The Narrative Was Right?

The Duke rape case has become a cause celebre in the Blogosphere quite properly because reverse racial prejudice on the part of the prosecutor, a group of Duke faculty, and the media portrayed well to do white Lacrosse players raping a poor black woman which turned out was contrary to the facts. The distortions were significant enough that the prosecutor may go to jail, but the prejudiced faculty and the media are getting off without paying any criminal penalty. In an article by Rachel Smolkin in the American Journalism Review a prominent member of the MSM gives his view of the problem (Hat Tip, Samizdata):

“We fell into a stereotype of the Duke lacrosse players,” says Newsweek’s Evan Thomas. “It’s complicated because there is a strong stereotype [that] lacrosse players can be loutish, and there’s evidence to back that up. There’s even some evidence that that the Duke lacrosse players were loutish, and we were too quick to connect those dots.”

But he adds: “It was about race. Nifong’s motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class… We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place… We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.”

What then is this ‘narrative’? At the simplest level it is just another word for ‘story,’ but is also a technical term used in contemporary journalism and literary criticism that adds several layers of meaning. As used by Newsweek editor Evan Thomas it would seem to include:

  • the idea that there is a general story more important than the particular story.
  • that this general story can be correct in some overriding sense not entirely bound by the specifics of an individual incident.

The Wikipedia article on narrative gives us a sense of the academic background of the term’s use:

a ‘narrative’ is a story or part of a story. It may be spoken, written or imagined, and it will have one or more points of view representing some or all of the participants or observers. In stories told verbally, there is a person telling the story, a narrator whom the audience can see and hear, and who adds layers of meaning to the text nonverbally….. This is distinguishable from the written form in which the author must gauge the readers likely reactions when they are decoding the text and make a final choice of words in the hope of achieving the desired response.

Look at the final words of the above Wikipedia definition “make a final choice of words in the hope of achieving the desired response.” In trying to enunciate a general theoretical principle I think the above passage reveals a serious confounding of the differences between literature and journalism – fiction and fact. In fiction the arrangement of words is always properly concerned with achieving the desired effect. In writing non fiction, adhering to the facts rightly takes precedence over whatever reader response the writer may desire.

The problem arises, I believe, because the intellectual atmosphere created by the kind of analysis of writing done in our universities associated with words like ‘narrative’ is not very concerned with the idea of objective truth and blurs the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. Journalists, I believe, have come to see their primary job as creating a ‘desired response’ as opposed to delivering the facts. I have no problem with these schools of thought pointing out that there are many points of view and that much truth is relative. I do have an objection when such theory directly effects serious issues involving the objective world. It matters whether someone was raped or not, died in an accident, or was murdered. There remain matters of objective truth that can and should be established regardless of the particular narrative the reporter would like them to fit.

I would argue that the press and the academics who rushed to judgment got both the narrative and the facts wrong. Just because there are elements of race and gender involved does not mean a particular well known narrative involving those elements is ‘right’. As a friend of mine who is both a Marxist and a feminist recently said to me “Just because Communism failed and wasn’t the universal answer we thought it was, doesn’t mean there are not issues of class and gender.” I replied that of course there were such issues but that it was worthwhile reconsidering them in the light of what we were learning about the limitations of Marxism.

A serious mistake made by those sure that the Lacrosse players were guilty is that they held a static notion of who the villains were based on a narrative that certain relationships involving class and gender are universal and unchanging. Times change. Static notions can become traps. News is about the ‘new’ which is why the facts should come first and drive the narrative, not the other way around. I believe that because of the increased emphasis on relativism in our teaching of the humanities, journalism has increasingly gotten these priorities reversed. It should be obvious to anyone getting to be an editor at Newsweek that an obsolete narrative is not in any way automatically ‘right.’ The world where young white men could do what they pleased to young black women in the South certainly existed in my lifetime, but is very different today. While I would not be at all be surprised if examples of the old relationship still crop up, neither am I surprised when the reverse occurs and false accusations are leveled in today’s social and legal climate. What I find most interesting in this case is just how robust the old narrative proved to be among most, but not all members of the press, and Duke academics.

I would add one more observation about what I think about ‘narratives’. They are in one sense an old friend from ancient Greece – Platonic ideals. Wikipedia describes them:

Platonic idealism is the theory that the substantive reality around us is only a reflection of a higher truth. That truth, Plato argued, is the abstraction. He believed that ideas were more real than things. He developed a vision of two worlds: a world of unchanging ideas and a world of changing physical objects.

Some people construe “Platonism” to mean the proposition that universals exist independently of particulars (a universal is anything that can be predicated of a particular).

It seems to me that a static notion of class and gender relations blocked clear perception of both the particulars and the larger social reality behind this case. Journalists, policemen, prosecutors and academics need to consciously check if their view of a particular situation is based on ‘ unchanging higher truths’ that may have become unreliable or even changed into their opposites. Ideas have a way of staying static in our heads while the outer reality changes beyond our ability to recognize it.


One Response to “The Narrative Was Right?”  

  1. 1 Akaky

    The narrative is always right, because if it isnt then the media would have to re-examine its prejudices, and what’s the point of having prejudices if you have to think about them all the time?

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