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Learning to Accept Conflicting Narratives

Charles Dickens started a novel with the famous lines, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times.”  That binary is much more than a clever rhetorical device.

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.  In our present circumstances, we may dealing with one virus, but a nearly infinite number of accounts about how we have been affected.

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.

Human events usually contain multiple and contradictory stories.

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 beyond the current pandemic.  The forever conflict between the state of Israel and Palestinians living on its borders does not permit the luxury of one narrative, but many. The checkered 10-year history 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, we can easily be surprised by long-form accounts 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 Tale of Two Cities 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.

The Worst

A daily sampling of the worst that humans can do is not good for us. 

If I told you there is a media outlet anxious to report the very worst examples of inhuman conduct, you’d probably be thankful to stay clear of that source.  Who needs a daily reminder of the most vile acts persons can perpetrate on each other?  There are surely better ways to sustain our sanity and hope.

But of course what I’m describing is a simple operating assumption for legitimate and mostly well-intended news organizations.  News is the unusual: events that are not only out of the ordinary, but sometimes sadly brutal or cruel. We readily know the kinds of emotional and physical violence that violate the most elemental norms of human decency.  It’s also obvious that only the weakest society would turn its back on entrenched problems that it must resolve.  But there are limits to what we can process on a daily basis.

I was reminded of all of this on the first day of June when National Public Radio and many other outlets reported on a hangman’s noose left by a visitor in an exhibition space at the Museum of African American History in Washington. It was an ugly act perpetrated by an anonymous thug and, as on any given day, it was the kind of dark non-sequitur that made our hearts sink a little lower.  Racist instances like these are frequent enough to remind us of America’s original sin of racial intolerance.  It rarely recedes from the nation’s collective consciousness.  There can be no doubt that we need reminders that we still have a long way to go.

But here’s the thing. Something odd happens with humans when given a single horrific example of almost anything.  Something inside wants us to search for its place in a larger and perhaps growing trend.  We have a natural compulsion to generalize upward, turning any event into what rhetoricians call a synecdoche, where a single case stands for all cases. By definition a synecdoche is a representative case.

The defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.

Few thoughtful Americans could believe that racism across the culture has mostly subsided.   On the other hand, we can give too much publicity to a sick act by an individual who must cover their deviance with anonymity.  With these kinds of daily reports of aberrant single-agent behaviors we have to decide how big of a marker we will allow them to be.

To be sure, synecdoches often help us make sense of the world.  Bull Connor’s dogs used against civil right marchers in Birmingham are a perfect condensation of what the movement was up against in 1963.  And another contemporary case of a police shooting of an unarmed African American man is another.  Each instance stands as reminder of a serious and embedded problem.  But different cases can also be false markers.  If a one-off hostile act is allowed to stand as a representative case it can have the effect of making us all the victims rather than beneficiaries of synecdoches, extinguishing our interest in valid and significant trends.

And so in the interest of our mental health we should heed a common reminder about accepting a daily dose of news featuring the latest and the worst.  One defense is simple enough; we sometimes need to take a vacation from the journalism of atrocities.