Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: Good Reasons

As I think about Fisher's argument, I am more and more persuaded that the narrative paradigm helps me explain the disconnect between my arguments about Trump and the arguments of my Evangelical friends. First, we usually argue at different scales: I'm arguing from the rationalist paradigm which focuses on a narrow, prescribed perspective and they from a narrative paradigm which has a much wider reach. Let me explain.

Fisher claims that the narrative paradigm includes the rational paradigm, superseding it without negating it. He says:

I want to stress, however, that narrative rationality does not negate traditional rationality. It holds that traditional rationality is only relevant in specialized fields and even in those arenas narrative rationality is meaningful and useful. (10)
In a sense, then, narrative is the frame within which a technical reason can function. When Newton used a new technical reason (calculus) to formulate the universal laws of motion, he did so within a narrative — a frame — that relegated God to the role of watchmaker who created the mechanical world, set it running, and then was largely absent as the wheels and engines whirred reliably throughout the Universe, managing both the arc of the moon and the fall of an apple. His story didn't quite rid the Universe of God (Laplace did that a bit later), but his narrative distanced God far enough that the Universe could follow the universal laws of motion without divine interference or help. The story provides a suitable frame for Newton's technical rationality, his mathematics and calculus. All technical rationality has a similar relationship with some enfolding story, just as all systems have a similar relationship with their ecosystems.

An immediate problem with technical rationality noted by Fisher is that not all people can use any given technical rationality. I, for instance, cannot use Newton's calculus, which he devised for rationalizing the laws of motion. I assume I'm bright enough to do so, but I have not studied it. I've even forgotten most of the geometry and trigonometry that I last studied as an underclassman some 50 years ago. However, as Fisher claims, all people have access to narrative rationality with its tests of probability and fidelity. All of us can recognize good reasons for believing or not believing some story.

So what are these "good reasons" that Fisher says all human beings can recognize and use? As I understand him, Fisher examines good reasons through three lenses:
  • narrative coherence: Does the story make sense in itself, or as Caldiero says in his article Crisis Storytelling: "Is the story free of contradictions? Does it 'hang together?' Is it consistent (Fisher, 1985, pp. 349, 364)?"
  • narrative fidelity: Does the story fit well with other stories that I already know and believe? Caldiero says: "Does the story exist on the same plane as other stories the reader has experienced? What are the “truth qualities" of the story? Is the reasoning sound? How good is the reproduction of the story? What is its value (Fisher, 1985, p. 349ff; 1987)?"
  • narrative context: Both coherence and fidelity are tempered by a person's own "history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved (all of which may be subjective and incompletely understood)" (Narrative paradigm). Both coherence and fidelity — or what we might call the fit or feel of a story — is determined not solely by the characteristics inherent within a story but also by the life history of the people hearing the story. Stories that fit well with what people already know and value are more readily accepted. Those that don't fit require much more persuasion, if not coercion. Thus, we cannot think merely of an argument itself with its internal logic and probabilities as we can with a syllogism; rather, we must account for the ecosystem within which the argument is expressed.
Any argument about Trump that I might offer my Evangelical friends will always be tested not simply for how well it arrays and presents the facts, but also for how well it fits with stories that my friends already know and believe. Even if my argument, which itself assumes a larger story, is internally consistent and logical, my friends will reject it if it does not hang together with stories that they already know, believe, and trust to give meaning to their lives.

An easy example is my argument to Evangelicals that Trump's personal life does not meet the usual Evangelical standards for righteous living, a failing that they hated and castigated Bill Clinton for. I was raised under those standards, and I know them well. Other than his avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, Trump meets none of them. He lies, cheats, and philanders. He is vulgar in speech and habit. He is self-centered, petty, petulant, and profligate. I can produce ample evidence to support all of these claims, and my Evangelical friends simply nod, smile, and say along with Rick Perry, "Yes, isn't it miraculous how God has used Trump — the worst among us — to lead America back to the path of righteousness?" Or they might say, echoing influential Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr, "Well, we are not supporting a pastor-in-chief, but a president." Or they might join with Melania or Phyllis Schafley and say, "That's just fake news. Donald Trump's a devout family man."

