Tag Archives: counter-narratives

Who Gets to Tell Our Story?

 

Frieze of Columbus in the New World, US Capitol
Frieze of Columbus and Indigenous Americans in the New    World, US Capitol Rotunda

 There is truth in the irony that our most cherished possession is not exclusively ours to own.

We think that our most precious possessions are the things we have acquired or the relationships we have.  But for many people the “right” to tell their own story looms just as large.  Narratives of our personal or tribal lives may be the keys to understanding who we are and where we came from.  But in fact they are not exclusively ours to tell.  We don’t have proprietary rights to our own personal histories.

This is both self-evident and enormously consequential.   It’s not just that we can’t easily agree even about the foundational stories about our collective past.  What Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln actually achieved will always involve contentious narratives.  We can also be unpleasantly surprised by accounts of ourselves offered even by friends or relatives.

It’s apparent that anyone can write someone else’s biography.  Even biographers who are out of favor with their subjects or never met them are frequently eager to weigh in with their own versions.  For example, we are presently surrounded by multiple narratives that recreate the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  There’s Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography (Steve Jobs, 2011) and the forthcoming Aaron Sorkin film based on it.  Both recognize Job’s  vision for turning computing into a necessary life skill.  And both portray a garage innovator with a knack for ingenious design and an inability to acknowledge his co-visionaries.  Then there’s Alex Gibney’s very different documentary (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, 2015) detailing a single-minded marketing genius reluctant to engage with the unpleasant facts surrounding the Chinese factories that produce Apple products.  Amazon currently lists about ten books on Jobs. The point is that we can count on each version to offer a different person to readers.

The same is true for groups that seek power or legitimacy in the larger culture by presenting what are sometimes very different accounts about their pasts and their aspirations.  What’s the story of Scientology? It depends on who you ask. How has the institutional life of Catholicism evolved since revelations of widespread child abuse were widely reported at the beginning of the new century?  Skeptics and admirers routinely compete for attention to relay their stories.  In many ways the fissures that are spread across the culture deepen over time, often expanding into complete fault lines as interested parties vie for media access to “get their story out.”

There’s a whole lexicon of useful terms to represent these divisions.  We talk not only about “narratives,” but also “contested narratives,”  “counter-narratives,” “preferred narratives,” “backstories,” “storylines,” “myths,” “legends,” “lore,” “rumors” and “histories” that are disputed as “more fiction than fact.”  Facebook champions an individual’s own preferred narrative: a kind of carefully constructed window display of one’s life. Most other digital outlets focusing on the culture of celebrity capture readers by taking a very different turn:  favoring counter-narratives and backstories.  Sometimes they are even true.

Novelists who would seem to have the advantage of exclusive use of the products of their imagination are inclined to end up in tangles of their own making when readers find possible connections to the writer’s biography.  Readers can also be unforgiving if a scribe borrows another’s particularly traumatic narrative.  A few years ago the prolific Joyce Carol Oates came under criticism in New Jersey for embellishing on a news story about a college student found dead in a campus garbage container. The short story, Landfill, was published in the New Yorker, to the chagrin of the student’s family and others in the region.

For all of our hope that our stories can be communicated in ways that bring us the credit we seek, the fact is that we can never claim rights to exclusivity.  Ask anyone who has recently been in the news how well their views have been represented or how they were characterized. You are apt to get a response of mild frustration.  What we see in ourselves is probably not what those who retell our stories are going to report.  For individuals or groups without power this is sad to witness. Groups lose something basic when they lack the means to communicate their preferred narratives.  The rest of us battle on, even occasionally discovering a narrative that gives us far more credit than we deserve.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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Looking for Multiple Narratives

 

                      Wikimedia.org
    Five Witnesses Will Usually Have           Divergent Accounts of the Same Event                          Wikimedia.org

 

We should be impatient if the reporting from a given medium asks us to settle for just one “story.” The better option is to expect that there are at least several.

As people in my line of work are fond of saying, ‘language sometimes does our thinking for us.’  Word choices are tracks that inevitably point us in specific directions.   So when we talk about “media”—because it is a plural term—we are primed  to acknowledge significant differences between individual outlets.  That’s as it should be, and a way of thinking we need remember when we are acting on the basis of any single version of events.

For most of us, the concept of a “story” could not be clearer, setting up an expectation that we will take in a running version of events that can stand on its own. This is all well and good if we are talking about one individual’s experiences.  We are all entitled to our stories. They function to make life understandable and meaningful. They are also useful barometers of our own mental states.

Narrative fiction and films have our attention because they fulfill what we seem hardwired to need: figures to empathize with, and the continuity and simplicity of a single of perspective. This is the rhetorical form of the synecdoche: when one example stands in for a whole class of people or events.

The mistake is when we accept the adequacy of  singular form as a tool for understanding the real world. The cable-news anchorperson asks a reporter in the field, “What’s the story?” A headline launches a short version of events usually defined by its internal coherence.  An editor or producer presses a reporter to find a single experience that encapsulates a larger trend. As news consumers we are attracted to narrative continuity over reports that ask us to consider “competing realities.”  Complexity tends to get written out of accounts that need to be boiled down to one and half minutes of air time or 600 words of reporting.

But in actual fact, human events usually contain multiple and contradictory stories: accounts that  are often diverse in their details and frequently inconsistent with each other. We easily recognize this when we compare notes with family or friends about key events that we’ve shared about some earlier experiences of our ancestors. We expect to add details another missed, or to add alternative interpretations of a participant’s motives, or  to pass on an observation that is completely new to others. In those settings we are not surprised to learn that one version of events is not enough.  Eventually all the pieces put together form a kind of intersubjective truth that works at least for those who participated.

The same is true in the current news environment. The ongoing conflict between the state of Israel and Palestinians living on its borders does not permit the luxury of one narrative, but many. The controversial implementation of the Affordable Care Act cannot be contained in one  personal experience.  We know there must have many, reflecting the range of responses by individuals and the states where they reside.  Even when we think we have some clarity on the “aggression” of the Russian Federation in reclaiming Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, we can easily be surprised by long-form accounts from the region that can force us out of what seems  like a settled narrative.

We are smarter if we expect that news reports and other kinds of nonfiction accounts should come to us in uneven waves. In terms of conventional communication analysis, we usually look for a “preferred narrative:” the kind of account that comes from official sources and takes hold of the popular imagination.  But we also expect to find that there are “alternate” or “counter-narratives” as well, and often a series of them. These may come from the less powerful or the marginalized who were caught up in the same event.  It’s not unusual that years later they emerge as the new preferred narratives.

Charles Dickens started a novel with the famous lines, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  The thought reflects his savvy as a narrator of the human condition.  We need to expect that there may be a plurality of perspectives that will undermine the coherence and psychological comfort that comes with a single account. “Reality” is often best represented in a Venn diagram of overlapping accounts. We need to remind ourselves to be impatient if reporting about human events seeks an unearned consensus by insisting on a single truth.

Comment at woodward@tcnj.edu