Wednesday, December 09, 2020

The Power of the Narrative

Headline this week in the Edmonton Journal:

B.C. glaciers 38 per cent thicker than expected, surprising study finds

And then there’s the sub-headline that follows it:

Some glaciers might last a few years or even a decade longer, but that still won’t save them from climate change

The first is a documented fact, the second is nothing more than an opinion. But since “climate change” is the prevailing media narrative, even thousands of measurements taken by a sled-mounted ice-penetrating radar system which have been analyzed and written up by a team from the University of Northern British Columbia must be forced into service of the narrative rather than being allowed to appear to contradict it for even a moment.

That’s the power of the narrative. When science is alleged to support it, you are a “denier” not to accept it. When science appears to contradict it, then science requires judicious reinterpretation.

Narratives and Their Baggage

Narratives need not be an endless series of lies. Their defining feature is not their falsehood but an odd combination of durability and lack of substance. And it’s not just climate change: we are bombarded with narratives today on all fronts, and it’s because they are so effective. Once an audience has given general acceptance to a narrative, it is trivially easy to get them to accept far more dubious conclusions offered by the narrative-builder as part of their “truth” package. And yet the vast majority of assertions made by today’s successful narrative-builders do not necessarily follow from the original premise, even when that narrative is substantially true.

For example, let us allow for sake of argument that U.S. law enforcement really is riddled with systemic racism. It still does not remotely follow that vilifying and defunding the police is a workable solution, as Minnesotans are currently discovering. The cure is worse than the disease. Or again, let us allow that incontrovertible evidence for systemic fraud in November’s election has yet to be produced to the public. It does not follow that President Trump is “lying” when he alleges it to be the case. He may believe it because of the evidence or in spite of the evidence. Or let us even allow that man-made climate change is a genuine phenomenon. It does not follow that the Paris Accord effectively addresses it, or that the dangers posed by a changing climate are not being colossally exaggerated in order to further another agenda.

In each case, the narrative-builders have smuggled in false, unhelpful or even intentionally destructive propositions piggy-backed on a generally-acceptable storyline.

The key to putting across their agenda is to get that storyline accepted first.

How Narrative-Building Works

Narrative-building is not a new thing. Scripture gives us plenty of examples to show us how the technique works, and what a narrative looks like alongside an honest argument.

Honest arguments are built with facts. Narratives are built by repetition. When Pharaoh wanted to establish that the God of Israel was nothing special, he trotted out his wise men and sorcerers to reproduce the miracles which had been performed for him. Then he did it again, and again, and again, even when it stopped working. Likewise, the Pharisees’ “He has a demon” narrative is repeated in the gospels ad nauseum until even the crowd takes it up. Narratives don’t have brakes.

Honest arguments require evidence. Narratives happily ignore it. The more God debunked Pharaoh’s narrative with evidence of his incomparable power, the more Pharaoh doubled down on it. But narratives persist quite happily in the face of blatant falsification: when Pharaoh’s wise men began to tell him “This is the finger of God”, he summarily dismissed the expert opinions he had been relying on up to that point.

Honest arguments are consistent. Narratives are elastic. A narrative doesn’t need to be internally consistent or to jibe with previous narratives. The Lord Jesus pointed out that John the Baptist “came neither eating nor drinking”, which is to say he did not fellowship with those to whom he preached repentance. The all-too familiar narrative? “He has a demon.” When the Lord Jesus came eating and drinking with those in need of his message, the narrative became “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” The religious leaders pushing the narrative were unconcerned about their own inconsistency; they simply wanted to find some way to discredit those whose teaching was more popular than their own.

Honest arguments are logical. Narratives defy logic. The Pharisees’ demon narrative was so lame that it didn’t require a rejoinder from scripture; logic was sufficient to the task. The Lord Jesus replied, “How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?” and “If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” Ruthlessly logical, and they had no comeback for him. But the fact that the Pharisees could not answer Jesus to his face didn’t stop their false narrative spreading.

Christians and Narratives

The Lord Jesus himself talked about deceptions that are so effective they would “lead astray, if possible, even the elect”. So much disinformation is currently being churned about in the public square that immature, well-meaning Christians may be forgiven for being occasionally taken in by one or two of the more emotionally-charged storylines promoted in the media. Some Christians, God help us, are even uncritically re-circulating them.

Social media encourages us to offer opinions before we have any real basis for intelligent assessment. The reality is that in many cases, months or years go by before all the facts of a situation are out there to be had. In some situations, the truth never surfaces. Christians cannot be expected to fully research the facts behind every media attempt to create a generally-accepted narrative, nor is it useful to spend much time speculating about the specific motives behind such fact-spinning.

What we can do, if we are prudent, is recognize when we are being spun. The word of God has equipped us to do that much.

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