In Defense of Narratives
Empirical evidence is not the only data we should use.
People demand proof. In almost all secular cases, most will not believe what you have to say unless you can bludgeon them with evidence. Any reasonable doubt must be squashed for something to be accepted as fact. In our political and social environments, we love to focus on the numbers. Proving a point is infinitely easier if you have the better numbers. Project A will cost less. Bill B will help more people. Idea C will have a longer-lasting impact. We all conduct this type of impact-weighing in our everyday lives. Our policymakers are expected to use this method to determine what legislation to pass.
I have nothing against the reasonable use of statistics to determine underlying trends. In our world, it’s simply unfeasible to measure the impact of every decision on every person’s life. However, embodying people as numbers dehumanizes the impacts of political decisions. Even in social situations, boiling down complex impacts to a statistical analysis can be problematic. The use of the voices and stories can combat this dehumanization. Offering perspectives from those actually affected by specific issues critically changes our understanding of them.
As Linda Martín Alcoff, a philosophy professor at City University of New York, explains, “the practice of privileged persons speaking for or on behalf of less privileged persons has actually resulted (in many cases) in increasing or reinforcing the oppression of the group spoken for.” The exclusive use of empiric evidence is entrenched in privilege — educational and socioeconomic status determine your access to and ability to collect such information. If I, as a white male, try to explain what the female African-American community wants or needs, that is problematic. I can talk about how specific issues might effect their lives, but I can not claim to have the authority of knowing what they want.
Dmitry Epstein, Josiah B. Heidt, and Cynthia R. Farina from Cornell Law School show the explicit benefit of using narratives. Those who might not understand the issues any other way have contextualized points of view that lend credence to their arguments. Everyday citizens might not be educated in the specific sector, but they are living the results of governmental decisions.
For example, let’s say we were debating the merits of food stamps. I do not receive food stamps or any other welfare program. I never have been on welfare. A vast majority of state and national leaders could say the same thing. Academics who study the economic impact of food stamps, in most cases, also share this lack of context. Adding the story of someone who actually uses the program into the dialogue would be a valuable addition.
Enough from me; let’s go to the people.
I am a 25 year old male living in Spokane, WA. I live with my girlfriend, her almost 7 year old son, and our 8 month old daughter. The lady and I are on food stamps currently, and we get just over $500 a month in benefits. We applied for assistance once we found out that my girlfriend was pregnant. We also applied for TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) since she had just gotten fired from her job. TANF helped cover part of our rent since I was the only one working in the household (about 15–20 hours a week, at that), which was nice, but we would have felt bad if we stayed on it even though they told us we could for a while. So we got off TANF and have just been on food stamps ever since.
The $500 a month sounds like an exorbitant amount of money to give someone just because they don’t meet the income requirements to sustain a comfortable lifestyle, but every penny of it has gone to good use. We are so thankful that there are programs out there that actually help people who need it. Honestly, I don’t know what we would have done if food stamps weren’t available to us. 98% of what we purchase with our food stamps is… well, food. Both the lady and I love to cook, so we make as much of what we eat as possible. I’m talking everything — flavored syrups for coffee, brown sugar, salsa, etc. So the money does go to good use.
I could provide countless statistic and numbers, but none will have the same impact as stories from the mouths of those impacted. Just because narratives can’t be qualified as objective “fact” does not mean they don’t contain truth.
If I could find better employment I would gladly be done with these assistance programs that barely help me survive. There is nothing but shame in taking these assistance programs. But the thing is society has me in a position where I cannot get good employment and cannot for that matter find housing (I live with family).
Some of us are in this situation not by choice but because of the way society puts people in situations that are hard to overcome.
There are thousands of stories on thousands of topics. So, why don’t we seriously consider them more often?
In politics, one often hears the term ‘political elites.’ Narratives are the way to bridge the gap between the Average Joe and the powerful politician. Of course, we can’t expect every individual to understand the different stipulations and conditions of a given policy problem. We eventually have to weigh impacts and make a decision on a professional level. One of the biggest critiques of narratives is how impossible they are to weigh. However, that is not a reason to avoid them altogether. Empathy and connection are integral to the decision-making processes. Emotion and reason do not have to be purely separate. Decisions of morality and policy demand that we consider the lives of those impacted.
In the process, political decisions might become less black and white, but they never really were anyways, especially for those whose stories we hear. Numbers and narratives are not irreconcilable pieces of evidence.
If we are to truly live in a government of the people, it is time we start listening to them, too.