The word narrative is a noun meaning: a spoken or written account of connected events, a story.
That’s it. That’s the whole definition. There is no lurking subterfuge. There is no attempted brain-washing. There is nothing nefarious about the word.
Are there some narratives that do those things? Undoubtedly. The purpose of some narratives is persuasion. The objective of others is merely revelation. But those who use the word narrative as a pejorative are doing a disservice to the language which is the coin of the realm when it comes to attempted communication.
We all listen to narratives, if only the one in our heads that assigns reasons and meaning to the things that happen in our lives. Some of those inner narratives are devoid of rationale, betraying our own neuroses and biases and fears.
External narratives are all around us. They make up the lyrics of your favorite song. They are buried in visual ads that tell the story of how much sex appeal you will instantly invoke if you buy this brand of deodorant or shampoo. Certainly, they are present in media ”stories”. How could they not be. A narrative is, after all, nothing but a ”story”.
The trick is to recognize both the point of view of a story (narrative), and its object. Is the narrator attempting to show you something, or trying to get you to believe something? If you hear a story presented in the format, People like us, believe X,Y, and Z, I advise that you proceed with caution, someone is selling something.
All stories fall apart unless they are told from a point of view, and unless they have a point to make (Even when the point is entertainment). Objectivity is impossible for a storyteller. The best storytellers can even change points of view so skillfully you don’t know it’s happening. (For a sample, try reading the excellent, Sometimes A Great Notion, by Ken Kesey. He’ll put you right inside the head of Canada Goose dropping through fog to land on a wind-tossed Oregon river.)
I find the following lines from a song to be insightful regarding the role of storytellers.
”The storyteller makes no choice
soon you will not hear his voice.
His job is to shed light
Not to master.”
~ Grateful Dead, Terrapin Station
Narratives are only scary if:
- You’re unskilled at determining the perspective of the storyteller,
- you find it difficult to differentiate between statements of opinion and statements of fact,
- you struggle with recognizing what the story is meant to do, and finally,
- you believe everything you’re told.
If that describes you, perhaps earmuffs and blinders are a solution while you learn to do so.
In case you have followed along to this point and missed the clues I’ve dropped:
This essay is a narrative told from the perspective of me. It is my opinion. (Except for the definition above, which is a provable fact). The point is to rescue the word ‘narrative’ from disrepute, so that we may disarm both it, and those who misuse the word against us. Finally, I could be wrong, so evaluate my statements carefully and appropriate them at your own risk.
You have no doubt heard the wise and oft-repeated maxim, ”Consider the source.” Which we should all do, all the time. Even when, or perhaps especially when, evaluating the narrative playing in our own heads.
So the next time someone tries to bludgeon you with the claim that you are just listening to ”So-and-So’s Narrative” about a particular topic, you can smile, nod, and know that they are listening to someone else’s narrative, too.
Thus endeth the story…er, narrative.