Narrative's Boundaries

Disturbed and oversimplified narratives can lead to societal self-confidence issues.

"Plenty of color and a strong feel." This is something I hear a lot from editors as a journalist, and it's not always awful advice. It basically suggests that vibrant narratives are a stronger instrument for persuasion and communication than boring analyses that sift through inconclusive data and real-world complexity. This is undoubtedly true, but the effect is that a degree of molding occurs before writing begins, which the journalist then amplifies when building a story. Even when done with the best of intentions, shaping is inherently manipulative. That manipulation could be beneficial in the hands of an intellectually honest writer. However, in a highly politicized society, it can also become a tool of ideological distortion.

Narratives, particularly those promoted by politicians and partisan media outlets, are a potent tool for shaping public perceptions of our society and world. "A form of'narrative-checking' has been augmented with fact-checking, which has traditionally been a vital element of journalism," says Hal Conte in Compact magazine. "In certain occasions, facts have been purposefully withheld or completely deleted in order to protect bigger truths (or noble lies)."

The fundamental reason for this, according to Conte, is "a self-concept among many reporters that they must safeguard the core truths of 'democracy'—understood to encompass not merely electoral standards, but also a broad spectrum of liberal ideological beliefs." As a result, "facts and tales that contradict this set of obligations amount to anti-democratic'misinformation,'" which can be legally silenced. Furthermore, each myopic story necessitates a counter-narrative that is equally myopic and unbalanced, while the nuances of a messier reality are ignored in the center.

In the 1958 foreword to Brave New World Revisited, Aldous Huxley stated, "The soul of wit may become the very body of lie." "However elegant and unforgettable, in the nature of things, brevity can never do justice to all the details of a complex situation." "Omission and simplification help us grasp," Huxley noted. "They help us to grasp the wrong thing in many circumstances," he noted, "since our comprehension may be limited to the abbreviator's neatly defined conceptions, rather than the enormous ramifying reality from which these notions have been arbitrarily separated."

Huxley understood the dilemma that everyone encounters when dealing with complexity—"life is short," he said, "and information is boundless," therefore people must simplify or they will never have enough time to engage with anything. "Abbreviation is an unavoidable evil, and the abbreviator's role is to make the best of a situation that, while inherently awful, is nonetheless better than nothing." However, we must be cautious not to simplify to the point of fabrication, lest we wind up with "the perilous quarter-truths and half-truths that have always been the present coin of thoughts."

While this may look abstract, it has a tangible impact on the individual since we all create ourselves a story about ourselves. This is fundamental to our sense of self, and it's what we project outward to help others comprehend who we are as people. In their co-authored book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques, clinical psychologists Richard Bennett and Joseph Oliver write, "These stories may be about our past and what we have experienced, as we knit together bits from our memories to build a narrative." "Yes, the story is based on facts (mainly), but which facts?" We can't remember most of them, they conclude.

What were you doing, say, in the month leading up to your tenth birthday? Bennett and Oliver point out that most of us are unaware of "the days, weeks, and months lost to the mists of time," which has ramifications for the world we make. "It shows how much we've forgotten about our experience while also casting doubt on the so-called firm basis of factual memories around which our prior story is built." It might be easier to pull back from the certainty that drives divisiveness in today's political debate if we could understand how inaccurate any narrative—even our own—is.

We should also keep in mind the significance of the language we use. "Words are both vital and fatal," Huxley wrote in The Devils of Loudun, a genuine story of religious fanaticism and sexual obsession in 17th-century France, which he published in 1952. Language has been "the cause of man's diversion from animal innocence and animal obedience to the essence of things into madness and diabolism," as well as "the tool of man's advancement out of animality."

It's easy to forget the tremendous and diverse powers of language when you're talking and tweeting all day. Despite the human body's frailty and 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, as Bennet and Oliver point out. Bennett and Oliver write, "We have molded the environment to our will, established huge civilizations, explored distant worlds, and discovered the secrets of the universe." "Language has given us incredible power, flexibility, and inventiveness."

"There is a sense in which language has worked against us and confined our species in ways that other animals are not constrained," says the author. Our ability to linger and dwell on problems exponentially causes us to envisage our own destruction and ponder suicide. Language, on the less severe end of the spectrum, inhibits us from living in the now and causes us to be preoccupied with the past and future in ways that other animals are not. Nonhuman animals use the fight-or-flight mechanism to resolve conflicts—basic, it's but they don't suffer from existential worry or the physical diseases that stress causes.

