The Limits of Narrative

“Lots of color and make it punchy.” As a journalist I hear this kind of thing a lot from editors, and it’s not necessarily bad advice. It basically means that vivid narratives are a better tool of communication and persuasion than dry analyses that sift inconclusive data and real-world complexity. This is no doubt true, but the upshot is that, before writing begins, a degree of shaping is already occurring that the journalist then compounds when developing a story. Even with the best of intentions, this shaping is necessarily a form of manipulation. In the hands of an intellectually honest writer, that manipulation may be benign. But it can also become an instrument of ideological distortion, especially in a highly polarized climate.

Narratives—especially those pushed by politicians and partisan media outlets—are a powerful means of influencing perceptions of the society and world in which we live. “Fact-checking, which has long been an integral part of journalism, has been supplemented by a type of ‘narrative-checking,’” warns Hal Conte in Compact magazine. “In some cases, facts have been deliberately removed or altogether omitted for fear that they would undermine broader truths (or noble lies).”

Conte argues that the main reason for this is “a self-conception among many reporters that they must protect the core truths of ‘democracy’—understood to mean not just electoral norms, but also a broad range of liberal ideological commitments.” And so, “it follows that facts and stories that contradict this set of commitments amount to anti-democratic ‘misinformation’” that may be legitimately silenced. Furthermore, each myopic narrative creates the need for an equally myopic and unbalanced counter-narrative, while the nuances of a messier reality are neglected in the middle.

“The soul of wit may become the very body of untruth,” wrote Aldous Huxley in the 1958 foreword to Brave New World Revisited. “However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation.” Huxley wasn’t entirely opposed to brevity, noting that “omission and simplification help us understand.” But, he added, “they help us, in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our comprehension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formulated notions, not of the vast ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.”

Huxley was sympathetic to the conundrum everyone faces in tackling complexity—“life is short,” he acknowledged, “and information endless,” so people must simplify or they will simply never have enough time to grapple with anything. “Abbreviation is a necessary evil and the abbreviator’s business is to make the best of a job which, though intrinsically bad, is still better than nothing.” Nevertheless, we must be careful not to simplify to the point of falsification, or we will end up with “the dangerous quarter-truths and half-truths which have always been the current coin of thoughts.”

While this might appear abstract, it has a demonstrable impact at the personal level, because we all tell ourselves a story about who we are. This is central to our sense of self, and it is what we project outward to help others understand us as individuals. “These stories may be about our past and what we have experienced, as we knit together fragments from our memories to develop a narrative,” clinical psychologists Richard Bennett and Joseph Oliver write in their co-authored book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques. “Yes, the narrative is based (mostly) on facts, but which facts?” Ultimately, they note, we can't remember most of them.

What, for example, were you doing during the month before your 10th birthday? Most of us have no idea about “the days, weeks, and months that are lost to the mists of time,” Bennett and Oliver point out, and this has implications for the perceived reality we construct. “It highlights just how much we have forgotten about our experience, and at the same time calls into question this so-called solid foundation of factual memories on which our past narrative is based.” If we could acknowledge just how unreliable any narrative—even our own—is, it might help us to step back from the certainties that drive polarization in what passes for so much of political debate today.

We should also bear in mind the importance of the language we choose to employ. “Words are at once indispensable and fatal,” Huxley wrote in his 1952 novel, The Devils of Loudun, the true story of religious fanaticism and sexual obsession in 17th-century France. Language provided us with “the instrument of man’s progress out of animality,” but it has also been “the cause of man’s deviation from animal innocence and animal conformity to the nature of things into madness and diabolism.”

Talking and tweeting all day makes it easy to forget the immense and divergent powers of language. As Bennet and Oliver note, despite the frailty of the human body and its physical disadvantages compared to other animals—we can’t breathe underwater, fly, or tolerate extremes of temperature—our ability to communicate and coalesce into organizing groups has provided humans with an extraordinary evolutionary advantage. “We have bent the environment to our will, created vast civilizations, explored other planets, and unlocked the secrets of the universe,” Bennett and Oliver write. “The power, flexibility, and creativity that language has given us is amazing.”

