Media and the art of manufacturing narrative

At an event of Upword, a new initiative that I am a part of, I was moderating the panel and therefore, kept my impulse to participate in the lively discussion largely in check. Later, however, I was asked by more than one member of the audience to write in greater detail about the theme of the discussion, “Media and the art of manufacturing narrative: Storytelling in the service of political correctness”. There is much to be said about the media and how and why they get things wrong all the time but I will try and address the fundamentals in this article.

Nassem Nicholas Taleb coined a term for the compulsive habit of intellectuals to offer half-baked theories regarding events around them and successfully providing the public with a much-needed explanation for ‘news’, which is essentially organized hearsay. He calls it the ‘narrative fallacy’ and demolishes the practitioners of the art with his incisive commentary in “The Black Swan”.

Taleb draws liberally from the works of one of the most illuminated minds of the 20th century, Daniel Kahneman. The exchange, though, is not one-sided and Kahneman acknowledges Taleb’s contribution to the ‘understanding’ of the hollowness of our explanatory models of the world in his “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Both of them explain in their own ways, the illusion of explanation and how we hugely overrate this thing called understanding.

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To get a sense of how narratives operate, the stock market is a fitting analogy. When you sell your stock, you sell it because you believe it is the best time to sell it. However, on the other side, there is someone buying it believing exactly the opposite. Both the buyer and the seller have their skins in the game and thus no one can accuse either of being careless. Both are acting in their best self-interest. Both are fooled by the coherence of their respective narrative. The truth is that only time can tell what decision is the best and more often than not, it proves seasoned traders wrong. Stock-trading is glorified gambling and people who claim to be good at it are lying, to themselves and to others. This is pretty much established beyond the shadow of a doubt, even though an entire global industry thrives on the illusion of expertise.

The power of a narrative is in its coherence and its coherence is a function of the power it wields, which is dependent on how many people believe in it. Take the case of a morally ambiguous issue like Abortion. Is it appropriate to kill an unwanted foetus just because it is inconvenient for the woman bearing it? Or is it more appropriate to force the woman to have the baby and live with the burden for the rest of her life? The questions yield no easy answers for an individual but for a society, the choice is governed by the assumptions that the majority of people subscribe to. The rest just have to fall in line.

Monopolistic religions promote one narrative, one explanation of the origins of the universe and its working principle. Anything contrary to their narrative is considered worthy of punishment. Conversion becomes an unavoidable part of their strategy as it helps them acquire more followers to strengthen the power of their narrative. In the same spirit, Marxism offers one explanation for the whole of human history. DD Kosambi, the polymath Marxist, interpreted the Bhagwadgita as a conflict between classes, so complete was his surrender to his chosen narrative. Similarly, people who are paranoid are so convinced of the reality of their phobias that you cannot talk them out of it without risking your own sanity. India, on the other hand, never had problems with multiple narratives, which reflects in the age-old pluralism of this land. I suppose all ‘pagan’ cultures knew a thing or two about myths and their superiority to ‘facts’.

The Indian sense of history is quite distinct from this chronological reconstruction of the past that we know as historiography. What we call fact-based history, created by tying together the flimsy evidence available to us from the past and then attributing motives based on the lens employed in studying the evidence is an enterprise no less speculative than inserting interesting, and sometimes fantastic, stories to convey a deeper point about the human nature. By allowing for multiple accounts to thrive and not obsessing over THE ONE TRUE account, the Indian tradition has wisely avoided the trap of history being used as a tool for manipulation of identities. Many people have been taught to think of myth as a dirty word but I believe that it is really beautiful. For example, the history presented in Mahabharata is interspersed with myths like Krishna lifting the Govardhan hill on his little finger, unless someone insists that he really lifted a hill. The point of the myth is to impart a spiritual lesson that fact-based history is incapable of.

But what really makes some belief systems insist on one version of events? These are systems where power flows top-down. Any flow of information in the other direction is a threat to the order imposed by the Caliph, Pope, Church, President or the Supreme Leader. There is one explanation for everything and that explanation comes from the top. Where this command and control mechanism is absent, there is seeming chaos, for there are as many explanations of events as there are perspectives. Moreover, in societies that avoid the trap of endorsing the one true version of history, the menace of political correctness is automatically kept in check.

Media organizations take pride in their hierarchical structures, which are very much like the church and boast of the expertise of the people they employ. Because of this inflated belief in their expertise, they get things wrong all the time, as Thomas Sowell has documented in his “Intellectuals and Society”. Kahneman calls this the illusion of validity, the near-infallible pattern of humans to commit cognitive errors due to an exaggerated belief in their own understanding. As Kahneman notes in an academic tone, most people are wrong most of the time but the experts are wrong more often than those who don’t carry the baggage of expertise.

In the spirit of the multiplicity of perspectives, we don’t claim to have the password to the objective truth. At Upword, we present the perspectives of the common people of India, whose feeble voices need an amplifier, to counter the one-dimensional narrative of the State, the Church, the Wall-Street or the Politburo.

Here is our first video.

We are not building any grand narrative. We are not countering any lies. We are not speaking for the left or the right. We are not building any bridges nor are we burning them. We are just amplifying the voice of those who lack access to the PR machinery of totalitarian ideologies. We speak for the plants, animals, forests, rivers, temples, deities and devotees of Bharat. We speak for you. We speak for ourselves.

Ashish Dhar, a Mechanical Engineer and an entrepreneur, lives in New Delhi. He is the co-founder of Pragyata, an e-learning portal dedicated to Indic knowledge systems.

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