Mind War: Part Seven -- Beware the Narrative

Narratology was birthed in the mid-60s as a spinoff of linguistics. The field started with a structuralist or definitional approach (universal elements or themes of narrative, definitions of narrative elements, etc.). In the past couple of decades however, the field has become more pragmatic with an applied and culture-specific approach (stories in difficult cultures, storytelling as an activity, modern storytelling in media).

I'm not a narratologist (nor do I play one on TV), but I have a long-standing interest in the power of story to shape thought and belief and even reality. I use narrative in my professional life, for job hunting and career advancement, for inter-personal communication (like parenting skills), and -- naturally -- for magic. I think the concept of narrativizing your own story arc is an extremely powerful way of interacting with the universe and integrating a sense of the liminal and numinous into your daily life.



So, recently I was at a conference (for career development) where storytelling was one of the topics. And I had an interesting realization. The knowledge and skills around communication are tools that can be used for either good or evil. Your goal can be greater understanding, or raw manipulation of other people to your own ends. And storytelling is not exempt from this fact.

You can use the tools of storytelling to communicate histories and morals and symbols... to create a social reality based on shared perspectives. Or you can use narrative to twist the truth, manipulate morals and ethics, propagandize harmful ideology, and strip away the symbols that you don't approve of to replace them with the ones that make you money or bring you power. Storytelling can be just another form of propaganda, but one that often gets a pass or flies under the radar.

Here's the theory:

The traditional paradigm of the rational world is a scientific or philosophical approach to knowledge that assumes people are logical and make decisions on the basis of evidence and lines of argument.   

...

Fisher reacts against this model as too limited and suggests a new paradigm of narrative rationality, which views narrative as the basis of all human communication. The ways in which people explain and/or justify their behavior, whether past or future, has more to do with telling a credible story than it does with producing evidence or constructing a logical argument. According to Fisher, the narrative paradigm is all-encompassing. Therefore, all communication can be looked at through a narrative lens, even though it may not meet the traditional literary requirements of a narrative. He begins with the proposition that:

  • People are essentially storytellers.
  • The world is a set of stories from among which we must choose in order to live in a process of continual re-creation.[1] Each individual chooses the ones that match his or her values and beliefs.
  • Making decisions depends on judgments about these good reasons. Although people claim reasons for their decisions,[1] such as history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved, all of these may be subjective and incompletely understood.

The test of narrative rationality is based on the probability, coherence, and fidelity of the stories that underpin the immediate decisions to be made.
-- Wikipedia


So basically, we believe things based on confirmation bias and whether it makes for a good story.

Of course I think I already knew this in an intuitive sense, but hadn't been as conscious of it until recently.  I only thought about it consciously because I've been increasingly suspicious of the heavy-handed use of narrative I see in our society. I can only assume that I'm noticing the most egregious examples and that there are many more subtle manipulations that I'm not aware of. Here are a few examples:
  • Political campaign narrative. The conventions were a great example of complex and expensive storytelling used to shape mass opinion. From Trump as the outsider in a world that's rapidly crumbling to Hillary as the progressive choice in world moving forward. It's pretty obvious that both stories are laden with huge amounts of bullshit. It's easier to smell coming from the party you don't agree with, but it's honestly neck deep on both sides.
  • Generational narrative. This one is my pet peeves and drives me to distraction. Any story that talks about generation this or that or tells you that certain cohorts believe or act in a certain way are simply crap. They're divisive nonsense that serves to strip away our sense of continuity and make us suspicious of one another. When I was in my early 20s the narrative was that Boomers were great but Gen X sucked. Naturally the older generation was the source of this story. Now that Gen X is in their 40s the new narrative is that Gen X is great and the Millennials suck. Or even that Boomers and Gen X suck and we're stuck in the middle. We need to be smarter than to fall for this. Yes, they shit on us when we were young, but that doesn't mean we should shit on them now or, even more importantly, that we should shit on those who are younger.
  • Sports narrative. This one is more annoying, but the recent Olympics means it's at the forefront of our current discourse. Athletic performance is almost less important than having a good backstory (that you overcame adversity or have a win-fail-win arc -- Phelps, or a fall from a height story -- Armstrong, or are a protege). And the Olympics is at least a meritocracy. Reality TV that involves athletic ability or talent seem to select specifically for having a good story.
  • Racial narrative. This is an entire dissertation in and of itself, but the disparity in news coverage and the way that stories are handled depending on the race of those involved is a good starting example. For example, the Bundy Malheur Occupation was covered extensively in national media. The North Dakota Native American Oil Pipeline Protest has almost no mainstream coverage -- despite being much larger and more effective.
  • Success narrative and hatred of the poor. This one is particularly insidious and nasty. It's like we never got past the Puritan Doctrine of Predestination and the idea that material success is a sign of God's favor (right on down to The Secret) . From welfare queens to crack babies to generational unemployment. Non-poor people tell stories about poor people that are more about assuaging guilt than accuracy or honesty. 
When you tell yourself bullshit stories in order to feel better, that's bad. When we tell each other bullshit stories to create a reality that doesn't reflect the experiences of people living in it, that's worse. And when top-down mechanisms (governments, media, religious) tell bullshit stories to manipulate us, that's criminal.

Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this and pointing out narrative rationality and how little we realize the narratives are written by others and these are the narratives through which we move so much of the time. It's something that bubbles to the forefront of my awareness and then gets lulled to sleep or gets drowned in the noise.

    I started listening to the audio book for Seth Godin's The Icarus Effect a day after reading this post. I am only about a fifth of the way through but thought I'd mention a collision of themes.

    I kept linking Godin's contrasting ideas on work as industrial endeavor and work as art, and how the dominant narrative is still the former, even though that mode is almost dead.

    I then thought of Alan Moore's essay Fossil Angels on magic as The Art and a revival of it based on survival of the fittest outside cloistered, esoteric, secret, fan clubs. I believe that you mentioned that you've read this piece. Moore's satirization of traditional occult practices also points the waning life within them and recommends the difficult task of testing the work outside the cloister, no holds barred.

    Both of these ideas seem to feed into each other - and into the narrative uses, misuses, and abuses you mention above. How much of your story are you actually writing? If you write your narrative, you are certainly going to have to defend it.

    Just some thoughts I thought you might be interested in.

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    Replies
    1. I find Godin interesting and may have to read that. I also re-read "Fossil Angels" on a regular basis just to refresh my thinking -- it's one of my favorites along with "We are the Witchcraft." It's hard to keep this stuff in the fore-brain, probably by design as a survival mechanism but also because of the dominant paradigm. I hope that by continuing to think and write about it, I embed it in my mind-brain where it continues to impact me no matter what I'm doing.

      I think magicians and witches write a larger portion of their narrative than non-practitioners. However, where your story bumps up against the stories of others is where things gets interesting, and sometimes dangerous.

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