However, “there is also a sense in which language has worked against us and constrained our species in ways that other animals are not constrained.” Our faculty of language allows us to dwell on problems and ruminate exponentially—we can even imagine our own annihilation and contemplate suicide. At the less extreme end of experience, language prevents us from living in the present and causes us to worry about the past and the future in ways that other animals don’t. Non-human animals resolve conflicts through the fight-or-flight mechanismit may be crude, but they don’t suffer from existential anxiety or the physical ailments produced by stress.

Our use of language can backfire at the personal and internal level, but it is more obviously abused in the public realm. “Moralists harp on the duty of controlling the passions; and of course they are right to do so,” Huxley observed in The Devils of Loudun. “Unhappily most of them have failed to harp on the no less essential duty of controlling words and the reasoning based upon them … far more dangerous than crimes of passion are the crimes of idealism—the crimes which are instigated, fostered and moralized by hallowed words.”

Narratives about the world, when respected as working hypotheses, Huxley explained, provide “instruments, by means of which we are enabled progressively to understand the world.” But when “treated as absolute truths, as dogmas to be swallowed, as idols to be worshipped, propositions about the world distort our vision of reality and lead us into all kinds of inappropriate behavior.”

George Orwell was of the same mind, and in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he criticized the written and spoken English of his time and examined the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” he wrote in the essay’s most famous passage. “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I noticed this tendency during my 2009 tour in Afghanistan, during which there occurred a shift in military language. When I went to Iraq as a tank commander in 2004, the fire orders I gave the gunner for using the tank’s coaxially mounted machine gun acknowledged some legitimacy of personhood in the enemy target: “Coax man, 100 meters front.” Five years later in Afghanistan, the linguistic corruption that attends warfare meant we’d refer instead to “hot spots,” “multiple pax on the ground,” and “prosecuting a target” or “maximizing the kill chain” as real people were dismembered by 30mm canon fire from an A-10 jet.

This dynamic intersects with narrative at the micro and macro levels, as “we increasingly engage with our environment, not directly as it is, but through the filter of what our language and cognition tell us it is,” Bennett and Oliver note. At the individual level, this can result in a person reacting to and fixating on the words and narratives they use to understand themselves—such as “I am a broken person,” “I have failed and can’t improve,” “I don’t deserve to live”—as if they are truths. Statements like these can confuse labels and identity, Bennett and Oliver warn, which can result in hopelessness and depression. “The more the client identifies with this label, the more indistinguishable the person and label become, and the less likely it is the person will see themselves as able to act in ways outside the label’s parameters.”

In a recent opinion piece for the Guardian, Sinéad Stubbins describes how an unexpected encounter revealed that “we tend to tell ourselves stories about our own personalities,” and that these “preconceived truths” can prevent “new or contradictory stories” from emerging that might be beneficial. The encounter left her concluding that “it’s peculiar that we think that certain elements about ourselves are set in stone, even if there’s no real evidence to suggest that these personality traits are permanent.”

The embrace of a personal narrative can have what Bennett and Oliver call a “repertoire-narrowing impact on behavior” that can lead to entrenched feelings of guilt, shame, and rage. The counselling I eventually sought following my military experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan unpacked many of the habits of mind identified above. After all, what could I clearly remember about what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not much, as it turned out, and my personal recollections left out myriad extraneous factors that also contributed to the disasters in those countries beyond my role and that of the military of which I had been a part.

Self-excoriation has also become an important part of how Western democracies understand themselves. “The West invented the uneasy conscience, making a daily practice of repentance with an almost mechanical plasticity,” wrote the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in a 2020 essay for Tablet titled, “The Flagellants of the Western World.” “We wrap ourselves in the robes of the perpetual criminal, the better to keep our distance from the world and its torments. And now the West is weaker than ever—rudderless, leaderless—since the United States withdrew from world affairs.”

