Is Story More Important Than Truth?

AsĀ  a writer, I am supremely conscious of the importance of the story or the narrative. It is interesting, then, that a number of journalists have taken it upon themselves to coach our President in the art of the narrative. Here is Reason’s Matt Welch:

Every successful [political] campaign,” Jon Taplin noted last month over at TPMCafe, “has a narrative.” And “if there’s one note that runs through many of the theories as to why Obama has disappointed in Year One,” The New York Times‘ Frank Rich added two weeks ago, “it cuts to the heart of what had been his major strength: his ability to communicate a compelling narrative.”

What does “narrative” mean in this context? “An overarching goal that explains, unifies, and gives motive to his multiple initiatives,” said Dan Payne in the Boston Globe. Or if you prefer neuro-management-speak, try Forbes columnist Nick Morgan: “Because our brains retain stories better than any other form of information, we develop shortcuts to handle all the information we need to in the modern world. The most important shortcut is the narrative. The narrative is the quick story that has developed over a long period of time for any organization, company or important public figure. It’s the way we store and organize the information.”

So to help citizens most beneficially organize information about his policies, the president, according to this narrative, needs a single, one-sentence explanation for his blizzard of initiatives and laws, each of which can run as long as 2,400 pages. The “problem,” political journalist Jonathan Alter told The New York Times, in a piece that ran under the headline “Democrats Need a Rally Monkey,” is “not finding a coherent message.”

Do go over and read it all.

It seems that all the different statements may be reduced to this: “If we somehow had the right story; the right way of framing this health care stuff (and everything else the President wishes to pass) then people would support him.” One term that Mr. Welch does not use in the article is “postmodern.” In particular, that definition of postmodernism which allows truth itself to be relative.

Here is the thing, if truth be relative, then the narrative is sufficient. It will be “true” (no matter the supporting details or lack thereof) because it is compelling. If, on the other hand, truth really isn’t subject to our whims, then a compelling narrative which is not supported by the truth is a beautiful lie.

I am reminded of the very first lie. Satan had the narrative down pat. “Do this and you’ll be like God.” Like Eve, it does seem as though many of us are willing to be taken in by the story–without examining the underlying evidence. Remember, the story is important, but it should be supported by the facts–not supplant them.

2 thoughts on “Is Story More Important Than Truth?

  1. Timely insight from the world of modern politics although it should be added that many times the desire for a narrative* is what results in the crafting of one and because many people choose to obtain their information by narrative rather than analysis a great deal of strategy goes into the “spin” applied to a set of facts. Some issues, however, involve the sort of irreducible complexity that makes any attempt at narrative ring hollow.

    This also makes me think of how the deliberate construction of a narrative (e.g. “Weapons of Mass Destruction/War on Terror”) can “sell” a policy that may be reasoned to be valid on points that are actually much more complex (e.g. Balance of Power / GeoEconomic strategy).

    I guess that’s the state of discourse these days.

    Thanks for the blog, I’m going to stay tuned.

    *sometimes narrative is reduced even more to simple sloganeering

    1. David,

      Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts. You are correct in saying that somethings are far more complex than can be covered simply by a narrative consisting of a few words–a slogan if you will.

      A narrative may indeed be a shortcut–but it should never bypass the truth. If it does, then there is little difference between such a narrator and a con man.

      If the desire for narrative (in its simplest form) is the lowest common denominator, then there are two ways to go about addressing it. The first is to give people what they think they want (and don’t get bogged down in the details). The second is to raise the common denominator.

      The second approach is more difficult, but essential for the continuation of a free and thoughtful society.

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