AN INTRODUCTION TO NARRATIVES

We live in a time where the truth is no longer real. We live in a time where numbers are replacements for values, winning is more important than leading, and the false notion of rational objectivity replaces the old notions of philosophical reason and conversation. The stories that we tell each other are no longer the same, as one group insists we came out of the earth billions of years ago, and another insists that we are descendants of a young-earth God. There is division in thought and it stems from a narrative collapse. We collectively said, “this is my story, this is my truth– To hell with yours.”

But what is truth? How do we even know what is the right thing to do? How did we get to a place where both sides think they are right, and how do we get out of this deadlock? At The Narrative String, we think the media has a responsibility to break the deadlock. Narratives are real, they define our daily lives. It is our goal to break through the confusion of a culture with a broken narrative by studying the nature of the current chaos, finding the through-line, and telling a better story.

Narratives are the structure that we use to define the world around us. Depending on the narrative we are currently using, we decide who someone is if their actions are moral or immoral, and it’s through this process that we, as humans, define meaning.

It’s important to understand that narratives are neither true nor not-true. They are what we use to define the truth. The concept is frustrating and disconcerting because if you do not know what is true how do you know what is good or moral? It puts us on uneasy ground, and it is hard to find a footing.

This idea, that narratives define truth, can be seen as an attack against traditions like religion, government, or science. Looking at traditions as narratives doesn’t negate the value of the tradition, but it’s a tool used to weigh the merits and use of the tradition in our lives. The realization that narratives define meaning gives us the ability to decide whether or not a narrative tradition is useful, it frees us from blindly following narratives as pre-programmed characters and allows us to be fully conscious of our position in the world and our own story.

To find out if your narrative is moral you need to test it by examining the connections that create the narrative. The connections and relationships within the narrative reflect an underlying structure, and that structure can be used in fascinating ways to reveal complex aspects of our lives. By looking at a group of people and the narrative around them, we can start to see how narratives define behavior and the morality of that behavior.

A “culture” is a group of people connected by one master narrative. For most of human history master narratives have governed our lives. Master narratives are difficult to spot and even harder to define because they are the essence of how you understand the world around you.

How do you define something new and outside a master narrative if all the examples and symbols you have are contained within the master narrative? For example, how do you critique a master narrative without having anything to compare it to? In order to do so, you must seek to transcend the master narrative by breaking out of it.

All morality is defined through some sort of narrative that you get to choose, and have the awesome responsibility of your choice. We are left in a situation similar to the Ouroboros, the snake that eats it’s own tail, as the definition of what is “good” is defined by narrative– even as the narrative defines what is good. Whether that narrative is based on fact or fiction is beside the point, because the narrative you use decides the ‘facts’.

At The Narrative String, we look to seek out and understand our collective narrative as Americans. We look at the role of the press and media and recognize a failure. Instead of helping to define our shared story, the media has been looking to sell people the narratives that they wanted to hear. Rather than lead by defining a shared story, we lost narrative cohesion as the media was telling any story to anyone that would buy it.

At the core of our belief is the responsibility to tell the right story. All stories are not equal, there are some stories are evil every time, through understanding narratives we can rout out injustices that we are currently blind to.

At the core of our divided nation is a narrative collapse. The shared story of who we are and what we represent has been lost. It is our sincere effort to try and reestablish that shared narrative. For out of many, we are one.

We believe if we study the nature of narratives, we can tell a better story of our past, write a clearer plan for the present, and work towards a better future.

The King & the CEO

Imagine a scenario where narratives define actions.

There are two groups of identical people. Each of these groups exists within a distant land. There are other people groups around them that are not part of their group, which they will have to deal with.

The first group is led by a King and is called a Kingdom. This structure now defines what is expected from this group. For our example, we need a story that defines a good king. For us, a good King is defined by the narrative of being in charge but putting the good of the Kingdom over the king’s own well being. Let’s assume in this Kingdom, the King wants to be a good King, and let’s also assume in this first case that the person most suited to lead was ‘magically’ picked.

The King goes around and gets a tally of all the people. Now this group of people has a normal cross section of abilities, some are very smart, some are dumb, some are extremely physical, some are not physical at all. The king sorts through the people and appoints them roles that he deems they would be good at.

Because of the King’s ability to know his subjects and to find roles that are fitting to each, the Kingdom flourishes. They trade with the other groups of people that are around them that want to trade, and the kingdom protects its citizens from invaders that wish them harm.

The second group of identical people decide that they are lead by a CEO and rules of law. The CEO has a scheme to make a profit within the limits of the law and decides to follow that plan. A good CEO maximizes profit, and our CEO wants to be a good CEO. This group also has a cross section of abilities, some are very smart, some are dumb, some are extremely physical, some are not physical at all.

