Friday, October 2, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: Fisher's Divide

As I read more carefully into Walter Fisher's article "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm", I'm impressed by his sketch of the divide between the rational and the narrative paradigms of public conversation. This divide clarifies for me the break between myself and those close to me over the issue of Trump politics, so I want to explore here what I think Fisher means.

First, Fisher posits two distinct paradigms for human communication: the rational and the narrative. These two paradigms need not be antagonistic — they can be complementary — but conflict is certainly possible, and I think that in the case of my evangelical family and friends, they are antagonistic. Let's see how and why, at least according to Fisher, who begins his analysis by describing what he means by the rational paradigm for public discourse.

The rational paradigm entered Western thought with Aristotle's Organon, and Fisher claims that regardless of its local variations over the centuries since, the rational paradigm has several consistent core features:

  1. Humans are essentially rational beings.
  2. Argument composed of clear inferential structures is the primary mode of human decision-making and public discourse.
  3. This argument is ruled by the dictates of the situation, the field, within which it occurs — legal, scientific, legislative, and so on.
  4. The rationality of one's argument is determined by subject matter knowledge, argumentative ability, and skill in employing the rules within a field.
  5. The world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved through appropriate analysis and application of reason conceived as an argumentative construct. (4)
These features of the rational paradigm lead to several problems that can undermine public discourse as I think it has today. First, to my mind, is the claim that humans are essentially rational in a formal manner. They aren't. Rationality, especially the scholastic kind, must be learned and cultivated. Stories are innate, syllogisms ain't. We must learn and practice this kind of rationality, and many of us — perhaps most of us — don't.

Then, in the rational paradigm, public discourse requires a certain amount of specialized knowledge of the field within which a rational discussion occurs: legal, economic, scientific, and so on. This has been particularly debilitating for public discourse as the various fields of human knowledge have become increasingly specialized and compartmentalized. In his famous 1959 essay "The Two Cultures", C. P. Snow identified the growing rift between the sciences and the humanities, which was rendering impossible communication between the two. Since then, we've come to see that the situation is worse than Snow thought: physicists can't talk to biologists who can't talk to sociologists, and no one can talk to mathematicians or deconstructionists. Being conversant in any of these fields requires more qualifications than most of us can manage.

Unfortunately, as Fisher notes, "The actualization of the rational world paradigm … depends on a form of society that permits, if not requires, participation of qualified persons [italics mine] in public decision-making" (4). The rational paradigm has come to require those experts — those qualified persons — who my evangelical friends resent as elites who think they are the only ones smart enough to make decisions about public policy. I, of course, think it perfectly reasonable to leave important decisions about Covid-19 to epidemiological experts, but my evangelical friends do not. Rather, they feel excluded from public discourse and decision-making — disenfranchised and denigrated — and they don't like it. They admire Donald Trump for standing up to these elites and telling it like it is, reclaiming the public discourse for those who have felt excluded for so long. The rational paradigm, then, says if you don't know most of the salient facts and the rules of engagement for a given discussion, then you should be quiet and let the experts talk. Donald Trump says fuck that and talks anyway. My evangelical friends love him for that. They think he is telling it like it is, even though all his facts are wrong. Keeping your facts straight belongs to the rational paradigm, and they aren't doing that.

The fragmentation of knowledge by what Fisher calls naturalism has also removed values from public discourse. Hard naturalism — physics, chemistry, and mathematics — ignores the question of values altogether, either turning it over to the poets and mystics or dismissing it as meaningless, "an expression of mere personal feeling" according to John Herman Randall, Jr. (5). Soft naturalism — biology, psychology, and the social sciences — seems intent on building "a science of values comparable to the science that was the glory of Greek thought" (5). Consequently, hard naturalism denies both public knowledge and public discourse as too permeated with value issues, and soft naturalism is trying without much success to create a scientific basis for the values that permeate public knowledge and discourse. Most of my evangelical friends find little sense of those values that they hold so dear in the language of either hard or soft naturalists. As they note, quite accurately, God is left out of most scientific discussions, and for them, God is the ultimate value. They find any conversation that ignores God confusing and repugnant.

Fisher says that "the effects of naturalism have been to restrict the rational world paradigm to specialized studies and to relegate everyday argument to an irrational exercise" (5). He may be overstating his case, but he does shine light on the issue for me. The strict requirements of specialized knowledge of the relevant field and the field's increasingly peculiar protocols for discussion and the exclusion of values as either irrelevant or impossible on a scientific basis excludes my evangelical friends from the very conversations that I find valuable. They find no values, and thus no value, in those conversations, and they are suspicious of the people who do. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, they resent the disdain they feel from people like me who look down on them because they cannot or do not join in these rational conversations.

I confess that I have been disdainful of those who ignore the facts and are irrational. If I'm to finish my novel, then I have to replace disdain with understanding. I don't have to change my preferred responses to Covid-19, but I do have understand why my friends and I are talking past each other. One of us needs to learn to speak the other one's language. I'm writing the novel, so I should do it.

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