Why We Are Narrative Prey
Jay B Gaskill
“Controlling the Narrative
“At some level, the only thing that actually matters in modern politics is controlling the narrative in which events are explained. Frame this narrative to your benefit, and the battle is at least half won. Lose the framing war, and you face long odds.”
“Who’s really violent?
“Tips for controlling the narrative.
“Committees, caucuses, working groups and people planning specific occupy-related actions, workshops, meetings and events are invited to post to occupyoakland.org”
During my former life of crime, I don’t recall any of the DA’s, PD’s, Judges, Cops, Probation Officers or Sheriff’s Deputies referring to somebody’s “narrative.” In my department, we called a client’s version of events his/her “story”, as in “Did you get a guilty story?” A police report was a “report”. A witness statement was a “statement”. A sworn statement given under oath before a judicial officer was “testimony”. Testimony could and often did conflict.
Facts were to be discovered, but sometimes remained unsettled or unresolved. Factual versions were always potentially in dispute. Decades have passed. Nothing has changed.
“Just the facts, please,” when delivered by a law enforcement officer at the outset of a witness interrogation was meant to curb excursions into speculation, conclusions and deductions offered up as observed facts. In effect it was designed to facilitate the fact-collection process by reducing the normal conversational clutter that gets in the way of a clear account of what someone has seen, heard and observed at a particular place and time.
When lawyers and judges want to illustrate or discuss a particular a point of law, they adopt a fact pattern, meaning a set of events and circumstances taken as true for purposes of the discussion, the object being clarity… always clarity…then decision.
This was a capsule survey of the rational, time honored pattern of formal discourse that continues to work very well.
Where did this notion of “narrative” come in? The short answer is that the term narrative arrived in the political discourse as an import from academia. There it is considered a useful construct because it tends to blur distinctions like, truth vs. falsity, honesty vs. dishonesty, fact vs. value and reality vs. fantasy. In a politically correct environment, one can safely write about the creation “narratives” of the Navaho peoples, the moral “narratives” of Moses and even the feminist “narratives” of the Celts, while preserving an Olympic, “judgment-free” sense of academic detachment. This leaves the real judgments to faculty cocktail parties among trusted friends.
As political advertising devolved into ever shorter forms, political operatives began to notice that whether a particular candidacy or cause gathered traction seemed to depend on the degree that it was sailing with or against the prevailing news-framing narrative of the time. The domestic policy successes of progressive candidates and causes over the last half century or so has been greatly advanced because the dominant news-framing narrative was something like, “the inevitable march of human progress towards greater social and economic equality continues to be hindered by greed and special interests”. This is good example of a durable meta-narrative. Of course, there are smaller bore versions.
Wartime produces its own meta-narratives. WWII was based on the narrative that the Nazi-Fascist-Axis powers would destroy western civilization, unless we Allies banded together and stopped them once and for all. It had the virtue of being true. A second meta-narrative, that the communism of our Russian ally was just a temporarily exaggerated of the progressive system called socialism, was not true.
Political progressives have enjoyed a whole series of pet narratives as the overall political and economic conditions have changed. The narratives of the hard working Joe-the-Plummer types have mutated as well.
Should US or IDF forces, or a combination thereof hit Iran’s atomic bomb making capabilities? It turns on the narrative.
Narratives have been used to conceal hidden agendas and obscure false assumptions under the “everybody knows that…” umbrella. This is a trap.
Narratives are neither true, nor false; they are neither wise, nor unwise. Narratives catch hold or they do not. Narratives are effective or they are not. Tweets, twitters and other instant messaging modalities are tools to be used to “shape the dominant narrative.”
Contrast, “What was his story” or “What were the findings?” with “What was his narrative?” A narrative is a rhetorical device designed to work around “the truth problem” in an academic and popular culture in which a growing plurality of the players no longer believe that ascertainable truth exists, or that enduring values, moral precepts and standards are possible except maybe as social compromises.
I’ve just outlined here a social dysfunction of the first order. And the widespread use of the term narrative operates as both its consequence and its continuing enabler.
Politics has devolved into competing attempts to “control the dominant narrative”. This takes place in an information saturated communication environment for which all the rules have changed. A careful and accurate assessment of our real problems, our real perils and our real opportunities has been trumped by three other things: the pursuit of your attention, your assent and your uncritical acceptance of the trend line contained in the narrative being pushed.
We are narrative prey…because that is how they see us. Think how little our common intelligence is actually respected.
The farther we fall from the kind of careful, commonsense rational discourse and thinking (of the type I illustrated in my law and justice examples above), and the more we stray from clear-headed moral principles in our dealings and actions (a topic that apparently is no longer routinely taught in the academy), the more we will be moved from the prey category to the farm animal one.
At least some prey can escape.
ESCAPE OF THE BUBBLE PEOPLE
We love our narratives, they give meaning to our desperate lives…but….
How about the facts for a change?
Idiocy: I refer here to the garden variety idiot-condition, not the clinical version. Idiocy consists in turning off one’s critical faculties in favor of some common narrative. Adopting any locally prevailing narrative is easy; and inevitably you find yourself drawn to “like-minded” people, meaning people who have uncritically adopted the same narrative.
THE NARRATIVE BUBBLE, PHASE ONE:
You began when you drew a virtual circle and went inside it. You put all of the intelligent, well-meaning people inside that circle with you. You notice that they all agree with you. This will protect you from the idiots outside. You fail to notice that you have changed your definition of “idiot”. Now it means someone who fails to see the obvious truth of your adopted narrative.
A small, critical, fact-hungry part of you feels uncomfortable with this arrangement, but your discomfort is manageable…for now.
THE NARRATIVE BUBBLE, PHASE TWO:
You wake up one day to discover that some of the smart people have left your circle. When the new people who share the original narrative arrive, you find them to be not nearly as smart as those who have left the circle. You begin to discover that you are surrounded by idiots…and that until a short while ago, you were one of them. Maybe, just maybe, you think, this was a broken narrative.
THE NARRATIVE BUBBLE, PHASE THREE:
You leave the circle –noting that you are now beginning to think of it as a bubble. After knocking about in the real world, you discover that many of your key inside-the-circle assumptions do not correspond with the facts outside. You are still encountering idiots, but you can see them more clearly than ever before.
THE NARRATIVE, PHASE FOUR:
You begin to encounter intelligent people who are willing to accept facts, but they won’t get inside a circle with you. They are not bubble people. It turns out that once you are outside that original circle, you can’t find another one to enter without giving up part of your critical intelligence.
PHASE FIVE – BREAKING THE NARRATIVE SPELL
At this stage, you begin to enjoy life outside the bubble. You say – “Screw the narratives – let’s see if we can’t figure out what’s really going on”.
Congratulations: You are longer an unthinking liberal, a reflex conservative or prey for the bubble people.
Welcome to the discomfort zone. You are in good company. This is where the good leaders are made.
March 14, 2012
This article was simultaneously posted on –
The Policy Think Site
The Dot 2 Dot Blog
The Out*lawyer’s Blog
Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law
As always, links, forwards and excerpts (with attribution) are welcome and encouraged. For comments and all other permissions, please contact the author directly via email email@example.com. The author is the California attorney who served as seventh Chief Public Defender for Alameda County, CA, headquartered in Oakland.