Docile citizens? Using counternarratives to disrupt normative and dominant discourses

Walsh, Christopher (2012). Docile citizens? Using counternarratives to disrupt normative and dominant discourses. In: Soler, Janet; Walsh, Christopher; Craft, Anna; Rix, Jonathan and Simmons, Katy eds. Transforming Practice: Critical Issues in Equity, Diversity and Education. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, pp. 125–135.



The nursery rhyme, 'Sticks and bones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me' is widely recognisable. But is it true? I contend that it is not. As Toni Morrison reminds us, words hurt. Words mean something. Consider how you might feel if you were called a liar when you told the truth. It does hurt to be called names. It hurts to be bullied and excluded because you have been labelled or set apart and called ugly, fat, stupid, lazy, old, homeless, illiterate, gay, disabled and so on. To be called names, or be labelled, is a form of'othering' that is dis empowering and oppressive. To label another person adversely is careless and insensitive. Negative labels often stay with children and young people for the rest of their lives. Labelling often leads people into believing they are incapable and powerless. Conversely, labelling excuses - even encourages - some individuals to participate in destructive behaviour that upholds certain deficit, racist and homophobic views of the individual. Hurtful labels from careless politicians, parents, relatives, practitioners or teachers are harmful to everyone, especially youth. Name calling and labelling others is a practice that must be rejected and redressed by practitioners working with children and young people. But it is so entrenched in the taken -for-granted and everyday practices of many powerful people, that a formidable strategy is needed to expose the violence oppressive language represents and validates - with the aim of altering it.

This chapter puts forth a rationale for authoring counternarratives as a tactic of resistance. It allows those labelled negatively to creatively and critically read and critique the world with the goal of re-writing dominant storylines and discourses. Dominant discourses are generally statements that are institutionally enforced and widely circulated as 'Truths' (Mills, 1997), but which also have the power to alienate and discriminate. Through critical reason and reflection (Barnett, 1997) of their own physical, social, and political 'situationality' (Freire, 1970:90), I encourage practitioners deliberately to create spaces where the children and young people they work with can author counternarratives to reject the often hidden, contextualised and localised (and global) narratives that marginalise them. Historically, counternarratives are recognised for the power they have to challenge and disrupt normative and dominant discourses (Giroux et al, 1996).

This chapter presents four counternarratives that work to decentre discourses that render individuals 'docile citizens' (Foucault, 1978/1995). The counternarratives presented do this by exposing and contesting common assumptions around disability, the family and gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans gender (LGBT) youth. Authoring counternarratives gives children and young people a voice to overcome the ways they have been labelled so they no longer remain victims of discrimination, inequity and exclusion. When pupils author counternarratives, they re-appropriate, reframe and challenge dominant images and representations by rupturing the chains of signification to create new narratives that dismantle hegemony.

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