We are our own novels
October 16, 2011
The presidential primary process is instructive, isn’t it? There’s a grueling, multi-year game during which a few people, usually a mixture of knowns and unknowns, become serious candidates for President. They debate endlessly and their actions are constantly scrutinized by a significant percentage of the American public (and perhaps the world). Candidates unpredictably lose and gain stature based on verbal missteps, things they may have done a very long time ago, things they are accused of but may not have actually done, changes in world events over which they have no control, etc.
I don’t have to name any names because this happens in every election, to candidates of both parties. (Countries with parliamentary systems seem from the outside to be a little less vulnerable to this form of selection, but I digress.) Think about what you really know about a major-party candidate - probably very little. And on the other hand, think about how much predictive power a misplaced comment or bad photo is likely to have once this person is elected. Very little, I’d imagine.
And yet pundits spend countless amounts of energy, time, and money putting together these little incidents into stories, because people believe they have validity and are a legitimate factor in deciding who to vote for.
In my own life, I’ve noticed I do this a lot. It doesn’t take much for me to decide that I like a certain person, or that conversely that I would never get along with them, perhaps just one brief exchange. I do this when thinking about my own life, too - I take lots of different events and incidents from my life, some of them very small, and I put them together into a judgment about myself. Yes, I skipped class again today. And I remember the time I took the elevator at my school (which students weren’t allowed to do) when I was in fourth grade. I can think of a few more incidents like that. I’ve always enjoyed flouting authority.
I fit the larger events of my life (the schools I went to, my family situation, my marriage) into those narratives and try to construct a story arc for myself, which might change from day to day. It’s a problem. As a way of informing future action, it’s sort of like choosing what type of car to buy based solely on the color of the paint - the decision is based on heavily oversimplified, and often irrelevant, data. And it’s possible to avoid making these judgments altogether, or at least treat them with less seriousness.
Another way to talk about narrative is to talk about “framing”. Say you get rejected for a job you’re interested in. One way to frame it is to say that it’s a sign the job wasn’t right for you after all. Another is to say it’s a setback from which it’ll take time to recover. A third would be to say that it’s the end of your dreams to do x. There are many fact patterns for which all 3 of these interpretations would be valid. As much as one might like to think this is definitely the way things are, you can actually choose how to interpret things.
It’s sort of like reading a novel. In ninth grade, I remember one of my fellow students asking our teacher whether any interpretation of a novel was defensible, since you couldn’t prove, say, that Holden Caulfield didn’t symbolize Santa Claus. My teacher responded that while you might not be able to prove it, some interpretations were definitely more defensible than others. But it’s a choice based on the evidence; there isn’t a clear answer.