I should not be surprised, though I often am. I'm certainly too often confused. In the face of all this evidence to the contrary, how can they continue to support someone who is so clearly not an Evangelical supporting their life goals?

They, of course, have a larger story that makes the facts I present irrelevant or incorrect. They first have stories from the Bible — or at least, their interpretations of those stories, which have often been reworked into a narrative more to their liking. The favorite one, of course, is King David, to whom Trump is often compared. Like Trump, David was a womanizer. He was also a murderer (as far as we know, Trump is not). Yet, David stands in the eyes of most Evangelicals as Israel's greatest king — not despite his flaws, but because of them. His flaws highlight the glory of God, who can use even a flawed human to work His Will. And God is still doing that today with Trump. This not only gives a pass to Trump's flaws but actually praises them as supports to God's glory. This view strikes me as most perverse, as it does some other Evangelicals, but most Evangelicals that I know accept some version of this story, at least well enough to swallow Trump's outrageous behavior.

But one story may not be enough, even if it's from the Bible and regularly retold in Sunday School. Fortunately, the Bible has more stories of sinners turned saints, as in the story of Saul the persecutor of Christians blinded on the road to Damascus and converted to St. Paul. But there's more.

Many Evangelicals are also familiar with the sinner-turned-preacher story of today. My own family's denomination had countless stories — often told in lurid detail by flashy evangelists in a  holy ghost revival meeting — of a flagrantly outrageous sinner suddenly blinded by God's light in a road-to-Damascus experience who gloriously turns from attacking God's kingdom to defending and expanding God's kingdom. My Evangelical friends and family see in the flesh a King David or St. Paul character in their pulpits and witness first-hand the amazing power of God to transform a miserable sinner into a glorious servant of God.

Perhaps you detect some sarcasm in this observation. I can see it myself, and I'm sorry, for I intend none.

I firmly believe in the power of religious stories to inform and transform a believer's life, and most religions teach and practice this power. For every spectacular failure of a Jerry Falwell, Jr, or Jimmy Swaggart, I see millions of people whose lives are enriched by their religious faith, and I deeply respect it. To me, this quiet, quotidian work of faith is the real story, but it lacks narrative coherence and impact. A good story needs a well-defined protagonist in conflict with exceptional forces. It's this heightened tension between good and evil that drives the story and makes it memorable (I'm in agreement with Flannery O'Connor here). Fortunately, some of these real-life heroic figures are more like St. Theresa or Billy Graham, and some are not. One character supports our faith, one does not. I think we need both for a rich, complex understanding of life.

But the question remains if and how the Trump as King David story is supported by good reasons as Fisher defines them. I think it is for those who accept the King David story as historical fact. The story is coherent, and it fits the pattern of a well-known and accepted story. Of course, the coherence and fidelity are not perfect. Trump, for instance, was not born a poor shepherd, but he has garnered a reputation for taking on and slaying giants such as China — to my mind, a reputation largely of his own fabrication, but a reputation nonetheless. And this points to a critical feature of the power of stories: once Trump becomes identified with King David, then he takes on all of the characteristics of David, including his ability to kill giants and drain the swamp.

Then, the Evangelical view of Trump as King David is well-tempered by their "history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character" of Donald Trump and the people retelling the story. My Evangelical friends know who they trust on Facebook and Twitter, and when those trusted sources retell this King David/Trump story again and again, then they believe it. Once the story begins to wear well in their hearts and minds, then evidence to support that story appears everywhere. For instance, they consider the 2016 election campaign itself: No one expected Trump to be the Republican candidate, much less the winner over Clinton. Perhaps even Trump himself didn't expect it, but he won anyway. And he won through the miracle of the Electoral College, which could only have happened through God's direct intervention. Once you accept the story, it's easy to see the Hand of God in this improbable event. Forget your statistics and the arcane machinations of the Electoral College. This was God at work to bring America back to Him. And He used Donald Trump to do it. How wonderful and glorious is that?

This brings me to thoughts about the ecosystem within which a story emerges and sustains itself. More about that later.

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