We live in a world increasingly divided by diametrically opposing accounts of civic realities, paired narratives that don’t just conflict, but wholly contradict each other, each claiming credibility and often achieving it within its target faction. The examples are legion, but take just three:
- the “Trump Won” narrative versus the narrative of the “Big Lie”;
- the “follow the science” narrative surrounding the response to the Covid pandemic versus the “personal freedom” counternarrative of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers; and
- the “structural racism” narrative versus the counternarrative of the “woke mob” and “cancel culture.”
In the case of the “Trump Won” narrative, the facts of the last presidential election are simply not relevant. The subtext is that Trump won some sort of moral victory that transcends mere vote-counting and, more worrisomely, that democracy itself is inadequate to the task of expressing and preserving what used to be called the “common good,” and needs a helping hand from those who know better. The “Big Lie” counternarrative presumes that Trump adherents are liars or deluded or, more likely, both, and that the facts of the election are being rejected as a purely political act, when what’s likely being expressed, at least by rank-and-file Trumpists, is a deep abhorrence of the outcome and an inarticulate, quasi-religious longing for a triumphalist, undefeatable leader. In neither narrative do facts really matter, as there is no reality shared between them.
The fear and anger arising from the Covid pandemic naturally resulted in two rigidly incompatible narratives, one invoking science and social responsibility, and the other based on libertarian notions of personal freedom and biological fatalism. The first narrative elides certain facts about the limits of scientific knowledge, while the second denies incontrovertible facts of cause and effect and subordinates the community to the individual whose life depends on it.
But for extremes of mischaracterization in the service of pre-fixed ideas, you can’t surpass the oppositional narratives around race and identity in this country. Those who promote a more critical, revisionist view of American history describe an irredeemably unjust status quo whose only solution is transactional reparation, while in the con-servative counternarrative, these are anti-American propagandists eager to condemn innocent bystanders to our racial history and absolve its casualties from any individual responsibility for improving their condition. Both factions dismiss the possibility of talking about racial injustice as both structural and provisional, an endemic reality that demands action and an inherited, lingering consequence of pernicious beliefs and attitudes that have, in fact, largely disappeared from much of American society.
These yoked, opposing narratives reflect polarized positions on the political spectrum to be sure, but their most worrisome characteristic is that they are not susceptible to resolution or compromise by resort to facts, not only because the underlying facts are themselves in dispute, but more importantly because there is a very real sense in which facts no longer matter.
And facts no longer matter for a variety of reasons, among them that the reporting of what we used to think of as objective truth has proliferated beyond traditional print and broadcast media to include radically democratized and unvetted internet platforms; that the authority, be it academic, governmental, religious or scientific, necessary to establish (or dictate) a particular fact is presumed to be corrupt or at the very least agenda-driven; and that the critical thinking required to sort fact from propaganda and opinion is no longer taught, or taught well enough.
But facts no longer matter for the added and more insidious reasons that the very idea of an irreducible consensus about a shared reality – that is, a fact – has become suspect, that the notion of “objectivity,” whether in journalism or science, has come to seem childishly naïve, and that individual experience, no matter how idiosyncratic, has been elevated to an authoritative status that dwarfs and disdains what were once communally-distilled truths.
In much the way that the idea of democracy and majority rule has become entirely subject to the political meta-reality of who is allowed to vote and which of – and whether– those votes are counted, the idea of objective truth has become subject to the meta-reality of who gets to speak, and who is allowed or willing to listen. The logical extreme of libertarianism is the utterly free and utterly unpersuadable individual whose reality is his own subjective construct. The logical extreme of progressivism is a moral indignation that condemns an ever-larger segment of the populace to ridicule or professional exile.
How did we get to this dubious pass? I believe that part of the answer lies where we might least expect it: in Anglo-American legal system.
For a case study in contradictory narratives, listen to recent accounts of the trial of three white men in Georgia for the killing of a Black man they accosted after chasing him around their neighborhood, and the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three men and killing two of them during the unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year. In each case, you will hear the killers characterized, on one hand, as reckless and/or racist vigilantes who gunned down their fellow citizens for no defensible reason, and, on the other hand, as perhaps over-zealous but well-intentioned protectors of civic spaces, acting only in self-defense or in the defense of others and their property. (The possession and use in public spaces of an AK-15 style rifle by a teenager, and of a shotgun and other firearms by men old enough to know better, is unfortunately not on trial in these cases, being as how these absurdities are considered a settled constitutional right.)
These are completely incompatible, contradictory narratives, and the jurors in these cases are charged with choosing between them, despite the fact that the truth – insomuch as it can be found – undoubtedly lies somewhere in between, in that situational chaos that only that uniquely American combination of anger, recklessness, fear, testosterone, and unfettered access to guns can produce.
But the Anglo-American legal system of justice admits no such nuances, being founded on the premise that the forcefully adversarial presentation of opposing narratives to a tribunal (a jury, in these cases) will result in the divination of what will be deemed, for all practical purposes, the truth, and that truth will be acted upon for better or worse. The defendants in such cases are constitutionally guaranteed counsel to help shape and promote these carefully crafted (not to say fabricated) narratives on their behalf. Indeed, for a lawyer to provide less than this sort of “zealous advocacy” is a form of malpractice that can subject him or her to sanctions or disbarment.
All of which is to say that at least one and possibly both sides in cases like these is — not to put too fine a point on it – lying, and not only is that not a bad thing under the law, it’s the expected thing, for it’s out of this systematic assertion of extreme, opposing, often fact-indifferent narratives that we are, against all logic, supposed to discern the truth.
This concept of truth by combat isn’t confined to criminal law, of course. Your average divorce or lot-line litigation will churn up opposing narratives no less extreme. We are a famously litigious society, we Americans, and at the cultural level our reflexive, compulsive resort to the courts, in addition to advancing a few always-tenuous civil liberties, may have subliminally inculcated in us the baseline assumption that civic life, like a criminal trial, allows no margin for compromised views or stipulated facts, but requires that we defend our increasingly separate realities with oppositional narratives unmoored from moderating information or sympathies.
Lost in all this is the language of compromise that prevailed for much of the post-war era, a more modest, common narrative that would not only describe a shared reality, but would allow us, together, to shape it.