Sunday, 26 February 2012

It doesn’t even have to be true

Most of us are aware of the power of narrative, particularly in politics. Narratives compete mainly within mainstream media and the winner is hard to dislodge because it defines where the debate starts and the issues round which it revolves. But most of us also know the dominant narrative doesn’t have to be true.

It just has to dominate.

There are areas of life where narratives compete and truth has to sit on the sidelines as a lowly spectator. Anyone who joins a mainstream political party for example, must commit to a series of narratives some of which they may know to be untrue, or more likely, meaningless. It goes with the territory, with the fact of commitment to the mainstream narrative game.

Yet joining political parties is very much a minority interest. People vary a great deal in their attachment to narratives. Those of us who want a society based on principled liberty find it difficult to compete with the emotional claims, exaggerations, lies and distortions, the simple crowding out of principles by dominant, paid-for narratives.

Because dominant narratives are usually bought - it’s how politics works and power is maintained in spite of blatantly obvious failures. Failure often does no lasting damage to dominant narratives. They are merely adjusted, rephrased or even simply repeated more often until the failure lies safely behind us.

Principles are a positive hindrance because they clarify the debate and open the door to moral rather than political imperatives. Power must have its dominant narratives and the more authoritarian the society, the more dominant its narratives must be. Dominant but not necessarily true, because even nonsense will do.

The concept of harm.

Environmental narratives paid for by big government and pseudo-charities are designed to skew a whole range of debates in favour of more and ever bigger government. Environmental narratives are popular with big government because of their emotional appeal and flexibility with respect to policy.

Environmental narratives have also been used as a covert way to introduce new and previously unfamiliar ideas. These are disguised as principles using the ancient concept of harm. Many people have been induced to extend the concept of harm to the natural world, obscuring the fundamental difference between harm to humans and harm to non-humans.

So we end up with familiar notions of harm applied to the natural world and mingled with exaggerations and lies which are difficult for the unreflective to resist. Environmental narratives based on distorted notions of harm are easy for children to grasp too, because many are inherently childish, their appeal stemming from a naive view of the natural world.


Economic narratives are more complex and seem to be deliberately confusing. Narratives constructed to hide responsibility and waste, deliberately mingling cause and effect. One might almost suspect economic theory of being disjointed by design - as a way of introducing plausible nonsense into official policies, both overt and covert. Because in the end, it is difficult to see how big government would gain any advantaged from economic clarity - so we don’t get it.


Paid-for narratives exert a powerful influence over our lives, many people believing them to be true, or at least acceptable by virtue of their consensual status. We all know how difficult it is to persuade somebody that they are mistaken, to persuade them that it may be better to believe nothing rather than the official narrative.

It remains to be seen whether blogging will damage mainstream narratives or whether money and power will in the end prevail. Climate change is a good example of an obviously false mainstream narrative damaged by persistent blogging. The damage seems to be irreversible, the lies and distortions impossible to maintain, yet we still have climate change laws and policies in place and the BBC has yet to tell the truth about climate.

So tell it as it is and never give in. It’s the only way.


Anonymous said...

Interesting series of posts, but no time to think.

The media, advertising and politics have successfully combined to achieve politicians' primary objective - getting and
keeping power - as you rightly point out. Cheap, effective and covers up the cracks. But relied on cooperation between media and politicos (and it seems the police). Thankfully the blogs are an antidote so where is the blog equivalent of The Currant Bun?

Came across Peter Drucker's Post-Capitalist Society yesterday which lays out how we got where we are - up to a point.

He goes on about us all becoming knowledge-workers - but there seems something hollow in this narrative. I have looked around for a good follow-up - but no joy - any ideas?

James Higham said...

Climate change is a good example of an obviously false mainstream narrative damaged by persistent blogging.

Very much so and that above looks like a good opening line for a post on the construction and buying of narratives.

A K Haart said...

Roger - is Drucker still around? I read him years ago, but like you found him a bit hollow in spite of his reputation. I saw him as a good writer, but was never convinced there was much behind it.

JH - yes, I'm not sure we always appreciate how much damage blogging has done to climate change.

Okay it's mainly the big blogs, but smaller blogs may well reach an important audience too. Every little helps which is easy to forget sometimes.

Sam Vega said...

"Okay it's mainly the big blogs, but smaller blogs may well reach an important audience too. Every little helps which is easy to forget sometimes."

Personally, I was aware that there was this thing called "climate change", but I never really engaged with the issues. Too technical, and I didn't have the time.

My first thoughts about this issue were due to reading your blog, and David Duff's.

I'm very glad that I met the atheists and agnostics, so to speak, before engaging with the evangelicals...

A K Haart said...

SV - the fact that the evangelicals are so obviously evangelical first raised my suspicions as a professional scientist. I'll probably do a post on it some time.