Skip to content

The Limits of Narrative

Societal crises of self-confidence can result from distorted and oversimplified narratives.

· 8 min read
The Limits of Narrative

“Lots of color and make it punchy.” As a journalist I hear this kind of thing a lot from editors, and it’s not necessarily bad advice. It basically means that vivid narratives are a better tool of communication and persuasion than dry analyses that sift inconclusive data and real-world complexity. This is no doubt true, but the upshot is that, before writing begins, a degree of shaping is already occurring that the journalist then compounds when developing a story. Even with the best of intentions, this shaping is necessarily a form of manipulation. In the hands of an intellectually honest writer, that manipulation may be benign. But it can also become an instrument of ideological distortion, especially in a highly polarized climate.

Narratives—especially those pushed by politicians and partisan media outlets—are a powerful means of influencing perceptions of the society and world in which we live. “Fact-checking, which has long been an integral part of journalism, has been supplemented by a type of ‘narrative-checking,’” warns Hal Conte in Compact magazine. “In some cases, facts have been deliberately removed or altogether omitted for fear that they would undermine broader truths (or noble lies).”

Conte argues that the main reason for this is “a self-conception among many reporters that they must protect the core truths of ‘democracy’—understood to mean not just electoral norms, but also a broad range of liberal ideological commitments.” And so, “it follows that facts and stories that contradict this set of commitments amount to anti-democratic ‘misinformation’” that may be legitimately silenced. Furthermore, each myopic narrative creates the need for an equally myopic and unbalanced counter-narrative, while the nuances of a messier reality are neglected in the middle.

“The soul of wit may become the very body of untruth,” wrote Aldous Huxley in the 1958 foreword to Brave New World Revisited. “However elegant and memorable, brevity can never, in the nature of things, do justice to all the facts of a complex situation.” Huxley wasn’t entirely opposed to brevity, noting that “omission and simplification help us understand.” But, he added, “they help us, in many cases, to understand the wrong thing; for our comprehension may be only of the abbreviator’s neatly formulated notions, not of the vast ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.”

Huxley was sympathetic to the conundrum everyone faces in tackling complexity—“life is short,” he acknowledged, “and information endless,” so people must simplify or they will simply never have enough time to grapple with anything. “Abbreviation is a necessary evil and the abbreviator’s business is to make the best of a job which, though intrinsically bad, is still better than nothing.” Nevertheless, we must be careful not to simplify to the point of falsification, or we will end up with “the dangerous quarter-truths and half-truths which have always been the current coin of thoughts.”

While this might appear abstract, it has a demonstrable impact at the personal level, because we all tell ourselves a story about who we are. This is central to our sense of self, and it is what we project outward to help others understand us as individuals. “These stories may be about our past and what we have experienced, as we knit together fragments from our memories to develop a narrative,” clinical psychologists Richard Bennett and Joseph Oliver write in their co-authored book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: 100 Key Points and Techniques. “Yes, the narrative is based (mostly) on facts, but which facts?” Ultimately, they note, we can't remember most of them.

What, for example, were you doing during the month before your 10th birthday? Most of us have no idea about “the days, weeks, and months that are lost to the mists of time,” Bennett and Oliver point out, and this has implications for the perceived reality we construct. “It highlights just how much we have forgotten about our experience, and at the same time calls into question this so-called solid foundation of factual memories on which our past narrative is based.” If we could acknowledge just how unreliable any narrative—even our own—is, it might help us to step back from the certainties that drive polarization in what passes for so much of political debate today.

We should also bear in mind the importance of the language we choose to employ. “Words are at once indispensable and fatal,” Huxley wrote in his 1952 novel, The Devils of Loudun, the true story of religious fanaticism and sexual obsession in 17th-century France. Language provided us with “the instrument of man’s progress out of animality,” but it has also been “the cause of man’s deviation from animal innocence and animal conformity to the nature of things into madness and diabolism.”

Talking and tweeting all day makes it easy to forget the immense and divergent powers of language. As Bennet and Oliver note, despite the frailty of the human body and its physical disadvantages compared to other animals—we can’t breathe underwater, fly, or tolerate extremes of temperature—our ability to communicate and coalesce into organizing groups has provided humans with an extraordinary evolutionary advantage. “We have bent the environment to our will, created vast civilizations, explored other planets, and unlocked the secrets of the universe,” Bennett and Oliver write. “The power, flexibility, and creativity that language has given us is amazing.”

However, “there is also a sense in which language has worked against us and constrained our species in ways that other animals are not constrained.” Our faculty of language allows us to dwell on problems and ruminate exponentially—we can even imagine our own annihilation and contemplate suicide. At the less extreme end of experience, language prevents us from living in the present and causes us to worry about the past and the future in ways that other animals don’t. Non-human animals resolve conflicts through the fight-or-flight mechanismit may be crude, but they don’t suffer from existential anxiety or the physical ailments produced by stress.

