Arguably, story is in our souls.
People have told stories since they first walked the Earth. We find stories painted on rock walls, woven into tapestries, and carved into buildings and monuments. Stories have been handed down from generation to generation, written, published, recorded as voice and music, acted out on stage, filmed, and posted on the Internet.
But there are stories and there are stories. Stories can relate history, teach science, provide moral education and guidance. They can entertain, relax, offer welcome distraction, even bind us together. Or they can mislead and manipulate. Like every tool we create, stories are morally neutral. They can be used for good or ill.
In the political realm, stories convey messages about people, organizations, policies, or programs. Here, they have basically one purpose: to align people with the storyteller. While the practice is ancient, in recent times a word has emerged for it: narrative.
Before the early 2000’s, you didn’t hear “narrative” used that way. You were more likely to hear it with regard to fictional storytelling, where it refers to storytelling passages distinct from dialogue. It only became a common term for political storytelling about ten years ago. In either sense, narrative is basically the same: the organized telling of a connected series of details and events.
In every narrative, material is selected and arranged with a goal in mind: to engage the audience’s attention, draw them into the story, and align them with designated characters. In other words, narrative manipulates the thoughts and feelings of its audience. In a work of fiction, such manipulation is essential to achieving the goal of the story. It hooks you, draws you in, and keeps you entertained until the climax and denouement. You welcome that manipulation. Without it, boredom would drive you off to something else!
But in the broad realm of politics, manipulation by narrative has a very different purpose. Far from entertaining, it seeks to gain the audience’s allegiance. From the company proclaiming its good intentions to the candidate running for office to the party hammering its agenda through a legislature, political narrative is about amassing support. Put another way, it’s about power, about who gets their way.
As an author of fictional tales, I can — I hope — engage your interest in people who do not exist while they “do” things not playing out in the real world. I make you care about what happens to these nonexistent people, even though it’s all in your head and you know it. That’s the power of narrative. If blatant fiction can so manipulate us, how much more can narratives claiming to be factual.
And that’s why we’re drowning in them. Corporate and political narratives battle daily for supremacy on television, radio, the Internet, and print media. So much power and money are at stake that fact and truth take a back seat to persuasion. Not that that’s news. How often have devoted fact checkers demonstrated the spin and outright lies embedded in nearly every modern political narrative? Even when based in fact, these narratives gleefully depart from reality as needed to build a compelling story. In an era of fake news, the real news may be that to varying degrees it’s all fake.
Do you care? Maybe not. I know people who don’t. But if you do, if you think at least sometimes it’s important to distinguish truth from falsehood, fact from fiction, then here’s a principle you need on your side:
Independent investigation of truth.
Yes, we’ve all encountered this in some form. It underlies all scientific advancement and ideally is how we make up our minds about matters of importance. It’s even stated or implied in most major religious systems. (The above wording is taken from the Baha’i Faith, my own religion.) Still, while not shockingly new or different, it’s worth stating explicitly. In simplest terms, it holds that each of us inherently has both the right and the responsibility to investigate matters for ourselves and come to our own conclusions about them.
Independent investigation of truth holds that we shouldn’t take the stories told by others at face value. We should look into the claims underlying them and evaluate them with justice. While none of us can directly investigate everything, we can draw upon the collective knowledge of humanity, find the facts that underlie the stories, and consider how various people interpret those facts.
Narratives, particularly those motivated by political aims, should never be given full credence without such investigation. They are too often corrupted by the drive for power. Once truthfulness is sacrificed, all other virtue begins to erode, and the worst form of erosion is the division caused by, indeed deliberately fostered by, competing political narratives. United we stand. Divided we fall. Divisive political narrative works not to our advancement but to our destruction.
If we really wanted a better world, we would resolve to be unified. We would consult together on facts and seek agreement on how to address the problems before us. Whether we can do that remains to be seen. In the meantime, we’re smothering under the press of way too many stories.