We’re all living it, but the idea of a compelling fiction has long overtaken the concept of dour fact. The only way out is stepping further into the circles of Hell.
Fact and fiction are often spoken of as discreet categories, but all effective communication must make use of narrative. Instead of a tension between facts and stories, the two are intimately related. Pre-scientific knowledge across the world made use of narratives to explain the weather, the stars, the land, harvests, and cultural practices. The positivist methodology of science however set itself apart from myth and religion, and with it narrative as a communication form. Science, and following it, other serious academic fields of discovery, like economics or political science, set out to develop evidence and explain phenomena, but the meaning of this work and its discoveries is created by the ability to meaningfully communicate it to the public. To some extent, the disconnect between academia of various forms and the public at large comes from the rejection of common and readily understandable ways of explaining and communicating information. The idea of “ivory tower” academics is a response that communicates the perceived distance from reality of this work and these experts, and it does so through a sort of narrative.
In the deindustrialized world, particularly after the global financial crisis (GFC), the concept of the elite and a rejection of their authority has been important to understanding a break in the proceeding period of relatively predictable political patterns. The failure of the banking system, and according to some the political system, in failing to protect the interests of the public and perpetuating an unstable system of distribution, allowed for a questioning of the status quo organization of power. This meant different things in different communities within different countries; however, there is a common thread of rejection of the elite or the expert and a perception of their understanding of the world as divorced from the public. What this has meant is a loss of trust in the political establishment, the media, the financial system, and with it the questioning of the concept of facts themselves, as decided upon by those institutions. This phenomenon is perhaps most articulated in the United States, where a discourse around truth has sprung up across popular media news sources, something that previously had been relegated to ivory towers. This is because data and the citing of experts, particularly around the 2016 election and in its aftermath, was not persuasive for large parts of the U.S. public, in the face of narratives that created meaning out of the events and experiences of those parts of the voting public.
A fake news story that was circulated by, among others, Breitbart during the 2016 election did exactly that. The story of Twin Falls in Idaho, which surrounded a possible sexual assault committed by a child who was a refugee, of which the details could not be released by police, became the evidence of the dangers of immigrants and in particular those from the Middle East and their impact on American society. It added meaning, significance, and emotion to discussions of immigration policy. In the crowded news environment that exists particularly online but also on cable news channels, radio, and print, the attraction of viewers increases the propensity for news sources to sensationalize and create spectacle, and in some sense diminish its own impact in doing so. In order to cut through the wealth of often-conflicting accounts of the news and of the world, narratives deliver meaning to their audiences. Whether or not something is true empirically is inconsequential to its ability to communicate, to persuade, and to engage an audience. Truth is not necessary in order to persuade, and in some cases the truth, or the data, in times of difficulty and hardship, can be uncomfortable and perhaps confronting. A story which creates a clear cause and route of redress for the difficulties at hand is powerfully persuasive when compared to information that cannot produce a concrete answer.
When the impact of the news has been undermined by a lack of trust or by the crowding of information sources, the importance of the arts is increased, not as an alternative to facts, but as a vehicle for better communication and understanding.
This is not specific to Trump or the U.S. It is very much present in the discussion of climate change in Australia, for example. When now Prime Minister Scott Morrison presented a lump of coal before the parliament and said there was no reason to be afraid of coal, or when in response to calls for the transition away from non-renewable energy sources, politicians discuss fears for jobs and energy price hikes, they create and perpetuate a narrative that sets up working-class interests in conflict with the amelioration of the impacts of climate change. The effects of climate change will affect most quickly and most greatly the most vulnerable in our community, so the narrative here of a trade-off between the interests of the working class and taking action on climate change is a false dichotomy, however it is a powerful one built around the fear of change, somewhat ironically.
Narrative has long been engaged in marketing and formed the bread and butter of political marketing in particular, because of its ability to create impactful communication. This is a significant factor when thinking about those who vote against their own interests, because of the persuasiveness of narratives often around identity, values, and belonging. A response to this is the play currently on at the Living Room Theatre in conjunction with the Sydney Environment Institute called I just wanted to be alone with her. This play, which tells the story of an elderly woman who dies during a heat wave, makes the global local and tells a story which places climate action and the interests of the vulnerable in our society as compatible and, in fact, connected. This narrative also works to redress the gap in communication that has occurred between climate scientists and the public through the arts, making it personal, real, immediate, and urgent.
Narratives, through the arts and often fiction, create meaning for the public from information, and the spike in popularity of dystopian fiction like that of The Handmaid’s Tale in Trump’s America, as well as across the world, is an example of that making sense and of creating impact of the day-to-day news, of policy changes, and perhaps just of rhetoric changes in order to appreciate their significance. This is particularly important when so much is being said about Trump (and by him) which is directly contradictory, misleading, and often confusing. In order to make meaning from the continual back and forth of claims relating to Russian meddling the 2016 election and the related investigation, for example, of what the undermining of institutions, the electoral system, and the obstruction of checks and balances in the political system could mean and what is at risk, stories about overreaching governance systems have surged in popularity, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
To confront these persuasive stories and the meaning they have created from the facts, and the associated understandings of the world, what is called for is not data, not falsification of claims, but stories that explore alternate meanings and conceptions of society, our values, the self, and our identity.
Stories like these talk about individuals and experiences, and they take the news or the facts to their conclusion, exploring and discussing events in a way that allows the intellectual interaction of the public with this information. Narratives like these explain things that are at once already known, and yet not properly understood or explored. They provide a place for discussion and questioning, and create the space for empathy and understanding regarding issues and information, which can be abstract and intimidating. In times when the impact of the news has been undermined by a lack of trust or by the crowding of information sources, the importance of the arts is increased, not as an alternative to facts, but as a vehicle for better communication and understanding, doing so in a way that takes account of experiences, is aware of nuance and context, rather than looking for simple answers, and in these ways helps to create meaningful understanding of the world through discussion and storytelling.
Narratives like those that set climate action at odds with the interests of real Australians, or of the control of reproductive rights as moral issues which are the legitimate territory of governments, create meaning from elements of reality and frame them as threats to identity, values, and “way of life.” To confront these persuasive stories and the meaning they have created from the facts and the associated understandings of the world, what is called for is not data, not falsification of claims, but stories that explore alternate meanings and conceptions of society, our values, the self, and our identity.
Impact is not created by communicating what is in a strictly factual sense. What is salient, what creates meaning are stories, moments, and lives.