Societal crises of self-confidence produced by the distortions of oversimplified narratives can result in declinism and a culture of introspective self-doubt that prevents effective action. These narratives are as inaccurate as those used to promote national chauvinism, and can, in their own way, be just as harmful. A functioning society is, after all, a collection of functioning individuals, and if language is employed to undermine a nation’s sense of self-esteem, it will diminish its citizens’ ability to cooperate and organize productively.

The stories we tell ourselves “about the future as we seek to plan, or predict what has not yet happened,” write Bennett and Oliver, can be “enormously helpful.” However, it can be “extraordinarily difficult to distinguish when we have slid into the realm of unhelpful worry”: “As we ‘time travel’ out of the present, our ability to connect with the present moment, and respond to the actual contingencies in front of us declines. This can lead to inflexible responding based on the ways we have conceptualized our past or future.”

It behooves both policymakers and voters to bear such lessons in mind when faced with the challenges now confronting the world. Our understanding of the benefits and limitations of the narratives we construct to understand these challenges will determine how we lead our lives in response. Narratives can help to make complexity intelligible, but they can also disfigure our perception and produce mutually exclusive, partisan accounts of our shared reality. And without an accurate understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of the world around us, our ability to cooperate is fatally compromised.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/07/the-limits-of-narrative/
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Reading this article was a joy. It also made me think of the Cheshire cat’s song: “what’s a nice kid like you, doing in a place like this”. What i’m trying to say is that i was pleasantly surprised to see an article like this on Quillette, that lately seemed dominated by think tank apparatchiks and pet theorists with a strong narrative agenda.

This is beautiful, reminds me of an Indian philosophical concept, which states that people cannot grasp the whole truth, and accepting that, would prevent people from getting too attached to incomplete fragments of truth.
Also your stressing the importance of words and language and how they can affect and influence us and everything around us, is a much needed insight that can never be mentioned enough.

Personally i do not believe in narratives, i believe in critical analysis and any narrative, regardless how well intended, acts as more of a hindrance than a help to our attempts to understand the world around us.

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Yabut it is a rather profound question whether it is possible to understand the world at all without narratives. Understanding is the creation of a narrative. I rather believe that we should train ourselves to distinguish bad narratives from better. If there isn’t already, there should IMHO be a branch of logic explicitly devoted to the art of deflating bad narratives. Or perhaps I should say detecting bad narratives.

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Fair enough, but i also have a question: an unbiased view based on an objective understanding of the complexities of the world, could it still be called a narrative?

I think we’d probably not call it that, but it would be nevertheless. And I hate to sound like a post-modernist, but even ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased’ are more ideals than realities – they are narratives themselves. I’d say that if you can be honest with yourself and still say that your narrative works, then it’s the correct narrative. IOW we can make a good start just by stopping telling lies to ourselves. The Trumpist who really does know perfectly well that Biden won. The wokie who is mostly fooling herself when she says that transwomen really are women.

Edit:

BTW I myself, rather than rejecting all narratives, tend to accept all of them – they all have something believable in them but they all oversimplify and they all contain nonsense.

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It’s a great essay, but I don’t think it digs down to the roots of narrative dissonance. It was something I first noticed in myself during my period of teenage angst, although I will readily admit I didn’t recognise the cause until after the fact. Human’s have a tendency to take our own suffering, angst and unhappiness and use it as a lens to colour the world we live in. If I am unhappy or suffering, the world must be a terrible place, and this in turn creates a bias which subconsciously leads us to look for evidence to confirm our suspicions.

Above all, there must be a reason for our suffering, a protagonist upon whom to blame all our woes. If you are on the Right this villain is government and the way it imposes itself on human flourishing, if you are on the Left it is the evils of capitalism and the obscene wealth of the rich man. The awful truth is that suffering and unhappiness are intrinsic elements of what it is to be human- our moments of joy, contentment and happiness are brief respites against a burgeoning storm ever threatening to break, always lurking beyond the horizon and of which we are usually blissfully unaware.

