Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Narrative Narrative (Part 1)

Narrative seems to be one of those words that’s really caught on in recent years. No opinion on politics or society seems complete without at least some comment on the “narrative” that we/them have built/are building/will build.
This thought actually struck me as I sat at the Lahore Literary Festival held in the city in February (yes, this is the average time it takes me to get a thought down on metaphorical paper).  So, as I sat through my third session where speakers spoke at length about the issue of the narrative in Pakistan, I found myself somewhat irritated by the fact that the conversations seemed stuck well within the confines of “the narrative”.
To be fair, this third talk was titled “National Narrative” so I don’t know what I was expecting. A small disclaimer, perhaps, that while we discuss these things, listeners should bear in mind other socio-economics factors that may have contributed to the events we are discussing. Besides, talks before and after that did not contain the word narrative in their title, and seemed equally fixated with the idea.
“But, you idiot,” I hear you exclaim, “it was a literary festival, of course they were going to focus on narratives”. And quite right you are, imaginary reader, and here exactly, is where one of the several problems lies. Bear with me.
Of course, since then, I kept a look out for the appearance of narratives and their explanations. Sure enough, from the mainlands of English newspapers to the coastal regions of Twitter, everybody and their uncle was going off about narrative this and narrative that.
I think there are several reasons for this trend, mostly driven by the explosive growth in the independent media in the country and a lack of trained specialists. Allow me to take you through them one by one.
Let’s take the Literary Festival example to begin with. Let me get into my bullet-proof tank, drive to a safe distance, pull out my megaphone, and humbly suggest that there is some level of personal ego-massaging and self-aggrandisement going on here. After all, who are these people who treat narratives like atomic energy; beneficial in the right hands, devastating in the wrong ones? These Op-Ed writers and “social commentators” are exactly the same people involved in the framing of said narratives. So, it comes as no surprise that they think and suggest that this is the most crucial job in the world. It’s sort of like, if the guy who cleaned the Apollo 11 rocket before launch, told you that had the windshield not been cleaned properly, there would have been no moon-landing! That may be true, but it’s far from the whole story. Furthermore, the importance of the narrative does lie somewhat with how much importance society gives it. So simply by saying it’s important, it becomes important!
The second reason narratives are in vogue is also fairly closely related to the one given above. The sheer convenience for lazy pseudo-intellectuals, such as me (specifically the ones who write about unquantifiable, vague topics such as narratives) is immense. Had I been writing about more earthy topics, such as, say, scientific developments or economics, I might have had to actually go through troves of literature and data to be able to back up my opinions with solid report-based facts. I would be open to attack by anyone who understood the subject, and would run the risk of being objectively proved wrong. For example, if I were to say that people were growing poorer in the 70s, I would either have to quote some figures, or run the risk of someone else doing so and proving me wrong.
On the other hand, if I were to say, people grew more intolerant in the 70s, I need not bother with any of that. Opinion, and even better, opinion dressed up as history, has the dual advantage of sounding profound, and being fairly unchallengeable. It serves, therefore, as a benign hobby-horse that will neither buck nor rear.
In fact, the simplistic arguments involved in discussing narratives means that everybody can have a good time throwing around terms like “leftist” or “right-wing ideology” or “democratic principles” or any other such term without the inconvenience of having to actually define or understand them. In the eyes of the narrative, we are all equal!
Moving on, another major reason discussions on narratives are doing the rounds is that they are easy to digest. Without offending the sensibilities of the reader, these writers are able to provide a nicely packaged, one-stop explanation for everything that has gone wrong with the country. The fault lies with everyone who propagated the narrative and everyone who follows it. It is unlikely that you are responsible for propagating the narrative. Furthermore, by reading said article/blog/tweet you have proved that you are a shrewd, intellectual, tolerant, humane, politically savvy Man-of-the-world. You, dear reader, are A-OK! You're on the inside track. It’s all these other morons around you who keep buying into this nonsense; they have let us all down. We must either fight them or rescue them from their own stupidity.
This feeds quite well off the fact that media outlets are also incentivised not to hire experts or worry about their aptitude in their specific fields. All they need are people who have the skill of holding an opinion (any opinion, really), and the ability to dress up said opinions and present them.
By the way, a glaring result of this was the whole Agha Waqar water-car story. For once, news channels were faced with a story where their masterly powers of storytelling were of no use. The science was either solid or it wasn't! Finding out which required some basic understanding of science coupled with a bit of reading up on the specific issues at hand. Not being equipped with the faculties required for either, news channels decided to treat the story in their traditional manner. They decided to call everyone on television and “talk it out” until they reached a conclusion. The result, of course, was that a story that should not have made it past a preliminary vetting phase became a national phenomenon. Week after week, scientists such as Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman spluttered in disbelief as they sat across Agha Waqar (science’s answer to the “social commentator”) who sat convincingly spouting nonsensical terms, while anchors cluelessly nodded at both with equal reverence. The one thing that kept Agha Waqar going was the fact that news media turned him into a narrative story as well – the poor untrained science genius who was going to solve everyone’s energy problems by sticking it to the oil companies!
Right about now, even I am growing tired of this topic. I can only imagine the amount of blood oozing out of your eyes. So let me leave the conclusions for my next post, while all one of you who made it thus far digest what I am trying to say.
I picked up this topic because of the harm I think this over-emphasis on the narrative does (notice that I don’t need to back up either this or the coming assessment).  Part deux will deal with exactly what harm I am referring to.