This morning many were learning of the passing of Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, at 84. No human other than Jesus is perfect, but Powell was in more than one way an important figure in U.S. military and government matters for years. Many, including myself, mourn his passing. In my case, an experience in undergraduate journalism school involving Powell was a huge lesson to me on the use and power of narrative, of storytelling, often as a way of simplifying the world to make it digestible, but also as a way of influencing.
This news also provides an opportunity for a timely detour before continuing the “He Who Laughs” post. Soon, God willing.
This blog began with a post, “42 is Not the Answer”, about mankind’s search for answers to “life, the universe, and everything” in a fictional supercomputer called Deep Thought. They were left with “42”, or not much of a narrative.
As I wrote in “Godly Offspring”: about the story of Genesis 38, “Judah had created his own narrative to explain his misfortune as Tamar’s fault, when it was really God’s judgment for the sins of Judah and his sons.” However, Tamar’s children became ancestors of Jesus!
In “Man in Need of an Ally”, Zacchaeus was condemned based on being reduced to a representative of a narrative used to simplify a complex social and political situation. Jesus loved Zacchaeus, forgave him, and now he has eternal life!
Narratives are everywhere and are enticing and powerful.
Some of my favorite quotes deal with the danger of narrative and the need to be aware of it:
“It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.” ― Mark Twain
“Beware of single cause interpretations – and beware the people who purvey them” – Jordan Peterson
“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – Howard Marks
The examples below are not intended to show that one political party is good or the other is bad. That would be an unhelpful, divisive narrative. Politics is a sometimes-dirty game, and the media are sometimes enablers – on both sides. The point is that people often believe in, and act on information they believe is reliable but that is always incomplete and sometimes inaccurate. Also, sometimes the information is intentionally incomplete and inaccurate. The dots of the pointillistic narrative are never the full picture and sometimes aren’t the right color. I confess this applies to everything I write, but perhaps particularly to some of this post.
Narratives push us to forget that, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote: “The line separating good and evil passes, not through states, not between political parties either, but right through all human hearts.”
Influencing the Blame Game
In 1995 and 1996 the U.S. government, just as they are now, were fighting over more spending and how to pay for it, resulting in two “shutdowns”, one for 5 days and the other for 21. Around this time, a member of the White House staff came to our journalism class to talk about the experiences of an “insider”. One thing he shared with us was that Bill Clinton was on the verge of backing down from the shutdown confrontation but decided to continue digging in when Colin Powell announced he would not run for president in 1996. Powell had bi-partisan support as a man of character and military expert and was expected by many pollsters to win. However, he had no desire to be president, citing a lack of passion for it, and an unwillingness to put his family and friends through the potentially painful process. Clinton, knowing the other Republican challengers weren’t as strong, knew the political damage of continuing the government shutdown would be minimized. Clinton also knew he had help in managing that.
The other thing shared by this guest speaker was that the reporting of polls about attitudes regarding the shutdown was being misrepresented. Many media outlets were reporting that most voters “blamed” the Republicans for the shutdowns of the government. What we were told though was that the question – as presented to those answering the poll – was about who is “responsible” for the shutdowns. So, if you answered “Republicans” to the poll because you were convinced that they were doing the right thing by protesting either the amounts or specifics of the spending proposals, the poll reported it as “blame”, not as a conscientious objection. By changing one word, “responsible” which is less of a value judgment, with “blame” which assigns a clear, negative, value judgment, public opinion was swayed.
As noted in an earlier post, More Than Truth, I saw very few examples of outright lying while in school, but there were some. In this case, the public had no idea of these two things, which were told openly to a classful of future journalists. The narrative was created, put on the hook, and swallowed by many voting fish.
All of the Above
Another example is narratives around the “Global Financial Crisis” of 2007-2008. This was an extraordinarily complex series of events, set up by years of blunders by possibly millions of people, yet still some pin the blame on just a handful of “bad guys” who represent the Bogeymen of “the rich”, “deregulation”, “regulation”, “big banks”, “house flippers”, etc. But what if the answer could be “all of the above”? The best evaluation I’ve read is a memo called “Whodunit” by Howard Marks, a widely followed investor who is known as a balanced thinker. It’s 13 pages and you can read it here (memo link), but who reads 13 pages of anything anymore? Especially something designed to extinguish partisan fury-inducing narratives, rather than inflame them? I’ve summarized Marks’ memo in the past as saying “regulation tied the gas pedal to the floor, while deregulation disabled the brakes,” but really any explanation vastly oversimplifies one of the most complex sagas in financial market history. Something like a Global Financial Crisis was not caused by the butler.
This does not just happen with once-in-a-lifetime events. In the financial press, billions of dollars of daily transactions in the stock and bond markets are reported as “Markets were Mixed Today on Wall Street”. Never mind that much of modern trading doesn’t even take place on Wall Street, or that all days could be called “mixed”.
A common topic today is “what’s wrong with the labor market?” Like the Global Financial Crisis, there are competing narratives and the truth is probably a combination of “all of the above”, rather than any one cause. One reason less people are working is because we’ve had a pandemic, and many, many workers have passed on, or remain sick. That’s difficult to talk about in a “professional” meeting. Government policy plays a part, but which government caused, or sustained, a global shortage of workers? Does U.S. policy explain other countries’ shortages? Many workers simply retired earlier than planned, helped by higher housing prices and stock market values. For some, day care is not available. For some, they have prioritized other things. The list goes on and on. “All of the above.”
These are just samples from my experience, but referring back to the Howard Marks quote above -“In my experience, the more I know about a subject, the less I’m impressed with related media coverage” – I expect you have many more examples based on your knowledge of other subjects. And here we must be careful about Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 8:1 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Love Requires Humility
Like many topics on most days, much of today’s media coverage of Colin Powell’s death will be a battle of narratives. Exactly how much integrity did he have? What do they mean he “died of Covid complications”? Who is to blame? What kind of president would he have been? This discussion is good when it is done in the right Spirit, but unfortunately it often isn’t.
I’ll chime in on the debate with “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and note that only God has a full picture of Powell’s life. I pray he found his hope in Jesus and for comfort for his family and friends. No person deserves to be treated as an incomplete narrative.
I’ll also follow that up with a twist – all narratives are flawed and fall short of the glory of God. Only God has a full picture of every life, and I pray we find our hope in Jesus. No person deserves to be judged based on an incomplete narrative that they get shoe-horned into. As they say, Be Kind, you never know what someone is going through.
Each of us is an intricate matrix of beliefs, at different levels of truth and of conviction on every possible topic. In my examples, I’ve shown some of my own biases. Forgive me. Here Ephesians 4:1b-2 has guidance for us, where Paul, writing from prison, urges “you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
In humility we seek to view other’s biases and narratives as different than ours, not worse. In addition, sometimes we might view something as a flaw just because it is a difference. Just as we are not perfected instantaneously in this world, neither are others and we must be patient. In love, we walk as God has called us, putting other’s needs above our own, because this is how we grow in unity and fruit of the Spirit.
“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Cor 4:6
Jesus is the Answer and He does not fall short of the glory of God. Inject Him into your narrative as you would a grain of salt.