The unfortunate case of Rachel Dolezal is another reminder that narratives cannot survive without facts. It doesn’t matter how fervently you believe the narrative, nor how effectively you proselytize the narrative to others, if your narrative doesn’t have facts at the base of it, your narrative will crumble. Sooner, or later.
Because what happens is that disinterested third parties — not for your narrative, and not against your narrative — ask the question, “What’s it all about?”
They will begin to curiously parse through your story and your rhetoric, seeking the bedrock of your statements. And if there’s no “there” there, the third party is going to conclude that you’re mistaken, deluded, dishonest, or some combination thereof.
In Dolezal’s case, she wanted to redefine herself. So she came up with a narrative she wanted the world to believe — about herself, and who she is. Also, what she’s been through and what she’s experienced. At some point, the facts stopped mattering to Dolezal more than her own narrative mattered to her. And now she’s in a lot of hot water for passing herself off as someone she’s not, and she’s getting raked over the coals for it.
Because Dolezal’s narrative — about who and what she was — didn’t have any facts to support it.
Unfortunately, the internet and social media lend themselves more to narrative-building and spreading, than they do to fact-finding and evidence collecting. This is reinforced by the modern notion — which has been especially popular in social academics — that truth is merely a matter of perspective. Which is in direct contradiction with the Enlightenment principle that the world is accessible to humans through the testing and verification of ideas. Testing which can be replicated by anyone, anywhere, and yield the same results. That thing we call science.
Twenty years ago, physics professor Alan Sokal set out to prove that some of his compatriots in the social sciences were a little too enamored with narrative. So he typed up a brilliantly nonsensical paper he called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” In Sokal’s own words, “Could [I] publish [in a leading social sciences journal] an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?”
The answer was, yes. Which kicked off what has sometimes been called The Sokal Affair, or the Sokal Hoax.
Click here for Dr. Sokal’s own, rather exhaustively documented history of the whole thing. Pay special attention to Sokal’s explanation on why he felt it necessary to spoof his colleagues. His chief concern? That evidence and facts were taking a back seat to trendy theory, and an increasingly disturbing reliance on narrative, over empirical truth.
Two decades later, and we’re wrestling with the rhetorical python like never before. Because social media has allowed narratives of all kinds to spread like wildfire, gain support, even influence business and public policy, impact local and national elections, and shape how we look at the world as a whole.
Now, this has usually been true to a certain extent. Narrative has always been with us. But never in history have narratives been able to sprout and grow with such rapidity. Because now all it takes for a narrative to be planted, is for somebody on Twitter — especially a celebrity, or other public figure — to say something outlandish or controversial or provocative, and within twenty four hours that statement will have garnered tens of thousands of re-Tweets, “likes” on Facebook, blog articles discussing the statement, “followers” backing up the statement, and so on and so forth.
But eventually, when enough time has elapsed, and people have calmed down, the inevitable question will be asked: what’s it all about? And the digging will begin. And for those outside of the narrative — not pro, not con — a picture will emerge. And if there are few to no facts at the bottom of the narrative, that picture isn’t going to be a kind one. Adherents of the narrative will come off looking foolish, or worse. Especially if critical inquiry causes adherents to adopt a fortress mentality — circling the wagons — in order to defend what is, to them, a truth.
Which takes me back to juxtaposing the Enlightenment premise — that the universe is knowable and objective, through testing and experimentation — against the Post-Modern premise that facts and truth are relative, malleable, or can change from person to person, and culture to culture.
I am old enough to remember when the United States was locked in a grim ideological conflict with the Soviet Union. Beyond politics and economics, the Cold War was very much a battle of narratives. And for several decades in the 20th century it looked like the communist narrative might win out. Perhaps two thirds of the globe was either directly or indirectly controlled by one or more Soviet socialist regimes. And there were many who gleefully predicted that the Soviet way was the inevitable destiny of history. In Nikita Khrushchev’s own words, “We will bury you.”
Now, it’s entirely possible that Khrushchev believed what he said. Millions of people did. Even many people inside the United States — people who thought Soviet socialism was a great idea, and would inevitably come to America. Once capitalism broke down, and the workers rose up and overthrew the capitalist system.
What really happened?
