The Narrative and Its Discontents
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The Narrative and Its Discontents

Jacob Falkovich
Jacob Falkovich

Human history in two sentences: in pre-modern times, material goods were hard to come by, but small communities offered kinship and their traditions made the world meaningful and comprehensible. Today, physical comforts are plentiful, but belonging and sense-making are scarce.

Belonging and sense-making are made of the same raw material: stories. And shared stories are what bring any group larger than a family together, be it “Brazilians,” “Buddhists,” or “Beliebers.” Stories build a shared reality that in turn frames how we interpret the world in our own minds. A story that illuminates reality and unites people will create both belonging and meaning. And thus, all humans converged collectively on the truest possible story of the world and themselves, and lived happily ever after.

Wait, that’s not what happened. So what happened?

One of the things that happened to stories was memetics. Stories proliferate or decline based on their own Darwinian logic. They may reproduce if they are funny, or if they flatter the listener, or if they are set to a catchy tune. Consider my simplified story of history: isn’t it pleasing in its symmetry? Doesn’t “both eras had their benefits and challenges” sound like something a sophisticated person would say? But memetics isn’t inherently hostile to truth and unity. It produces Harambe, not Lysenkoism. Stories, like Soviet agronomists, are corrupted by power.

If only stories bring societies together, those who tell the stories get to rule them. Even Elon Musk, renowned for building physical things, said that:

To a first approximation, the capital-N Narrative running our society is written by the prestige legacy media, which receives The Narrative from experts in academia and government, and spreads it with the help of Hollywood and the education system. What do journalists, academicians, bureaucrats, filmmakers, and teachers have in common? They mostly hail from the middle and upper-middle classes, mostly have university degrees, and mostly vote Democrat.

But those attributes by themselves fail to explain why they are so conspicuously always on the same page with respect to The Narrative even as it changes and mutates. What ultimately unites all these people is that they care and believe what the legacy media writes. And the media writes whatever maintains The Narrative’s elites in positions of power and authority. They are bound like the Nazgûl to the One Ring.

Consider, for example, a Washington Post story about a New York University report calling claims of conservative censorship on social media “a form of disinformation.” The report says:

The claim of anti-conservative animus is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it. No trustworthy large-scale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons.

What does “no reliable evidence” mean? Wikipedia has a list of notable social media suspensions. One could reliably count the conservatives included. But Wikipedia doesn’t count. “Reliable evidence” is evidence that would be accepted for policy guidance purposes by Nazgûl (government bureaucracy). For example, a large-scale study performed by Nazgûl (elite university) and deemed trustworthy by Nazgûl (the Washington Post). Everything within The Narrative, nothing against The Narrative, nothing outside The Narrative.

The report concludes with a call to establish a new Digital Regulatory Agency. Not a day passes without the papers demanding regulation of tech or finance or homeschooling (but never academia or journalism). Regulation is the most direct exercise of power by the people of The Narrative over those not directly bound to it.

The former are not bad people. They secured their positions in the institutions by thinking and speaking exclusively within The Narrative, and within it they see themselves fighting for truth and justice. The Narrative itself isn’t inherently against truth or justice or even conservatives. It’s just against “disinformation”—that is, any counter-narrative. It has other names for it too: conspiracy, propaganda, fake news.

The latter term was practically never used before November 2016 and then suddenly it was everywhere, part of The Narrative. Why this timing? Making stuff up and selling it as news certainly didn’t start in 2016. In November 2016, Trump was elected and The Narrative realized, for the first time ever, that it was losing.

The Narrative used to win by default. There used to be only three TV channels, and they never disagreed. But then information broke free: digital, cheap, and decentralized. Martin Gurri, whose 2014 book explains 2016 better than anything written since, explains:

The elites in charge once spoke from on high with the voice of authority, certain that the masses would never talk back. But today the public, riding that tsunami of content, is aware of every government failure, error, and falsehood, and it aims an endless roar of frustration and condemnation at the mighty of the earth.

The elites could have argued that their track record of accuracy, while not perfect, is mostly solid. They could have worked to rebuild their credibility. But The Narrative is used to rule by fiat, with no challenge. The Times wants to appoint a “reality czar”—not to investigate reality, but to enforce it.

As The Narrative gets more things wrong, the enforcement has become increasingly Kafkaesque. Today, you’ll get banned on social media for sharing statements by the WHO from a few months ago, or unedited vaccine trial results, on grounds of contradicting the WHO. This week’s front-page news was last week’s cancel-worthy conspiracy.

