour, or people who don’t conform to the gender standards that society expects, make statements to defend themselves, we kick back.
The biggest myth of the free speech crisis, or the cancel culture crisis, is that we apply our free speech laws and our expectations to everyone equally. We do not. We afford people free speech rights along the lines of the values that, as a society, we hold dear. We accuse people of abusing free speech, or not understanding free speech when they come from quarters, demographics, or identities that we don’t respect.
I suppose this is where cancel culture comes from, right? The mainstream media mocks it as another example of the sensitivity of the ‘snowflake’ left, but really it’s just a community and its allies speaking out when they’re being harmed.
Nesrine Malik: Exactly! Cancel culture is merely people having the right of reply, which they’ve only recently gained by virtue of the internet. In the book, I talk about the lowering of the walls of the opinion maker; the lowering of that wall means that people who have the platforms to speak with impunity are beginning to hear back from those they spoke to, and they don’t like what they hear. Instead of doing two things, which are, ‘OK, not everyone has to agree with me’, or, ‘Maybe I need to look at my opinions and examine them’, they decide that any criticism is cancel culture. One of the tools of myth-making is to send bits of this frequency into the public domain, which tells people there’s a big group of unwashed, hysterical ‘snowflakes’, like a big mob coming for the traditional values that we all hold dear. Once that impression sets in, it’s really hard to dislodge.
How can we begin to eradicate these harmful myths and access new stories in our day-to-day lives?
Nesrine Malik: The first step is to acknowledge that they are myths. Don’t waste time arguing about the finer points of cancel culture – protect your energy! Let’s just not get drawn into these conversations because the purpose of them is to distract, and to bog us down in talking about cancel culture as opposed to how that phenomenon represents the problem. It happened very effectively with JK Rowling – instead of discussing trans issues, we’ve diverged towards talking about cancel culture and JK Rowlilng.
All of these frequencies from the establishment are meant to make us doubt ourselves, our allegiances to each other, and our solidarity across the movement as a whole. The main message of the book is to address people to say, ‘You are part of a movement that is large and strong, and has solidarity across races, classes, and gender identity. The establishment will try to make you feel like this movement doesn’t exist. But it does’.
We Need New Stories is out now