Our use of language can backfire at the personal and internal level, but it is more obviously abused in the public realm. “Moralists harp on the duty of controlling the passions; and of course they are right to do so,” Huxley observed in The Devils of Loudun. “Unhappily most of them have failed to harp on the no less essential duty of controlling words and the reasoning based upon them … far more dangerous than crimes of passion are the crimes of idealism—the crimes which are instigated, fostered and moralized by hallowed words.”

Narratives about the world, when respected as working hypotheses, Huxley explained, provide “instruments, by means of which we are enabled progressively to understand the world.” But when “treated as absolute truths, as dogmas to be swallowed, as idols to be worshipped, propositions about the world distort our vision of reality and lead us into all kinds of inappropriate behavior.”

George Orwell was of the same mind, and in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” he criticized the written and spoken English of his time and examined the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” he wrote in the essay’s most famous passage. “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I noticed this tendency during my 2009 tour in Afghanistan, during which there occurred a shift in military language. When I went to Iraq as a tank commander in 2004, the fire orders I gave the gunner for using the tank’s coaxially mounted machine gun acknowledged some legitimacy of personhood in the enemy target: “Coax man, 100 meters front.” Five years later in Afghanistan, the linguistic corruption that attends warfare meant we’d refer instead to “hot spots,” “multiple pax on the ground,” and “prosecuting a target” or “maximizing the kill chain” as real people were dismembered by 30mm canon fire from an A-10 jet.

This dynamic intersects with narrative at the micro and macro levels, as “we increasingly engage with our environment, not directly as it is, but through the filter of what our language and cognition tell us it is,” Bennett and Oliver note. At the individual level, this can result in a person reacting to and fixating on the words and narratives they use to understand themselves—such as “I am a broken person,” “I have failed and can’t improve,” “I don’t deserve to live”—as if they are truths. Statements like these can confuse labels and identity, Bennett and Oliver warn, which can result in hopelessness and depression. “The more the client identifies with this label, the more indistinguishable the person and label become, and the less likely it is the person will see themselves as able to act in ways outside the label’s parameters.”

In a recent opinion piece for the Guardian, Sinéad Stubbins describes how an unexpected encounter revealed that “we tend to tell ourselves stories about our own personalities,” and that these “preconceived truths” can prevent “new or contradictory stories” from emerging that might be beneficial. The encounter left her concluding that “it’s peculiar that we think that certain elements about ourselves are set in stone, even if there’s no real evidence to suggest that these personality traits are permanent.”

The embrace of a personal narrative can have what Bennett and Oliver call a “repertoire-narrowing impact on behavior” that can lead to entrenched feelings of guilt, shame, and rage. The counselling I eventually sought following my military experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan unpacked many of the habits of mind identified above. After all, what could I clearly remember about what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not much, as it turned out, and my personal recollections left out myriad extraneous factors that also contributed to the disasters in those countries beyond my role and that of the military of which I had been a part.

Self-excoriation has also become an important part of how Western democracies understand themselves. “The West invented the uneasy conscience, making a daily practice of repentance with an almost mechanical plasticity,” wrote the French philosopher Pascal Bruckner in a 2020 essay for Tablet titled, “The Flagellants of the Western World.” “We wrap ourselves in the robes of the perpetual criminal, the better to keep our distance from the world and its torments. And now the West is weaker than ever—rudderless, leaderless—since the United States withdrew from world affairs.”

Societal crises of self-confidence produced by the distortions of oversimplified narratives can result in declinism and a culture of introspective self-doubt that prevents effective action. These narratives are as inaccurate as those used to promote national chauvinism, and can, in their own way, be just as harmful. A functioning society is, after all, a collection of functioning individuals, and if language is employed to undermine a nation’s sense of self-esteem, it will diminish its citizens’ ability to cooperate and organize productively.

The stories we tell ourselves “about the future as we seek to plan, or predict what has not yet happened,” write Bennett and Oliver, can be “enormously helpful.” However, it can be “extraordinarily difficult to distinguish when we have slid into the realm of unhelpful worry”: “As we ‘time travel’ out of the present, our ability to connect with the present moment, and respond to the actual contingencies in front of us declines. This can lead to inflexible responding based on the ways we have conceptualized our past or future.”

It behooves both policymakers and voters to bear such lessons in mind when faced with the challenges now confronting the world. Our understanding of the benefits and limitations of the narratives we construct to understand these challenges will determine how we lead our lives in response. Narratives can help to make complexity intelligible, but they can also disfigure our perception and produce mutually exclusive, partisan accounts of our shared reality. And without an accurate understanding of ourselves, of each other, and of the world around us, our ability to cooperate is fatally compromised.

On Instagram @quillette