The Difference Between a Narrative and an Argument Part 2

The Difference Between a Narrative and an Argument Part 2 June 22, 2016

Warning: This post is Part 2 of this post.

ISIS have busied themselves with new and creative ways to get Christians to reject their moral and religious beliefs. They cut off limbs, dip families in acid, crucify, behead, and generally live out the best practices the perverse marriage of apocalyptic Islam and Grand Theft Auto can birth. They’ve had limited success. In the interest of efficiency, I’d invite them all to take a few notes from the West. Here we understand that, while the fear of pain and death is powerful stuff, the greatest fear of men today is seeming impolite. To change a man’s moral convictions, one need not attack them. One need not even argue. Simply make his convictions off-color, offensive, and unfit for the neighborhood barbeque, and voila, he’ll drop them of his own accord.

For we are not as frightened by God, community, personal consistency, or the moral law as we are by the petty norms of polite society. Let the rough, uneducated Christians renounce their beliefs when their lives are threatened; we renounce our beliefs when they threaten the “real life” narrative featured on this or that podcast. This is the brilliance of presenting narrative rather than argument. I may think Scientology is an atrocious money-making scheme born out of the inevitable collision between scientism, pop-psychology, and liberal-capitalism, but heck, I don’t want to say that to Cindy, what with her real-life story on The Church of Scientology’s website. Cindy owns a small piano-tuning business she inherited from her Father. Cindy likes lemon drops. Cindy first ran into Scientology after going through a dark time, and it has since helped her see the goodness in every person. My vague idea of true and false doctrine never reckoned on being placed in the socially suspect position of the guy ragging on Cindy.

Narrative doesn’t debate, it simply uses our fear of being rude to silence us for a moment. Having been cowed into silence, we will do one of two things: rank the value of righteousness over the value of politeness and dare to use our trembling voice, or justify our silence by dropping our now-rude belief.   

Of course, the greatest rudeness is to deem the rest of humanity incapable of moral discourse. It’s a perverse pride that whimpers at the sight of some bourgeois narrative, and politely resigns itself to let our family and friends continue in apparent falsehood without interruption. Dammit, this is Cindy we’re talking about. Is she not a human person, free to shirk off old habits, denounce old ways, and run into some new and strange light? Does she not have something of the radiance of a god about her, a being unfettered by her narrative up to this point, poised, even now, to leap into greater heights or ranker shallows? No, Cindy — and this is the dark, flabby, underside that wiggles under our culture of weaponized narrative — Cindy is to be consigned to her personal life story. She is her life-story — neat, fixed, bow-tied, and only a horrible bigot would question the content of her narrative. Transcendence, by which we reach beyond our immediate, narrow-minded world to some greater truth — transcendence ain’t for Cindy. Ecstasy, by which we stand outside of ourselves and radically alter the easy course of our lives — ecstasy ain’t for Cindy. Cindy is to be accepted for who she is.

There is, however, something exciting about the cultural turn to narrative. Generally speaking, we are far better at holding vague moral positions and general rules than believing that these moral insights should determine how we, our children, and our neighbors should act. We are shocked with the possibility of our moral position having actual consequence. We are put off by the whole thing the moment we feel the responsibility to speak against an injustice. Imagine, taking our vague idea that “greed is wrong” and actually applying it to a happy, helpful employee who denies his workers a just wage.

Narrative, simply by showing an actual person held in judgment by our moral beliefs, brings up the whole difficulty of applying our principles to the real world. The fact that we are thrown off by this simply shows that we have forgotten (or never learned) the distinction between holding correct ethical principles and being a good person. The former only requires that you know. The latter requires that you act, engage the real world, denounce injustice, decry evil, and practice virtue. Since living a righteous life, as opposed to thinking right thoughts, is arduous, it’s usually easier to drop the moral beliefs the moment any narrative makes them real.

Narrative, considered in this sense, is a sort of dare, or a game of moral chicken. “You have this moral belief.” it says. “Well then, tough guy, let’s see whether you really believe it. I will tell you a story. Within this story, your moral belief makes you the bad guy. If your belief was applied to the protagonist of this story it would hurt and confuse him. Your belief, then, is a spike. The hero is tied to the grill of the truck. The narrative will drive him towards you, and you will have to decide whether to change your moral belief for fear of its real-life consequences, or to retain it and be the impaler.” Usually, we change.    

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