The Power of Narrative Part 1: Truth is in the Eye of the Beholder
Now, more than ever, narrative is king. Why is that? The age of digital information democratized the access to information. Truth is no longer available to a few gatekeepers. Instead, it is there for all (or most) to see and examine. However, disconnected facts and events cannot be digested by a human being. We need story. That is where narrative comes in. Today, truth is defined no longer by facts but by how they are interwoven into a cohesive story. We seek meaning in the web of events and narrative connects the dots for us. It is so powerful, that in effect, it has become truth. We understand the world through narratives, therefore by looking at them, we get a sense of what reality is.
In the field of narrative, politics has taken center stage. Recently, political conflict has attracted inordinate attention. That in itself is a narrative - it suggests that political power is ultimate. It has spilled over into all levels of society from education, business and especially to religion. Furthermore, the narrow two-party system in the US has divided reality into two narratives. Every event and issue are interpreted, oftentimes in opposite directions, by the “Liberal vs Conservative” lens.
Consider the recent controversy around the confirmation of judge Brett Kavanaugh. One event and the same set of facts produced completely different narratives. Republicans emphasized the plight of a righteous man being falsely accused of a crime. Democrats emphasized the gravity of the crime he was accused of. Both narratives shared the directive that in this issue there was no middle ground. Every American had to take sides. For the most part, the division was not on the nature of the facts but which fact was more important. Facts present choices, narratives produce directives. Facts provide evidences, narratives pronounce verdicts.
The challenge with current political narratives is that they do not promote dialogue. Instead, they lead us into perpetual conflict. It is true that not every issue can be settled through dialogue. However, that is not truth for most issues. In most cases, reality is best defined through negotiating terms from different narratives. This is an arduous process that not everyone is willing to pursue. Yet, it can make all the difference between conflict and resolution.
The first step on this journey for opening dialogue is taking a step back from narratives. By simply recognizing that narrative is not reality, we can, even if temporarily, break ourselves from their hypnotic spell. The task is not to abandon narrative but evaluate its place, assumptions and implications. Once that is done, we must then calibrate our narratives to open room for humility and listening.
Are we up to the task?
Reality Changing Observations
Q1. What narratives dominate your worldview? Can you recognize and describe them?
Q2. How can narratives help rather than hamper dialogue?
Q3. What is of ultimate importance to you? What values are you not willing to compromise?