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Column: Meaning and knowledge: Why stories beat facts

For the Valley News
Published: 4/17/2021 10:10:03 PM
Modified: 4/17/2021 10:10:02 PM

What are called “conspiracy theories” are not theories at all but stories about deception in high places. And because they are stories they cannot be refuted by facts. The story that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump remains compelling to many Americans in the face of myriad facts and arguments arrayed against it.

Many kinds of popular stories, it turns out, are immune from refutation by argument. To see why, we need to understand how stories differ from arguments. Stories are devices to make sense of events: they aim at meaning. Arguments are devices to discover the truth: they aim at knowledge.

Stories have beginnings and endings; arguments have premises and conclusions. Stories rely on anecdotes while arguments rest on evidence. Because of these fundamental differences, the only way to fight a bad story is with a better story.

Stories and arguments are two radically different languages and unless we learn to translate between them, political debate will give way to mute violence. We need interpreters who can translate the truth discovered by arguments into the lingua franca of meaningful stories. Meaningful fiction will always trump meaningless facts.

How do stories work? Stories have a uniquely compelling emotional logic. They first raise the stakes by creating a situation of conflict, and then resolve it and release the tension. We listen to stories with our whole bodies: dramatic conflict raises our heart and breathing rates, just as narrative closure induces calm.

Imagine that you read this story (borrowed from Aristotle) in a newspaper: A vicious assassin happens upon a statue erected to honor his victim; as he gazes at the statue, it suddenly tips over and kills him. The appeal of this story has little to do with factual plausibility.

The rhetoric of populism works similarly, first stoking righteous indignation and then offering the emotional closure of comeuppance. Populist storytelling derives from a master narrative about how self-interested elites will be hoisted on their own petards — or, in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s case, hoisted on her own private email server. Who can resist the appeal of such poetic justice?

Human beings have been telling stories ever since language emerged, but the art of argument did not make its first appearance until the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, 25 centuries ago. Plato believed that rational argument could not take hold in a culture until all storytellers were forcibly expelled.

Plato, unlike today’s fact-checkers, understood what he was up against. Our ability to make good arguments does not come naturally but requires decades of schooling.

Let us return to the infamous story of President Barack Obama’s Kenyan birthplace — viewing it not as a bad theory aimed at the truth, but as a story aimed at finding meaning to assuage anxieties.

Why were so many people receptive to this story? Perhaps because Obama is a rare bird and does not conform to many people’s expectations of what it means to be either a white or a Black American. If millions of Americans were puzzled by Obama, then so was Obama, who writes in his memoir, Dreams From My Father, that as a high school student in Hawaii, he did not feel a natural affinity with either the other white or Black students. Obama says he had to teach himself how to become an African American — just as would a foreigner.

To undermine the “birther” myths about Obama, we need more than fact-checkers or a birth certificate. We need a compelling story about what it means to be an American in a changing society and a globalized world.

Similarly, Trump’s behavior around Russian President Vladimir Putin was genuinely puzzling, and in the face of such puzzles we always reach first for a story. The stories that Trump is working for Putin or that Obama was born in Kenya may be leaky boats, but no one abandons a leaky boat until a better one comes along. Meaning is a necessity; truth, a luxury.

If we want to stop talking past each other, we must learn that you cannot begin to understand someone’s beliefs without first understanding the stories in which they are embedded. And, we must confront those stories on their own terms and not dismiss them as bad arguments. Finally, we must translate our arguments into better, that is, more truthful, stories. There is plenty of solid evidence of elite malfeasance without having to make stuff up.

A nation, in the words of political scientist Benedict Anderson, is an “imagined community,” and whoever has the best stories will conjure that community.

James Bernard Murphy, of Hanover, is professor of government at Dartmouth College. He writes about the role of narrative in human life in his book, Your Whole Life: Beyond Childhood and Adulthood (Penn Press, 2020).

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