In the face of the public’s revolt, there is a growing inclination in the media to jettison objectivity in favor of antagonism. As a Times staffer said: “We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?” According to The Narrative, there are only two sides: for or against The Narrative. Everyone on the other side is the same. When Elon Musk tweeted a meme about rejecting The Narrative, the Times responded with an article that consisted of his name and a salad of loosely connected words with negative associations like “incel,” “Trump,” and “racist.”

The latest salvo against the enemies of The Narrative is Cade Metz’s essay, “Silicon Valley’s Safe Space” about the Rationalist blogger Scott Alexander. Metz would no doubt bristle at this accusation of antagonism—he told an interviewee that his goal was “to report on the blog, and the Rationalists, with rigor and fairness.” But he insisted on publishing Alexander’s full name, with little justification and full knowledge that this would hinder his work as a psychiatrist.

From the pages of a paper that reports daily on the cancelation of people over the merest hint of racism, and which fired its star COVID reporter over the same, Metz goes to great lengths to associate Alexander with “racist” writers. It is a hit-piece in a direct sense: Metz’s colleague Nellie Bowles, who wrote the Musk/Trump/incel story, now describes this sort of writing as akin to killing. The harm is real regardless of Metz’s intent, and anyway, the Times just announced that intent doesn’t matter.

Alexander has responded to the article’s falsehoods so I won’t labor the point. The article also contained praise at least for Alexander’s writing style, as well as eye-catching artwork that depicted him as a superhero or a bearer of divine wisdom. Whether the Times hates Alexander is less interesting than asking why they were compelled to write this article at all, and what alternatives to The Narrative it reveals.

One alternative is the Silicon Valley counter-narrative. Metz lays out the main schism from his point of view: “On the internet, many in Silicon Valley believe, everyone has the right not only to say what they want but to say it anonymously.” But the counter-narrative is not merely about online speech. Its main proponent is Balaji Srinivasan, who wants Silicon Valley to tell its own narrative of “technological progressivism.” It is a story of humanity’s biggest challenges, from education to climate change to death itself, being solved by decentralized technological innovation as opposed to centralized institutional regulation. To Srinivasan, the conflict between tech and the media became inevitable once the previously tech-friendly media lost much of its revenue to software platforms. As Metz also points out, Srinivasan wants Silicon Valley to treat legacy media with direct hostility.

But what does this have to do with Alexander? SlateStarCodex, which Metz describes as “a window into the psyche of Silicon Valley,” was mostly written while Alexander was a psychiatry resident at a hospital in Michigan. Many tech leaders read him, but so do many journalists, plumbers, and at least one bisexual student in Somalia.

Scott Alexander is a Rationalist, as am I. Rationalists coalesced online around the goal of improving human thinking. Rationality is not a set of beliefs about what is true, but a set of methods for arriving at truth: awareness of your own biases and the difficulty of accounting for them, a habit of making and tracking quantified predictions, differentiating arguments about facts from arguments about words and fights over status. Rationality is not a rebuttal to The Narrative but a way to make sense of the world without relying on one.

Rationalists do have common shared beliefs, but there is no imperative to enforce unanimity, least of all by appeal to authority. Eliezer Yudkowsky published the “Rationality Sequences,” the foundational text of the community, in large part to motivate research into AI safety. But the community prominently features those who disagree with Eliezer on core aspects of that research, those who push back on the importance of it, and thousands of people who don’t care about or understand AI safety at all. My main engagement with Scott Alexander came when I challenged him on the utility of rationality itself. He responded with a rebuttal; I conceded his good points and clarified my disagreement; he conceded some points and clarified his; and then we left it at that, trusting that an intelligent reader had enough to make up his own mind.

As Metz writes, the community includes “a wide cross-section of viewpoints… from communist to anarcho-capitalist, religiously from Catholic to atheist.” This isn’t from an effort to signal our diversity or open-mindedness, but because a person’s labels are considered much less important than their argument on its merits. Rationalists don’t presume infallibility but the opposite: that we are inevitably wrong and biased even as we seek to improve. Our online hub is called LessWrong—but it is an aspiration, not a brag.

This mindset is nigh-incomprehensible to people of The Narrative who are used to being guided by a single source of truth enforced by social consensus. This is why Metz conflates Srinivasan, who is against The Narrative, with Rationalists, who are outside it. It is only from outside that one can try to explain The Narrative, as I have attempted to do here.

If you think that The Narrative doesn’t make sense, your choices fall into three broad categories. You can seek to reform the institutions that produce it, as many academics and journalists are bravely attempting; you can fight to topple and replace it, alongside Balaji or myriad other challengers; or you can step on the difficult path to rationality and try to make some sense of the world with the power of your own reason.

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Jacob Falkovich

Jacob Falkovich blogs about rationality, math, and dating at putanumonit.com. You can follow him on Twitter @yashkaf.