The Dangers of the All-Encompassing Narrative
Factional narratives are alluring, but they make it hard for us to see the world as it is
Last month’s meltdown of the electrical grid in Texas left dozens dead and did tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure damage. As the crisis was still unfolding, politicians and their accomplices in the media jumped into the breach, primarily not to try to understand what happened or suggest solutions to the problem, but to do what our current politics demands of them: develop and advance a culture war narrative that confirms the priors and righteousness of their faction.
In the not-too-distant past, narratives were set more or less consensually by the New York-based media establishment (assisted by its Washington-based enablers). But as Martin Gurri and Bruno Maçães have shown, the narrative-setting days of elite media are now over, and we live in a world of fractured narratives proffered by Extremely Online factions that interpret reality—or jettison it entirely, in favor of constructing their own “unreality” (Maçães’ phrase)—primarily through the lens of their own self-justifying and unfalsifiable narratives.
Take the situation in Texas. At the height of the crisis, the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, appeared on Sean Hannity’s television show to decry the wind power that failed and contributed to the grid meltdown, advancing the narrative that the Green New Deal (itself more of a narrative than a coherent plan) was at fault for the mess.
On the other side of the narrative ledger, environmental hawks wrote the pieces they always write (as if by algorithm) any time a freak weather event causes conspicuous widespread human misery, blaming everything on our unwillingness to adequately address climate change. Some, like author Stephen King (who, having sold more than 300 million copies of his novels, knows a thing or two about compelling narratives) even seemed to delight in the death and destruction because it confirmed their political priors.
Some sought to blame Texas’ ostensibly free market energy policies for the meltdown (though as Kevin Williamson has argued, the Texas system looks more corporatist than anything resembling a true free market). Others argued that policy choices to take coal and other existing generation capacity offline, replacing it with wind and renewables, brought the crisis to a head.
There’s probably some truth to many of these arguments (save the ghoulish ones), but it will take many weeks or months to sort out what happened, why it did and how to prevent it from happening again. Yet the desire to fit every social fact into a narrative that proves our political priors is a particularly pernicious manifestation of our culture total-war.
Obviously, humans are not coldly calculating, hyperrational, utility-maximizing machines. We all suffer from cognitive biases, engage in motivated reasoning and wish away unpleasant truths. But the commitment to factional narratives as all-encompassing through-lines in our lives is new, and we should be deeply skeptical of them. These narratives are not confined just to politics but touch almost all aspects of our lives; they’re present in all our institutions. There’s no set of events or facts that cannot be placed in service of, or summarily ignored, because of a narrative.
Typically, we think of a “narrative” as an account of events or a story: Think of “narrative fiction.” Not so factional narratives. They are all-encompassing and all-explaining. They are completely correct at any given moment, yet subject to internal revision by subscribers while impervious to external challenge. These narratives provide a lens through which everything can be viewed, assessed, judged and embraced or discarded.
These narratives aren’t just heuristics that allow us to make first-order guesses about how to prioritize and handle the barrage of news and information we all face. Heuristics provide us with useful rules of thumb; narratives tell us what facts, data, opinions and theories we can reject out of hand. Because they’re complete belief systems where internal consistency matters more than empirical verification, and deviation is harshly punished, our modern political narratives feed what Maçães calls a “society of stories.”
At least until recently, President Trump provided the source material for many narratives. Currently, a significant uptick in crime against Asian-Americans in the Bay Area is being cynically recast through the lens of factional narrative as further proof of Trumpian perfidy—“without evidence,” as the recently developed journalistic tic would have it. Likewise, the mayor and governor of New York shamelessly exploited anti-Semitic attacks in 2019 to advance the same narrative.
Others spent the last four years deeply invested in the narrative that President Trump was a great tribune of the people, thinking three steps ahead of “the establishment.” Like all the best factional narratives, this was unfalsifiable, and indeed made stronger in the face of mounting contradictory evidence. Like many narratives, there was a grain of truth at the core around which was built a great edifice of mythology. The “unreality” version of this is the QAnon narrative, a deeply complex account of truly debased evil and a small cadre out to deliver the world from their predations.
Subscribers to both anti- and pro-Trump narratives were deeply committed (and many remain so). For the anti-Trump faction, he could do no right; for the pro-Trump faction, he could do no wrong. Each side was wholly immune to any evidence to the contrary. Pundits and scholars who attempted to call balls and strikes were met with wicked opprobrium. Deviating from factional narrative was a rare act of intellectual courage.
