Unreliable Narratives

What do COVID, the Ukraine war, monkeypox, climate change, trucker protests and systemic racism have in common? They are all topics of ongoing news coverage in many forums, and they have all had the veracity of that coverage challenged by critical commentators and ordinary people. These days, regular media consumers – which is to say, pretty much all of us – are familiar with the word narrative to characterize a widely disseminated or widely accepted account of any issue of public interest. A politician’s week-to-week performance, an unfolding international crisis, even the daily revelations of a celebrity scandal, will often be seen as narratives: real-life equivalents of the structures found in fiction, featuring established settings, personalities, and conflicts that drive the plot and keep us coming back for the next instalment.

But narrative is also used as a term of skepticism by contrarians who indict any repeated assertion as a form of mass brainwashing. Too many stories about the same event, or too many interviews with the same experts, or too many replays of the same images, or too much support for the same cause, will be cast as mere narratives, meant to persuade the audience through numbing familiarity rather than objective accuracy. Narrative reporting isn’t one journalist’s exclusive scoop; it’s a steady succession of complementary pieces from many outlets, all dispensing the same message. Whenever you see one of those panel shows where a group of partisan pundits debate current affairs, at least one of them will throw doubt on another’s “narrative,” implying that their opponent’s version of reality has been artificially shaped and selected for ulterior ends. Elsewhere someone will try to “flip the narrative” by describing a known concern from a new perspective or with new data. Thus it’s common for different sides to contest the narratives of vaccination mandates, or pipeline protests, or Native residential schools, or any number of other subjects that have been heavily publicized through traditional or social media. An unreliable narrator is an effective device in a novel (The Catcher in the Rye is one of many examples), but unreliable narratives may be why our politics are so frustrating.

In the past, narratives were mostly invisible. Historians or anthropologists might study the ideology a particular culture – the unexamined assumptions and origin myths maintained by the serfs of medieval Europe or the castes of India, say – which only later observers could recognize with any detachment. But in our era, one person’s truth is already another person’s narrative, and we constantly accuse our enemies of mistaking one for the other. Charges of conspiracy, propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and denial are hurled from across a spectrum. This is a long way from those distant civilizations where everyone worshipped one god, obeyed one monarch, or read one newspaper and watched three TV channels. Debunking narratives, all the time and for all sorts of reasons, may actually be the invisible ideology of our age.

The paradox, then, is that whereas identifying and interrogating conventional wisdom once signified enlightenment – freedom of thought, the continued testing of evidence, and the willingness to admit there could never be a final word on anything – the same process has become a kind of decadence – “lived experience,” the constant suspicion of bias, and the rejection of dissenting views as political heresy. Nobody’s off the hook here; question the orthodoxies of climate change, for instance, and you’ll be dismissed for “peddling a false narrative,” but endorse the orthodoxies and someone else will dismiss you just as surely, in similar terms. And it’s not to say that some narratives aren’t more supported by facts than others, but they all rely on at least an appearance of proof to make them viable. The key is volume. Whatever narrative you buy into, it’s never just a private opinion but an abundant archive of videos, blogs, memes, podcasts, news articles, books, and other sources offering what looks like a compelling consensus. Maybe it’s the accumulated weight of credible research, or maybe it’s the gradual suffocation of original ideas. Maybe narratives take hold because there’s no more faithful way to tell the story, or maybe they take hold because that’s what people want to hear. The reason narratives absorb so much of our attention, ultimately, isn’t because their information is real or faked, honest or misleading, right or wrong. It’s because they’re information.