Well, the Soviet narrative did not have enough facts to support it. Despite decades of entrenchment, and an iron-clad political enforcement of doctrine, Soviet socialism was not economically viable. Nor were the populations in those nations willing to endlessly endure the privation and control over speech and thought that was necessary to enforce what was, in the end, a flawed political and economic model. The Soviet Union collapsed. And much of the rest of the Soviet world went with it. Even China has, over time, seen itself “perverted” by capitalism, which is an economic system rooted in the world the way it really is, not the world the way we wish it might be.
Those few Marxist nations — Cuba, North Korea — still hanging on in quiet desperation, clearly do so on borrowed time. The “inevitability” of the Marxist system . . . turned out to be a fantasy concocted by those who so fervently believed in the fantasy, that even to this day, those in love with the fantasy will insist that it’s not a fantasy. For them, the narrative is simply too alluring, and too powerful. They are caught up in the narrative to such an extent that the facts — everything that’s happened since the Berlin Wall fell — don’t matter.
But that doesn’t mean strong emotion can overcome reality.
Right now, social media (and the social sciences, which play an ever-larger role in social media) tend to run on a lot of strong emotion. “If we feel it, it must be true!” That seems to be the motto. Your (collective) passion about a thing, is more important than the objective facts. Or so you (collectively) are told.
I disagree. I think all narratives which rely more on emotion, than on facts, unravel eventually. No matter how much they flatter our preconceptions. No matter how much they tell us what we want to hear. No matter if they frame the world for us in a way that we find most comfortable, or at least, most correct. All the correct framing in the universe can’t defeat evidence, if your framing is simply stories constructed on stories, which have been constructed on still other stories. Sooner or later, your stories have to be supportable. There has to be independently verifiable proof. The kind of thing someone not for you, and not against you, can pick up and look at and say, “Yes, okay, I think this verifies what you’re talking about.”
Earlier this year, a certain entertainment tabloid ran a rather outlandish story that was heavily laden with narrative, and which fell promptly apart once the narrative was exposed to scrutiny. The head of a major publisher recently noted that this narrative was in direct contradiction to the facts, which he outlined — as the tabloid was also forced to outline — so that he could avoid having his company linked to the perpetuation of that very same false narrative. What did he get for his trouble? The head of the publisher was attacked by people who are so thoroughly married to the narrative, almost nothing will dissuade them from it. Not facts. Not evidence. Not a trusted authority. Not even when the narrative actively crumbles beneath their feet.
It’s the narrative, or nothing!
Perhaps these individuals need a reminder that the graveyard of history is populated by the headstones of empires, nations, businesses, and movements, which all preferred narratives, to facts? Evidence matters, people. The courts (thankfully) require it. Journalism should too, though journalism has too often been guilty of spreading narrative over facts, of late. Which has resulted in some rather shameful moments.
This is a tricksy period for Western civilization. There’s a lot of well-intended talk about how we need to re-examine our flawed past, so that we can build a better future. I fear that future will be ill-served by narratives — or by children raised to believe that narratives are more important than truth. “I deny your reality, and substitute my own!” may be a funny oft-quoted phrase, but for a lot of people — especially those locked into narratives — it’s become gospel. And an unhealthy, even dangerous gospel at that. Our world literally depends on us being able to agree that 1 + 1 = 2. We rely on the common notion that many aspects of our world really are objective, and that this objectivity isn’t changed simply because of ethnic, gender, cultural, or sexual reference points.
Narratives which flout objectivity — and the narrative-minded who espouse them — are not just foolish, they’re destructive. It cost enormous blood and treasure for the Soviet “experiment” to rise, rule, and collapse. Ironically, most of that blood and treasure came from within the Soviet nations themselves. The unmarked graves of the many gulags, sing with the ghosts of men, women, and children, who were all deemed to be in contradiction of the narrative. And so they were sent away. Usually, to die.
We in the West think it can’t happen here. But it can.
All we have to do is tell ourselves that the narrative matters more than reality, more than the individual integrity of our fellow human beings, and more than our consciences.
In the end, the baseless narratives always fold. How much damage they do (prior to, and during the folding) depends on whether we nip them in the bud now, or allow them to flower and bear fruit later.