Meaning and truth

January 16, 2012

I have always rated Yiannis Gabriel’s writing and the various conversations I have had with him over the years. Of the major academics involving in narrative I think he has the surest touch in understanding the essential subtleties of the field. His post today on conspiracy theories came up in the RSS feed as I was dealing with one of the periodic political attacks on the Swiftboating article on Wikipedia (hence today’s picture. The term has become a neologism to describe the deliberate telling of a lie to damage someone, arising from the smear campaign against Kerry in the 2004 Presidential elections. Its well covered in Farhad Manjoo’s excellent little book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. The periodic political attack by the way comes from the right, seeking to argue that Wikipedia should be balanced between political perspectives, i.e. it should reflect the perverted belief that the claim was true. Wikipedia does not (thank God) work like that and instead reflects the balance of reliable sources, all of which clearly establish that the tale told was a lie.

While Gabriel does not raise that specific example, he talks generally about the way in which conspiracy theories are powerful narratives that can accommodate virtually any fact. This capability arises from the deep symbolism and resonate qualities of some stories. In effect regardless of truth they provide us with meaning. In a connected world the danger of swiftboating is high, as is the spreading of false rumours, playing to stereotypes etc. The sheer speed of communication means that a lie can spread too quickly to be nailed, and can be spread in small communities who want to believe without critical scrutiny (Manjoo is very good on this).

I also note that only effective counter to a story that people want to believe is rarely the facts, its more likely to be a counter story or a killer metaphor. The latter is one of the most effective weapons in rhetoric by the way, associating an idea with a commonly understood image or story in which the answer is already known by the population. I used it once with a heckler at a conference in Atlanta who was trying to argue that my use of negative stories for learning was evil and should be replaced by his particular brand of Appreciate Enquiry. I made a link to the final song in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in response. In my defence I tried a more rational approach first.

Story-telling as an approach is bandied about on the web as if it was some universal panacea to the ills of formal communication. While it can be useful its various advocates and practitioners need to be aware that there is a second and more common meaning of story-telling in English, it’s the sense of you are telling me a story, you are lying, or weaving partial facts to present the story you want me to hear. Its not enough to say that you always tell Executives you train to tell the truth, in part because they probably believe they already are. In effect they are weaving the story they want people to hear, it will be grounded in anecdotal material and may well be scattered with facts, but at its heart they are telling a story.   Gabriel finishes his post with the phrase … when it comes to political discussions, ‘stories’ alone are not enough. For politics his comment is critical, but it could equally well apply to corporations. His article “Why it is easier to slay a dragon that to kill a myth” referenced in his blog post is excellent reading and should be an essential pre-read for anyone moving into the narrative field.

Now we are narrative based intelligences, the use of story is basic to our meaning making activities. Narrative allows us at times to transcend the mundane, but it also means that we easily become muckrakers. Its not enough to teach people to be better story tellers, we need to make sure the audiences are better critical listeners. There are several actions here, on with I have posted before, but they include:

  1. A lot needs to happen back in schools. Why we don’t teach philosophy in primary schools and above on a more consistent basis I don’t know. At least at the level to teach people the basic logical errors and the ability to dissect an argument
  2. Debating especially where you don’t choose sides but get allocated to a position with which you disagree. At school and college this used to be powerful, but its less common these days. However the use of the technique during formal presentations could be useful, especially if points lead to prizes. I remember enthusiastically arguing for capital punishment at University (something I dispose) when a place in the next stage of the Observer Mace was at stake. At the end of that I still opposed what I consider a barbaric practice, but I had considerably broadened my perspective.
  3. We need fewer spin doctors, and includes corporates. More leaders talking as they see things rather than being coached. Get rid of the pre-recorded sound bites. If you can hold your own in front of a live audience you probably need to know your stuff, anyone can produce the perfect sound bite with the right professional support. This is of particular importance in politics where we can see in both Blair and Cameron the products of a sound bite culture.
  4. SenseMaker® in some uses is designed to provide an evidence base to measure dominant narrative patters and response resonance (the degree to which your communication is being picked up). By dealing at a fragmented anecdotal level, but critically allowing people to self-index their own narrative we can provide measures of coherence for told stories – i.e. how authentic is the story told, to the underlying narrative patterns of the organisation as a whole.
  5. I hesitate to say this, but I think there may be a case for finding ways to dampen the flow of narratives on the internet. Ideas spread so quickly these days that facts are always playing catch up to falsity. That however is a much bigger issue (especially with the WIkipedia close down this week, which I support) and I have no easy answer.

That is a starting point, and in so far as we all tell stories we are all hypocrites if we criticise the act in others. However being a part of the situation does not exempt any of us from trying to do something about it. We need the power of myth, the motivation capacity of a story to create altruism and heroism, but we also badly need the ability to hold back, to say hang on a minute. We also beed more of the right sort of professionalism in narrative work. That means not offering cheap palliatives to poor management communication skills, focusing on teaching listening skills as much as communication ones and above all, learning to think, to evaluate, to criticise.

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