The Closet Moderate: Speculative Politics: Narrative [1 of 2]

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Speculative Politics: Narrative [1 of 2]

When a reporter starts talking about narrative, reach for your wiffle bat. Talking heads, political commentators, reporters, the whole D.C. media establishment (the "filter" or "village" for short) are paid to write and talk. In short, they're paid to fill space. People who fill space shouldn't get to weigh in on the character of the space they're filling.

There are two types of discourse that I'm concerned with here. First up: making an argument. An argument states a position, produces evidence, and then argues that, if you accept the evidence as valid, the conclusion follows. What matters in an argument is the quality of the evidence and the extent to which the conclusion follows from it. An argument that produces a lot of evidence for the proposition that the sky is blue, but then tacks on "therefore pigs can fly" is a bad argument. So is an argument that reaches the same conclusion based on the fact that you once saw a pig with cardboard wings taped to it.

However, the second type of discourse is more common in political circles, and more pernicious: narrative, or storytelling. Narrative, it turns out, is a very useful tool when you have a lot of empty space to fill and are rather thin on actual things to fill it with. It also has nothing to do with argument--when you're telling a story, the most important thing is the relationship between the narrator and the audience. Three aspects of that relationship matter: [Cont'd]


The first factor is the ease of acquiring and understanding contradictory evidence. If my story is "the sky is always green" then I'm not going to get a lot of love from the audience, as they can look up and see that the sky is not green. However, if my story is "5,000 years ago, the sky was green" then we're in a whole different realm. There isn't one member of my audience who has access to firsthand knowledge of that time. Alternately, if the contradictory information is sufficiently obscure, I may be able to tell a story that flies in the face of that information. Creationism is a classic example of that kind of story. There's plenty of evidence out there that it's total bullshit, but that evidence requires a lot of time and effort to assimilate. Therefore, we fall back on what we believe.

That brings me to the second aspect of storytelling I'd like to discuss: repetition, or "priming the pump." A lot of what we accept as true is based on the amount of times we've heard it. I have never experimentally verified the existence of the nucleus, but I've been told by a lot of people that some Rutherford guy bounced alpha particles off a sheet of gold, and that this confirmed the existence of the nucleus. I don't know if that's true, but a plurality of sources I trust (father, chemistry teacher, textbooks) have asserted that it is, so I take it on faith that the world is so. As a result, I'm more likely to accept a connected story (say, "the story of radiation") than I would be to accept a wholly separate narrative.

I hinted at the third aspect of the audience/narrator relationship in that last example: trust. If I've heard the same story from a number of sources, and I haven't found or understood any contradictory evidence, then those sources become trusted sources. That means that I'm predisposed to believe unrelated stories that they tell. Parents do this all the time when they give pre-pubescent children "the talk." If they time it right, they're drawing on the trust they've built up with previous stories and the lack of information on the part of the child to establish a narrative around the opposite sex. Put another way, in elementary school I learned a song called "teach your children well." It really ought to have been titled "program your children early and well, and establish your narrative before they access to contradictory information."

In short, storytelling, or narrative, is a way around the critical thinking process. To think critically about something, you have to have access to two rare commodities: time and information. Research, a fancy term for "acquiring information" requires time. After you've invested that time, you need additional time to process that information and figure out how it relates to the issue in question. While we all do this to a certain extent, we don't (and can't) do it for everything we encounter, so we rely on experts or trusted sources.

In the next entry, I'll explore the unfortunate consequences that has for American politics.


Waldorf said...

I demand that you cite my drunken, rambling monologue on this subject. Preferably in MLA format.

Statler said...

Wait, I don't remember that monologue. Was I drunk too?