Thursday, August 28, 2014

We Need to Talk About Narrative

Unless you've been completely out of touch with our national media for the past few weeks, you know all about the situation in Ferguson. A young man was brutally murdered by an out of control racist police force, leading to weeks of peaceful protests that were responded to by nothing but overreaction. Strangely, at the same time, in the same town, a dangerous thug got into a fistfight with a heroic police officer, resulting in him losing his life - this led to weeks of riots, and a justified police force barely holding on to control.

If you're anything like me, both of these stories have been blowing up your social media and your conversations with your friends. And while I would say the evidence I've seen points more towards the former than the latter, the mounting posts that have filled my wall have pointed towards something I've been studying for years: How narratives are built for us every day, and how much we blindly follow them.

So what are we talking about when we say narrative? A narrative is another way of saying story. In this concept, it's taking a series of facts or rumors and using them to support your personal idea of what happened. Imagine this: A plane carrying a crate of puppies lands in a Houston airport. KLTPC might run a story focusing on how the puppies were to be used to help the blind. Meanwhile, Badger News runs a story about how they've uncovered that one of the dogs has worms, and that they're actually a secret plot by the President to infect all of our dogs with a fatal disease.

Now, this is a ridiculous example for humor's sake, but notice what I did there: In the sympathetic story, they're puppies. In the antagonistic story, they're dogs. Just a simple word change can affect the entire tenor of the story. The American (and international) News Media does this every day. And I'm not just talking about the largest players - the independent blogs you follow all do this, too. Writers, producers, and entire teams of folks all change their message in specific ways to make you feel and act the way they want.

Now why do they do this? Is there some specific agenda in manipulating our emotions? Yes and no. In certain cases, it's as simple as ratings - the opposing network has lapped up all the ratings by taking a political viewpoint, so a network will take the opposite to gain their own groundswell of support. Sometimes it's worse - a lot of stories get told to serve the agenda of a special interest or politician.

Back even as recently as ten years ago, when the dichotomy in our political system really started ramping up, this was almost impossible to avoid. Everyone watched TV news, and everyone absorbed the narrative they were told as truth. Show them a piece of evidence that conflicts their personal truth, and they'd dismiss it as fake. You meet these people still, every day. You know it, because when you talk to them, you can hear the voice of a news anchor coming out of their mouth.

In the last two or three years, however, things have begun to change. The advent of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr and Youtube has opened up a platform for new ideas - ideas that have a narrative of their own. Suddenly, instead of one or two single narratives being force-fed to you by talking heads, there are thousands brought to you every day.

That can be overwhelming. It's tempting to stay with the narratives you know, that you're familiar with. They seem safe. But with the new world available to you, you have an opportunity to see what life is like on the other side of the fence. By absorbing all of the narratives, and looking at every single one critically whether you believe in it or not, you can begin to forge an opinion of your own. You have no idea how rare that is in modern culture.

Reject the narratives you've been fed every day. Embrace ideas that make you uncomfortable, and study them with an open mind. You might reject them anyway, but in doing so you'll find yourself better informed and more unique than you've ever been before.

Mike Fatum is the Editor in Chief and Podcast Co-host of the Ace of Geeks. He's been preaching this shit for years, hoping someone will finally listen. I guess that's his narrative.

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