In our recent discussion of critical thinking, we’ve touched on the subject of narratives. One of the objectives of critical thinking, it says here, is being able to recognize narratives for what they are — to analyze them, to recognize what they’re based on and what they’re trying to do, to identify the interests they’re serving, and to understand what they want us to buy into.
Let’s review. What are we talking about when we talk about narratives? At their most basic, they’re a form of storytelling. The story doesn’t have to be true — it just has to resonate with its audience. The point is to grab attention, to convince, to advance an agenda, and/or to manipulate — not necessarily to enlighten or educate.
In this context, narratives are a form of verbal (discursive) shorthand — a few words or a combination of commonly used or familiar phrases that come to represent a larger and/or more complicated set of ideas. Call them whatever you like — tropes, clichés, memes, or anything similar. Ultimately, the details are less important than the underlying mindset.
Narratives arise because they’re a useful way of avoiding complexity. They provide lenses through which people can view things and make sense of all these conflicting ideas. And it’s worth noting that there’s a lot invested in ensuring that that’s exactly what people do — in getting them to buy into narratives.
Again, however, let’s recall our discussion from previous posts: critical thinking is all about embracing complexity. Things aren’t always simple.
And that’s why being able to recognize narratives is so essential — to marketing, to making informed choices, to civic life, to conducting ourselves as citizens or voters or consumers. It goes to the very idea of messaging and communication, regardless of context.
Why does this matter? It matters because, surprisingly enough, narratives aren’t always authentic, or even crafted in good faith. Sometimes they’re part of a deeper agenda. Sometimes they’re intended to manipulate.
In that sense, all narratives are manufactured — they emphasize some things and sidestep others for the sake of making things simple and easy to grasp. They reflect long-standing ideologies. They’re processed, refined, and packaged, not unlike many consumer goods. But they need to be distinguished from manufactured controversies.
Sometimes controversies can be genuine reflections of honest debate. Frequently, however, they’re part of a strategy of misdirection. They’re a way of shifting discussion away from things the manufacturers don’t want people to think about. Never mind that — look over here! There’s conflict! There’s sound and fury! It’s what some like to call the Shiny Object™ tactic.
And there’s a a lot invested in getting people to look at those Shiny Objects, to buy into certain narratives for a whole variety of reasons — commercial, political, economic, ecological. One of the most important keys to recognizing that is to focus on the way words are used. And one of the best giveaways happens when words are stripped of their meanings, repurposed and used as rhetorical brickbats.
Are they really bad things, or are they just framed that way and repeated over and over because we’re expected to buy into a particular narrative?
The controversy may be manufactured, but that doesn’t make it any less intense or effective. Just watch for the signs of emotional manipulation. Are the words used honestly? Are their meanings respected, or are they being used in simplistic, misleading, and manipulative ways? What are the embedded messages?
Again, watch for emotional manipulation. Watch for the code words, the dog whistles, the trigger phrases. Words are thrown around with no regard for their meaning or their impact. They’re intended to drag conversation out of the realm of reason and civility and into emotionally volatile terrain. “Make America Great Again,” for instance. You don’t have to look too deep to see the narratives packed into that. Their ugly import has been on full and nauseating display for months.
As always, addressing narratives depends on teasing out the three components we identified in our last post: discourse/word choice, assumptions, and framing. It’s not that difficult — it’s just a matter of being skeptical and not taking everything we see, hear, and read at face value. Ultimately it helps us make better choices, refines the messaging, and raises the level of discussion — regardless of whether it’s public affairs, purchasing decisions, or any one of the many contexts within which we need to analyze and evaluate things in guiding our actions.
At the end of the day, better communication is in everyone’s interest.