The irony is it would seem that existential threat, the manufacture of crises, both personal and metaphorical, seems to be one of the only things which can distract us fully from our plight- which is probably why we have such a penchant for summoning them from nothing, and for creating a fictional world which bears no resemblance to the one we live in, with its general, gradual and incremental remittance of real human suffering in almost all its forms. Alas, for all our power to alleviate, progress cannot solve ennui, nor can it remedy the fact that most of us are inconsequential cogs in a vast machine, with little influence or contribution to the world around us.

We may have solved hunger, but for grief we can do nothing. We may have increased life expectancy to unprecedented levels, but we cannot remove the slow diminution which comes from entropy unleashed against our bodies, slowly enfeebling us, subject to worsening aches and pains, grasping for ever-diminishing intellectual capacities, and ever fearful of a sudden precipitous decline far worse than the minor inconvenience of a more faulty memory or physical inconvenience.

We look to narratives to console us, to give us a reason why the world must occasionally be such a shitty place, but the truth is that narrative is probably the last place we should be looking if we really want to help ourselves. We need to recognise that for the most part, government is a substitute to remedy our own sense of inconsequentiality, it’s a proxy for the exercise of power and influence over others, to solve a problem which, for the most part, does not exist.

This is not to say that government is not necessary, or that it cannot help. But instead of asking the question how limited should government be, we should be asking how can we better deploy what to all intents and purposes are finite resources which have- in Europe at least- long since reached their rational limits? Meanwhile, in America few people realise that to confiscate all billionaire wealth (if such a thing were even possible), would only fund American government for six months. Such is the strength and potency of the narratives we construct to create the illusion that our own lack of power, influence, relevance and status must be the result of some evil ogre hoarding all such good things to itself. Unfortunately, despite the fact that in most instances the lump fallacy or zero sum has been proved wrong, when it comes to the attention economy and human relevance the Pareto distribution, much to the chagrin of millennials bemoaning the inherent inequality of music downloads, is very much in evidence- for every star, there are thousands of creatives who will die in obscurity.

Instead, if we really want to feel power, we should look to family, friends and community-even those virtual ones we create online. Impact and relevancy is to be found in the reciprocal, the simple warmth of a kind gesture and an occasional word of encouragement. Our world in not Manichean, a battle between good and bad people, much as many would have us believe it so. Instead, it’s battle against the indignity of existence, avoiding the temptation to sink into the moral quagmire of finally accepting one’s own irrelevancy, along with the desperate need to stoically gird oneself against the ever-looming storm.

It is the acceptance which comes from finally accepting that as we grow older an over fondness for coffee may cause anal fissures, that an ever increasing list of aging pains is our lot in life and we will never feel the same way we did when we were young. Even the past is an illusion- one which we selectively edit to remove all the grist and anxiety. And the future is a world we construct in which we would hopefully want to live if we were young again, unheedful of the fact that we still won’t have solved to real problem which confronts humanity in the modern age- that status, influence, relevancy and impact all really are zero sum, the lump fallacy. Overall, we should be content to live with relative obscurity and a lack of influence, to be known, liked and even occasionally admired by those we encounter all the way, and treat it all with the gallows humour it deserves, sipping the not-so-occasional whisky at the absurdity of it all.

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Methinks you are onto something here. But I think that you are overlooking a major aspect of the Western narrative that sets it apart and is both a unique feature and a difficult problem; salvation. The West as it is, is largely an edifice constructed on Christendom with obvious elements of Judaism and a bit of paganism underneath. The West has, for a long time, believed in salvation and therefore, in perfectibility. Once that idea is introduced, it becomes a mandatory part of the narrative; culture has an end-game. There is a kingdom of heaven. We can build it here, now, if only we try hard enough. And so, the issue is not a matter of technology, or government (our governments even attempt a form of salvation… hell, even that cocksucker Marx was a utopian fuck-fiddle interested in saving humanity)

The problem however, is that despite the inherent problem of such a vision towards perfection, it is at least something which can inspire a sense of mission. There is purpose in salvation, even if it is folly.

