Narrative and Nonsense
When did everything become a narrative?
I am a political news junkie and spend too much time watching reporters talking on television when they should probably be out reporting. I routinely consult the commentators who comment on political affairs because they apparently have nothing else to do. All of them are constantly referring to “the narrative.”
If you google “narrative” and then click on news, you get nearly four and a half million hits. That’s a lot of narrative.
But what does the word mean? The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it was originally a term in Scottish law that referred to the “part of a deed or document” that listed “the essential facts”—the things that all the parties agreed on.
Today, no one could possibly think that the word “narrative” means accepted facts. This is largely because there are almost no accepted facts in contemporary partisan parlance.
In modern English, a narrative is simply a story—any story.
If a politician tells a lie two days in a row, someone on television or in print will call the lie a new narrative. It could be a campaign narrative, or a policy position narrative, or a personal narrative when the lie involves the denial of scandalous behavior that obviously took place. A narrative is whatever a politician or a political observer says, whenever they say it.
The word appears to be useless and yet we use it. Why?
Perhaps narrative has become popular in political coverage and commentary because it sounds neutral, fair and semi-serious. When we are not sure if a newsworthy person is being deceptive, deceitful or stupid (or when we don’t want to say that they are), we can declare that the inconsistent, indefensible or incoherent things they have just said are merely a narrative. A story. The thing that is being said today. This is commentary without comment, and ultimately without content.
We should stop it.
What happened to the word “spin?” For many years, it was one of the most widely used words in political reporting. You still hear it, but not nearly as often as in the past. Spin, unlike narrative, is not neutral. It labels as biased language that clearly is biased, but without too much judgment or condemnation.
Spin is the word we use with a wink when spokespersons try to explain away the embarrassing thing their candidate or officeholder has just said or done. It involves language that is presumed to be self-serving and/or misleading, but nevertheless manages to stay within the broad arena of loosely understood truth. Spin is the best thing you say in a given political circumstance that is not demonstrably false.
Spin has some tradition. After every modern presidential debate, there is an entire room devoted to it. Skillful spinners get jobs in the White House press office. Some get jobs as cable news commentators. Being good at spin may not be something you boast about to your mother, but it has a place in modern democratic politics.
If what we used to call spin is now called narrative, there is a loss to our language and public discourse. Forced neutrality may be a bigger threat to the republic than fake news.
We live in a time when genuine neutrality in conversation about politics is hard to achieve and hard to maintain. Outrages on both the left and the right require forceful and forthright language. Using the word narrative less often and spin more often would help, but it wouldn’t be enough. We need to bring back the kind of honest and vivid vocabulary that made H. L Mencken famous and George Orwell controversial.
When people in the political class say or do things that are ridiculous, we need to call them ridiculous. We need to revive the long and luscious list of synonyms for nonsense: bunk, blather, balderdash, hokum, hogwash, poppycock, prattle, piffle and more.
They say that Eskimos have many different words for snow. In a democracy, and in the age of Donald Trump, we need lots of words for political nonsense. Narrative is not one of them.
Published in the Roanoke Times, April 29, 2018