Narratives and advocacy

It was slightly out of expectation. Policy Advocacy would not provide their devotees with practicalities of advocacy. There would not be tips and tricks in effective persuasion. Rather, it taught us different attempts to make sense advocacy, to dissect it and its assumptions, to look beyond what is seemingly an obvious matter. Before, I always thought that advocacy was straight forward. Advocacy for me was demonstrations, strikes or boycotts. Advocacy is telling the reality that your government is too blind to see! Indeed, they are examples of persuasion at play. However, advocacy is more complex and subtler than those examples. One thing for sure, advocacy is so pervasive in our lives that we are actually advocates, often unconsciously.

Yesterday, I met my boyfriend and talked about the military violence that is happening in West Papua, Indonesia. I told him how paralysed I felt for not being able to do anything. His suggestion is for me to start gathering support from Indonesian students and plan a protest. He suggested that I should write articles, to persuade the Indonesian Student Association to release an official statement to the Australian and Indonesian media. The key, he said, is to wait for the right moment, when the condition gets worse, to execute all the strategies he mentioned. Aha! That's what John Kingdon's calls 'window of opportunity'! All the strategies he formulated are perfect examples of persuasion as 'manoeuvres' of an advocate. He understood that I, an ordinary student, do not have a 'claim to a hearing', a prerequisite of Kingdon's policy entrepreneur. Organisation like the Indonesian Students Association and the media will help me to grab attention. Intelligent as he is, he never heard of Kingdon’s eloquent idea of policy entrepreneurs. But we can see how ideas and practical ways of persuasion are every day’s conversation. One grieve observation is, often to ‘sell’ your cure you must wait until your patient is about to die. Is that a justified trade-off? How can we tell the right moment to push our prescription?

Come to think of it, what he did is an advocacy in itself. He was persuading me of what he thought was the best ways to advocate my cause. He was performing an advocacy on how to execute my advocacy. The way he did it was to appeal to my reason or ‘logos’. He laid out the argumentative analysis of how those moves he suggested are the best ways I could possibly exhibit. He also has that ‘ethos’ dimension as an ex-journalist in Australia. He knows how the media works and to utilize it. Add to the ethos his charms and we can tell now whether I was convinced or not.

The question then is how to persuade the bulk of mainstream Indonesian students to support my cause to stop violence in Papua? Their ignorance frustrates me. For me, it is obvious that what happens in Papua are human rights violation, developmental failures, and structural discrimination by the state. The evidence is crystal clear. How could most people be blind to those facts?! The answer seems to lie in the narrative approach on advocacy. In fact, the concept of narrative significantly changes my understanding of policy advocacy.

Politicians often say, ‘Let me tell you a story’. Indeed, to understand the policy, we need to ask the story first. Narratives help us make sense of a problem by encompassing and interweaving disjointed ideas and values and justifying the decision and policy action (Feldman et al 2004; Fischer 2002). In doing so, narratives blur the boundaries of personal stories with grand theme of a policy and the grand narrative of identities. In narratives, we find a complex interaction between the personal, professional and the public stories. Narratives serve as lenses to filter the ingredients of our construction of 'reality' and truth; so called facts and evidence. Facts and evidence only serve as justification for our narratives; ideas of ‘reality’.

Born in an activist family, I have a different narrative from most of my Indonesian peers. My father was a labour activist during Soeharto era. He told me stories of workers who suffered under Soeharto’s policies and his military atrocities. When I was 12, my father told me that my grandfather, his father, was murdered by the military in 1967 because he joined the communist teacher’s movement. So I grew up with deep antagonism toward the government, the military and the dominant narrative of Indonesia as a national identity and a nation. My story is part of the big narrative of struggling victims of government, including Papuan rebels (or heroes?). Now we see how my narratives shape my previous understanding of advocacy. Individuals are the culmination of public and personal stories, a dynamic negotiation of many interrelated narratives.

In advocacy, often we need to change the narrative which neither easy nor quick. We need to persuade people to step outside their narratives in order to observe and analyse the narratives onto which they attach personal stories and public roles; to identify and question the assumptions of the plots and values embedded in the grand story. The next step is to convince them that our counter-narrative is worth adopting; that this version of reality will make sense of the problem, and solve it.

In Papuan case, this means questioning the grand narrative of Indonesia. What is Indonesia? Who are Indonesians? How did we come to this idea of Indonesia? How do ideas of Indonesia shape my personal story, my identity and political stance; my opinion on Papuan issues? What is my version of Papuan story within the story of Indonesia? The advocacy continues by offering, and convincing people to adopt the counter- narratives where Papuan rebels are the brave protagonists against cruel authorities; that current ideas of Indonesia and being Indonesian are misleading and need to be redefined.

Most people will refuse to confront their narratives, let alone change them. To question our narrative is dangerous, both at individual and collective level. At personal level, it shakes our self-definitions and construction of reality; the meaning of our personal lives and roles in public domain; our identities. At collective level, it disturbs our foundation of our imagined collective identity, collective actions and its ways of making sense of our changing environment.

At this point, I am so perplexed. If policy heavily depends on narratives, where that leaves advocacy? How to change deeply pervasive narratives? If evidence, truths, facts are instruments of our narratives, what can justify such advocacy to convince others that our narratives, thus our ‘reality’ and evidence, is better (or more real)? Policy Advocacy course leaves me incompetent in answering those provocative questions; questions that might never be answered, or maybe, should not be answered.


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