The CEO uses the people around him that he thinks would be useful. However since there is a cross section of ability, the CEO finds that to use all the people, even the people with low ability, would cost a lot of money and reduce profits. He says to the people that have the least ability, “You are free to do what you like”, but since they are not very competent, they are left floundering.

These examples are obviously simple, but they reveal an interesting aspect of how we justify our actions. What would be considered a harsh move by a king is standard fare for a CEO. While the King is above the law, the CEO is beholden to it. How you define the narrative completely changes the actions and activity of the group. By shifting the narrative a little bit you can see massive changes in the outcome of the lives of the groups of people.

A King wouldn’t negotiate labor contracts with a neighboring town if he had laborers in the kingdom that weren’t working. The King’s mission is to look after all of the Kingdom, even if the foreign workers cost him less money, the king would still be responsible for the carrying cost of his unemployed workers and would be incentivised to find his own laborers work.

On the other side, the CEO wouldn’t pay laborers that he didn’t need just because they lived in the same community because the CEO’s intent is to maximize profits for the company, not to take care of his subjects, the CEO would gladly take the cheaper labor.

You could also imagine a scenario in the Kingdom where a large group decided to leave. The King’s responsibility is to the Kingdom and not to the individuals, and he would be justified in using the most physically able yet loyal subjects to stop the people from leaving. It is in the advantage of the Kingdom to have a large population that could be used in a time of war. So in order to keep people within the Kingdom, the King could use force justly as it is in the best interest of the Kingdom– even if it is not in the interests of some of the individuals of the kingdom.

Narrative Drift

What if the narrative that defined the word “King”, was not that of a person who leads while looking out for the best interests of the Kingdom, but: “the person who leads that has the most power.” The same narrative that defines the King also creates the structure and the character of the Kingdom. The structure affects the system universally if not equally. The same goes for the CEO. Each group has a different character, based on two parts. First the narrative structure, in our example Kingdom versus Corporation. And secondly, the individuals that carry out that structure, in our examples a Good-King versus a power-hungry king.

Even if we assume that a ‘King’ should be, “the person who is willing to sacrifice herself or himself for the good of the Kingdom, knows the kingdom’s subjects better than anyone else, has a vision to move forward, and balances the need for growth with the need to care for its citizens.” Even if the goals are clearly outlined, how to achieve the goals, the conditions which create them, and people’s opinions of them may change. So the practical definition of “King” can drift which affects the intent of the word.

In order to combat the drift, you must defend the story of “who is the King?” with a narrative– that narrative reflects intent. Those narratives could be, divine right, patriarchal tradition, a contest to decide who has the nicest singing voice, or a wrestling match to see who is strongest. Each one of these things will affect the character of the rest of the narrative, by highlighting a value system. This is how narratives work, they are intertwined into the very fabric of society that defines what we think is just and right. Not only do our narratives shape our opinions, our opinions shape or narratives. It is a delicate sort of dance between external and internal factors that are in constant flux.

Imagine you are back in a Kingdom, but there was a drift in the land and the narrative for a “Kingdom” was perverted from the good-king model to: “the king is the person with the most strength.”

Individual strength is the central ideal in this society, can you lift this heavy object? Can you fight and kill this person? Anyone in this culture that relies on the help of another is considered weak.

In fact, there is no word for “help”. The word they use for “help” translates to “weakness grows”. How do you show in this society that helping can be mutually beneficial, when to them, the idea of helping someone would undermine their culture by subverting their core principal: strength.

This is how narratives control your behavior and idealize intention by the way they order the base level symbols that you use to see the world around you. To break out of narrative control you must look at the connections of the narrative you are in and compare those connections to connections in other narratives.

Comparing basic narrative structures we can see how the values and the character of each group would change. Loyalty is paramount in a Kingdom. But the Kingdom has a responsibility to its subjects. Using our simplified “Good-King” narrative, a kingdom would be less focused on innovation and profit and more focused on caring for its members.

Profitability is paramount to the corporation, but the members are given the choice to be profitable or not, and if they choose to not be profitable or useful, they are free to act on their own accord and leave. Each system has a different narrative that results in a different character.

What is good in one scenario, can be bad in the other. If a King focused on profit, he is betraying his role as a king that looks after the kingdom. If a CEO looks after the unable, he incurs some unneeded cost that reduces profits.

These simple examples show how that by changing the narrative, or the rules that define the structure of the group, you change the actions and outputs of that group. The social expectation of the partnership changes as the narrative changes. The king and the CEO would behave completely differently depending on the narrative that governs the group, even though in this example, we assume that the individuals in the groups are identical.

Once you see how the narratives affect the population, you can choose between the narratives or create bits and pieces of both narratives to define your own narrative. Are you in a time where you need more innovation? Try a corporation. Need more security and stability? Try borrowing values and narratives from “good-king” leaders. By studying narratives you move from being controlled by ideals to defining and choosing your own ideals.