Our use of words can backfire on us on a personal and internal level, but it is more clearly abused in public. In The Devils of Loudun, Huxley remarked, "Moralists harp on the duty of regulating the passions; and of course they are right to do so." "Unfortunately, most of them have failed to emphasize the equally important task of managing words and thinking based on them... Crimes of idealism—crimes initiated, encouraged, and moralized by sacred words—are considerably more destructive than crimes of passion."

When taken seriously as working hypotheses, Huxley stated, narratives about the world give "instruments by which we are allowed gradually to grasp the world." Propositions about the world, on the other hand, distort our perspective of reality and lead us into all kinds of wrong conduct when "taken as absolute truths, as dogmas to be swallowed, as idols to be worshipped."

In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell criticized the written and spoken English of his time and examined the link between political orthodoxies and language debasement: "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought," he wrote in the essay's most famous passage. "Political language—and this is true of all political groups, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is meant to make falsehoods sound real and murder sound respectable, and to give pure wind the illusion of solidity."

During my 2009 deployment in Afghanistan, I saw this trend, which coincided with a shift in military terminology. When I was a tank commander in Iraq in 2004, the firing orders I issued the gunner for deploying the tank's coaxially attached machine gun acknowledged the enemy target's legitimacy as a person: "Coax guy, 100 meters front." As real people were mutilated by 30mm canon fire from an A-10 jet five years later in Afghanistan, the verbal distortion that comes with conflict meant we'd refer to "hot spots," "several pax on the ground," and "prosecuting a target" or "maximizing the death chain."

As Bennett and Oliver point out, "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," this dynamic overlaps with narrative at both the micro and macro levels. Individually, this can lead to a person reacting to and fixating on the words and narratives they use to understand oneself as if they are truths, such as "I am a broken person," "I have failed and can't improve," and "I don't deserve to live." Bennett and Oliver caution that statements like this might cause confusion about labels and identity, leading to despondency and sadness. "The more the client identifies with this label, the more the person and label become identical, and the less likely the person is to regard themselves as capable of acting beyond the label's parameters."

Sinéad Stubbins recounts how an unexpected encounter revealed that "we tend to create ourselves tales about our own personalities," and that these "preconceived facts" can prevent "new or contradicting stories" from forming that could be useful, in a recent opinion piece for the Guardian. "It's strange that we think certain parts about ourselves are set in stone, even if there's no solid evidence to show that these personality qualities are permanent," she concluded after the encounter.

The acceptance of a personal story can have a "repertoire-narrowing impact on behavior," according to Bennett and Oliver, which can lead to ingrained feelings of guilt, humiliation, and fury. Following my military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, I sought counseling to deconstruct many of the mental habits mentioned above. After all, what could I remember clearly from the events in Iraq and Afghanistan? As it turned out, hardly much, and my own recollections left out a slew of other elements that contributed to the tragedies in those countries in addition to my and the military's roles.

Self-excoriation has also been ingrained in how Western democracies view themselves. In a 2020 Tablet essay titled "The Flagellants of the Western World," French philosopher Pascal Bruckner stated, "The West invented the troubled conscience, producing a daily practice of repentance with an almost mechanical flexibility." "We dress in the garments of a permanent criminal to keep our distance from the world and its torments. Since the United States withdrew from foreign politics, the West has become weaker than it has ever been—rudderless, leaderless."

Declinism and a culture of introspective self-doubt that hampers effective action can result from societal self-confidence crises caused by the distortions of oversimplified narratives. These myths are just as false as those used to promote national chauvinism, and they can be just as detrimental in their own way. After all, a healthy society is made up of functioning individuals, and if language is used to undermine a nation's sense of self-esteem, citizens' ability to collaborate and organize productively would be harmed.

Bennett and Oliver suggest that the stories we tell ourselves "about the future as we endeavor to plan, or forecast what has not yet happened" can be "enormously useful." It can be "extraordinarily difficult to recognize when we have lapsed into the realm of unhelpful concern," according to the author: "Our ability to connect with the present moment and respond to the actual situations in front of us weakens as we 'time travel' out of it. This might lead to rigid responses based on how we see our history or future."

When confronted with the world's current issues, both governments and voters should remember such lessons. How we respond to these difficulties will be determined by our awareness of the benefits and limitations of the narratives we develop to comprehend them. Narratives can aid in the comprehension of complexity, but they can also distort our perspective and construct mutually incompatible, partisan versions of our common reality. Our ability to cooperate is terminally harmed without an adequate grasp of ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

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