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Accepting and changing narratives


A few weeks ago, Chronicle columnist Addison Merryman wrote the column "Narrative and post truth," lamenting the degree that narratives, rather than the capital-T “Truth,” would shape our society. He quoted G.K. Chesterton:

“A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed.”

Merryman went on: “In today's mainstream culture, the only thing that is morally certain to us is our own un-transferrable experience—how things make us feel...If you have not personally been the object of those actions, words or behaviors to directly feel the rightness or wrongness of them, then you must accept the moral judgment of those who have."

He argues that our society’s reliance on personal experience can be dangerous, creating “tribal narratives” that divide us. I, however, argue the opposite—that we don't live in a society where we accept the experiences of those who have been victimized, and that we'd be much better off if we did.

Take President Donald Trump’s recent executive order blocking all refugees from entering the country and banning all immigrants from seven countries. If we had listened to those people stuck in airports, unable to return to the United States, maybe there wouldn’t have been as many supporters. But those aren’t the only victims in this case. From another perspective, the victims could also be the victims of a potential terrorist attack. Both of these viewpoints are valid—the former a reminder that the policy will likely hurt more people than it helps, the latter a reminder that public perceptions of national security can be as powerful as actual safety precautions themselves. A place isn’t safe if it doesn’t feel safe.

We're hardwired to relate to stories, and as much as I like to think we have free will, the narratives we believe are more likely a function of our surroundings than of some innate quality. Instead of insisting that people begin believing the "right" thing, we should change the circumstances that shape the narrative. Currently, there’s no compelling reason to buy a different narrative from the one we were raised with. Pretending like we are purely rational humans is only going to further blind us to the fact that we are all victims to narrative, based in fact or not.

Most of us have spewed some form of "alternative facts" while comforting a friend who visibly just needed to be affirmed. Most of us have believed someone who was clearly saying things just to make us feel better. I have explicitly asked/told people, “Please tell me I’m not crazy” and surely enough, they told me I wasn’t crazy. Crazy how that works.

We’ve all been told that getting into Duke was a result of our own hard work and that in some sense, we are the best. But it’s not a coincidence that 19 percent of our class comes from families that make over $630,000 a year (the 1 percent). Regardless of the validity of these statements, they’ve likely become woven in our narratives our of our life and the way we see ourselves.

These personal narratives have little to do with having a president who supports backwards policy proposals, but in a way, they help draw the line between growing up privileged and not privileged (or perhaps more accurately define the spectrum), but one of the most neglected distinctions perhaps is that the privileged already have a positive life narrative. As Julie Beck of The Atlantic wrote, “The redemptive American tale is one of privilege, and for those who can’t control their circumstances, and have little reason to believe things will get better, it can be an illogical and unattainable choice.”

If you're a privileged American at an elite college who's been force fed the narrative that you're where you are because of hard work, then policy being strictly based on “truth” doesn't bother you too much. In fact, it sounds great. The stakes are lower for us, because we’re already set on a good life path.

But for so many other people who lack this strong positive self-narrative, there are other factors at stake. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the Winter 2017 edition of Encompass, a student magazine published through the Kenan Institute of Ethics, senior research fellow Andrea Renda found that most public policy is grounded in neoclassical economics; neoclassical economics ignores feelings, preferences, values and distributional issues; hence, public policy ignores feelings, preferences, values.

As a result, policies fail to be humanized, and—in the case of deciding migration policy in the Mediterraean that Renda writes about—might lead to genocide. Statistical and economic models are powerful tools, but it’s stupid to think that they can define the “truth” more than our own feelings can. Cathy O'Neil, a data scientist at Columbia University and author of “Weapons of Math Destruction,” points out that many of the most powerful models used in modern day society are deeply biased, yet few people question them. In her words, “Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.” Statistics, just like post-truth politics, can be manipulated any way to reflect how people feel.

Besides, feelings are an evolutionary adaptation that humans have developed and refined over millions of years. From another perspective, they’re a model that has gotten us to where we are today. Maybe post-truth politics won’t be all that terrible, at least not as terrible as Trump.

Amy Fan is a Trinity first-year. Her column, "fangirling" runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Amy Fan | fangirling

Amy Fan is a Trinity senior. Her column, "fangirling," runs on alternate Thursdays.


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