And so, if we are to be truly “Western” in the sense that it matters, then no, we are not “cogs in a vast machine”… we are, or are not, children of God… and with that comes one of two outcomes: terrible purpose or terror. We cannot grab onto the notions of the East and long for reincarnation or cessation of being in the ultimate. We (the West) have already tasted a measure of true freedom that can only come from a sense of mission that chooses to hide behind the works of God as the reason for empire. To abandon it now seems to me to be utterly indefensible.

The narrative of the West is unlike any other. We are a theology…

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Great post. I would, however, add a slight condition to your final statement. We are a theology which pretends otherwise. There were other conversion cultures, most notably Islam during its rise- but we the first culture which pretended to abandon the ‘mission to civilise’ whilst still maintaining it in a secular guise. Even communism and socialism were derivations of this Western urge, despite their dysfunction and the more pronounced inherent tilt towards the totalitarian.

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And that’s not a minor detail it is a critical danger. Remember Ray’s Law of the Conservation of Irrationality. A Believer parks his irrationality in a safe place. He believes that Jesus walked on water, but might otherwise be a perfectly reasonable person. But the fundamentalist Believer parks her irrationality on your face. She does not know how to make a separation between nice religious stories that might serve a very useful purpose but need to be kept in their own mental compartment, and hard reality.

Thus, as we see on other threads, the woke/trans activist does not know how to restrict statements like: ‘men can be women’ to her theological world, she needs to try to inflict this nonsense onto the real world which gets very strained. In a Catholic hospital the medicine is 100% scientific; if you want religion, the chaplain will pay a visit, but the doctors and nurses are quite in touch with reality – men get prostate exams, women get pap smears. But in a woke hospital, everyone is a chaplain and you can be fired for belonging to the wrong religion. ‘Women’ get pap smears even if they are in fact males and so on. Either mothers or fathers can be a birthing person. This is religion that pretends otherwise.

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To me, “narrative” is the work-product of a filter. On the other side of that filter is the full unvarnished reality…which for most things and for most people, is simply too much info.

So it’s just a variant of caveat emptor. You probably need narratives, and would probably want them, for most topics, most of the time. Just be cognizant that what you’re getting is filtered product. And be aware of who has done the filtering. And maybe be selective about where you go for your filters.

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Beautifully ‘narrated’ :slight_smile: And the ‘answer’ is for human beings to stay in the conversation of narratives. We are beginning to get quite sophisticated in this practice of language and it’s anchoring with our identities. We all know that to attack someone’ s world view is more than likely going to ‘harden’ it. Yet leaders who practice deep listening and really ‘get’ the other, have been responsible for the transformation of aggression to peace, misery to hopefulness even joy, becoming powerful in the workplace, or leaving a job to take a risk on a life preferred, and being a contribution to community or the world. However unless we are prepared to enter our narrative into a bigger conversation then stuck maybe declining, we may perpetually find ourselves. The more we are able to coax our identity to sit with the discomfort of the dissonance that will come up, the more we gain being human. In one sense, this is the epitome of sacrifice, the giving up of the lesser for the greater. And when that conversation is impactful on a large level, then we begin to see it translated in political terms. If anyone reading all this is inclined to think “Oh, hippie BS”, then can I suggest re-read the sentence about dissonance. And have a very good life.

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@RayAndrews

That’s a nice addition to the sum total of human knowledge, Ray’s Law of the Conservation of Irrationality. I’ve had that thought myself more than once, but never elevated to such a status.

I have my own First Law of Television, that every television series, allowed to go on for enough seasons, will degenerate into soap opera. The British approach here is superior: just limit yourself to a set number of seasons.

But I’ve formulated no further Laws of Television since the First Law.

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