The Allure and Danger of All-Consuming Narratives
Having lost its monopoly on setting the narrative for the journalism industry, and thereby the greater country, The New York Times is, as they put it, “in the midst of an evolution from the stodgy paper of record into a juicy collection of great narratives,” a phrase I still cannot believe they actually printed. These “great narratives” are largely bound up in the factional narrative that race is the singular fault line in America and the monocausal explanation for all social pathologies, and thus must be “centered” in virtually every story. You’ll find little deviation from this narrative in the once “stodgy paper.”
The leading academic voice of antiracism, Ibram X. Kendi, has a “Narrative Office” at his Center for Antiracist Research dedicated to “facilitating the overarching mission of the Center to transform society through shifting the narrative that racial injustice is rooted in bad policy and not bad people.”
Perhaps this is all trivial. Perhaps it’s nothing new. After all, illiberal states have long had the same kinds of narratives that, like today’s factional narratives, are subject to periodic reinterpretation as political winds shift. And even in the United States in the age of the national narrative, dissidents frequently paid a steep price socially or economically for not conforming.
Yes, totalitarian states that prescribe a narrative orthodoxy against which no deviation is quartered are nothing new. What is new is that today, in otherwise liberal societies, people are voluntarily enclosing themselves in intellectual prisons where their warders are a mob they’ve allowed to have power over their lives. Obviously, factionalism in a free society isn’t the same as totalitarianism. But both thrive by providing absolute certainty in a complex world and declaring dissidents to be treasonous.
That’s the first part of the case against placing narratives in a place of primacy: It’s intellectually stultifying. Having heuristics or intellectual toolkits is indispensable to making sense of the world around us and evaluating new information, facts and opinions. Narratives, rather than helping us understand, assure us we already understand all we need to know. Rather than helping sort new data, narratives render us impervious to it.
Commitment to the narrative causes us to say and do things that those not fully committed to the narrative view as, well, asinine. While Texans were in the dark, former state governor (and energy secretary) Rick Perry announced: “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business.” (One recalls Steve Martin singing that King Tutankhamun “gave his life for tourism.”)
Kevin Williamson called Perry’s statement “doubling down on the yeehaw”; David French points out it’s the narrative opposite of San Francisco school officials spending their time stripping names like Lincoln and Feinstein off of schools that are currently closed and were mediocre or worse when open. Both the yeehaw and the historical revisionism are eminently sensible and obviously correct to subscribers to the respective narratives. The rest of us just roll our eyes.
All-consuming narratives place the originator or speaker of an idea in a place of privilege over the idea itself, flipping the logic of liberalism on its head. That’s because narratives advance the culture war, and the culture war advances narratives, a vicious cycle of stupidity. No matter the merit of a claim, if it’s made by a member of the outgroup, it must immediately be repudiated. After all, to entertain one claim is to at minimum implicitly raise the status of the outgroup; at most, it’s to admit that the outgroup may in fact be right.
As the satire site Clickhole put it in a now-famous headline, “Heartbreaking: The Worst Person You Know Just Made A Great Point.” All-consuming narratives are bad for us individually and at a societal level. They foster mistrust, keep us from developing a true picture of the world, and keep our minds in a prison of our own making. So why do we perpetuate them?
The most simple answer is that they’re fun. Narratives allow us to be part of a team of people who think what we do and say what we do. The social media trope of a member of your team “destroying” or “annihilating” someone from another team is close to two decades old. Narratives provide the quick dopamine sugar highs we’ve become addicted to.
Narratives also give us the talking points we need to have an opinion about anything and everything. What exactly went wrong with the Texas power grid was not known last week—except to those committed to the narrative, who were immune to new information or arguments. From education to foreign policy, factional narratives allow us to have deeply held beliefs about things which we are in fact completely ignorant of.
Those narrative talking points in turn provide us with security. As long as you’re articulating an established narrative, there’s no real intellectual risk; fellow narrative subscribers will come to your defense no matter what. Remember “covfefe?” White House press secretary Sean Spicer was able to shoehorn it into one of the major narratives of the Trump administration: the president's ability to speak a code directly to his supporters that was unintelligible to elites. Thus was a typo given the cover of Straussian esotericism.
Narratives also allow us to be part of something, at a time when our social, cultural and religious institutions are at a nadir. Going all-in on all-consuming narratives provides a simulacrum of fun, security and purpose without doing any hard work. It’s a potent cocktail for our era.
A Way Forward—Sort Of
So, is it possible to extirpate ourselves from the tyranny of the narrative? Is it even desirable?
The second part is clear: yes. The commitment to narrative above all feeds the culture war and makes it harder for us to solve actual problems—or even to admit they exist. Contra narrative devotees using the Lone Star State’s crisis to dunk on one another, all-encompassing culture wars are a really bad way to solve technical problems related to energy production and distribution or make tradeoffs between price and reliability. We’re unlikely to start watering the crops with Brawndo for the reasons Mike Judge outlined in Idiocracy. But if one side or the other starts to insist in the narrative-driven culture war that plants crave electrolytes, then all bets are off.
Marc Andreessen’s much-quoted essay “It’s Time to Build,” written this past spring during the first major wave of the coronavirus pandemic, starts with a plea to set narrative aside: “Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed... and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.”
In other words, we chose to have a narrative-driven culture war rather than to build things of value, utility and beauty.
So how do we get out from under the crushing weight of the narrative? There is no silver bullet, or One Weird Trick, in the argot of web banner ads. Individually, it requires cultivating liberal habits of thought. Liberalism, properly understood, counsels mutual forbearance and intellectual humility, which are inimical to narrative.
Instead of narratives, we can focus on values, which inform the way we think about judgements and tradeoffs. They’re not the same as factional narratives by any means. The belief in the importance of ecological sustainability and environmental stewardship is a value; “fracking is bad” is a narrative. As a general rule, there are no new values, only new ways for those values to be instantiated.
Some narratives are informed by values, of course, and not all narratives are on the same moral or factual plane. Some come from places of optimism, others from pessimism; some are rooted in fact, others in Maçãesian unreality. What binds them together is their all-consuming nature, resistance to challenge and the source of identity they provide to believers.
We can push ourselves to engage with ideas more broadly and take seriously the best arguments that run counter to our own narratives rather than straw-manning and nutpicking. Ross Douthat implored us in 2012 to read outside our narrow ideological circles. After eight years of not taking that advice, perhaps we could give it a shot now?
While narratives are all-consuming, we can still find corners of our lives where they have yet to penetrate, or at least haven’t done so beyond a superficial level, and keep them at bay. Societally, breaking from the tyranny of factional narrative is a collective action problem with no easy solution. It will require news organizations to stop giving disproportionate attention to politicians with extreme views—especially entertaining backbenchers with no real power. It will require voters to differentiate legislating from shitposting. It will require political parties to once again act like political parties.
Of course, it may be that none of this is possible. The business model of the news media has changed too much this century—away from advertising to what media critic Andrey Mir calls the “donscription model”—to resist airing ever more extreme (and if we’re being honest, entertaining) views. Voters may have decided they prefer entertainment to governing. As H. L. Mencken famously said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” And parties may simply be a lost cause, especially as so many of their “leaders” seem to prefer losing elections to winning them (fundraising is easier in opposition, you see).
In that case, the only alternative is to encourage the emergence of new institutions that do what the governing institutions of the 20th century are unable or unwilling to do in the 21st. Nobody knows what these will look like, of course, or even how to go about developing them, and the process of discovering and scaling them will be painful.
Here’s one step we can take immediately to move away from the tyranny of narrative. If you’re in a position of authority, demonstrate that strongly held convictions need not be synonymous with factional narrative. If you’re a professor, help your students steel-man the ideas they disagree with, or invite an ideological opposite in for a civil discussion about an important topic. If you’re a clergy member, hold an event with a congregation that’s truly out of sync with yours.
Try to see the others as wrong, not evil, no matter how deep your disagreements. Seek to understand why others believe what they believe. Perhaps you could even learn to pass an Ideological Turing Test!
One thing is certain: we can’t, won’t and shouldn’t return to the 20th century mass consensus narratives, no matter how much The New York Times and other organs that have seen a sharp attenuation of their power may wish for it. What Gurri calls an “information tsunami,” the fall of the institutional gatekeepers, and the behavior and attitudes of elites laid bare by social media, renders that impossible.
But that a consensus narrative is no longer possible does not mean a thousand epistemically enclosed factional narratives with little overlap or even common facts and great resistance to one another is a stable equilibrium. That might be the case if these were just narratives about politics—but not when they’re all-consuming lifestyle narratives.
One final note: I write this from no position of virtue. I’m as guilty as most, perhaps more guilty, of allowing narratives to cloud my own judgement. It’s tough to set aside narratives when others are deeply committed to them. The dopamine hits are addictive. I’m in narrative recovery, but I relapse more frequently than I’d like.
There was no one moment, technology, politician, idea or decision that gave rise to narrative primacy—nor is obeisance to the narrative above all else a new phenomenon in human history. It is, however, relatively new for citizens of prosperous, liberal societies to develop a general Weltanschauung into an all-encompassing, all-explaining narrative.
It will be tough to break out of. But breaking free from the primacy of narrative is vital to breaking out of intellectual, economic and spiritual stagnation.