The Gear Shift Narrative

Years ago, while driving for my parents, I had just pulled out onto the highway when I heard a loud roar. Uh-oh: I shifted into low. A quick check showed that it was in drive. Is it the transmission? No, the RPMs looked right for our speed. Then I saw a pickup with mud tires behind us in the adjacent lane, and gave a silent sigh of relief. The roar was the sound of the mud tires on the pavement.

About that time my father said “You’ve got it in low.”

“I thought so, too, but it’s that truck with mud tires over there, just behind us.”

He looked in the side mirror at the truck and said nothing.

About half a mile later, he said “I think you’ve got it in low.”

“No, Dad; it’s that truck with the mud tires.”

About then, the truck passed us, and the roar disappeared.

Now that’s over with.

Wrong. About a mile further, my father said “Son, I think you’ve got it in low”

Now, by this time the roar was long gone. Everything sounded normal. “No, Dad; it was that truck with mud tires. See how the roar’s gone? I already checked, and I have it in drive.”

My father said nothing more until we got to our destination. As I pulled into the parking lot and braked to a stop, he said “Don’t put it in park; move it over one.”

In other words, he was convinced I had it in low, and he was going to show me he was right. I moved it over one, to neutral, and revved the motor. We remained stationary.

“You moved it over too far,” he said.

This is a perfect example of a narrative in the sense of our world view. A narrative is the framework and sequence of events that forms a coherent story. It the sense of world view, a narrative is the framework in which we interpret events in what seems to us to be a logical manner.

My father interpreted the roar as the transmission shifted into low, just as I initially did. His conclusion formed his narrative. From that point, he was looking for evidence that supported his narrative. When the truck passed and the roar disappeared, he ignored it. When it didn’t–my shifting the car into neutral instead of drive –he produced an explanation that preserved his narrative.

That’s common for everyone. This is why, when Fox News contributor David Webb made the remark on a satellite radio show that he felt his qualifications were more important than his skin color in applying for media jobs, CNN legal analyst Areva Martin said that he was exercising his “white privilege.” Except David Webb is black. Ouch. Good laugh there, but let’s think about this. When Mr. Webb stated qualifications mattered more than skin color, Ms. Martin’s narrative immediately explained Mr. Webb’s remark as that of a white man speaking from “white privilege.”

While we might snicker at Ms. Martin’s gaff, we all do the same thing to varying degrees. A Marxist will view events by the narrative of the class struggle; a bigot by the narrative of racism. In the 1970s, a popular narrative was for someone to believe they were “kept down by ‘the man.’” A classic example is someone who’s convinced their spouse is unfaithful. Even if their spouse isn’t, they tend to interpret what they see through that narrative.

As with my father’s world view about the roar, it’s almost impossible to challenge a narrative from without. I would be surprised if Ms. Martin reexamined her view on “white privilege,” because that usually doesn’t happen when something challenges our narrative. And such is the nature of a narrative that it’s far easier to see someone else’s than it is our own. Creating a narrative of how we think things works is so basic, we do it automatically and seldom notice it.

One tip-off of a narrative is that it tends to categorize people as heroes or villains, with the heroes as good as good can be, and the villains so wicked that they have no good within them at all. Thus, in our mental narrative, all that a hero does will be from good motivations, and all that a villain does will be for the vilest of reasons. When we ignore the bad of our “heroes” and the good of our “villains,” that’s a strong indicator we’re operating more from narrative than reality.

If we’re willing, we can pick up on this in ourselves, though it may be harder if we’ve never encountered anything really evil. I ran into this very thing this week, in a discussion of the late Senator John McCain. McCain was never one of my favorite politicians, but he was a bona fide hero, and the POW I met who knew him at Hoa Loa Prison held him in high regard. An examination of the life of John McCain will take into account all events, unless it’s caught up in a narrative. In this case, the narrative cast McCain as villain because of some actions he took late in life, and thus the good, his status as a genuine war hero, had to be downplayed and discarded. And since McCain had been cast as a villain by that narrative, the person discussing him had no problem equating him with Hitler, which is a pretty far-fetched assertion.

Yet such extremes are common in narratives. One thought is this is the process of “de-humanizing” those we see as opponents, It could just as easily be that world view narratives are closer to a stories than we might think, and simplistic ones at that. The hero that can do no wrong and the villain that can do no good are common in fiction, probably because this is how we tend to form internal narratives.

Thus, we see on the Left the vilification, beyond all rationality, of those they deem “villains.” Yet conservatives have their narratives, too, and is where I ran afoul of someone who not only dismissed John McCain’s time in Hoa Lo, but also the opinion of another POW who was there and knew him. It preserved his narrative, but at the expense of trivializing what the POWs went through in the Hanoi Hilton.

That’s how all of us tend to handle things that we cannot reconcile with our narrative: we dismiss them. To maintain his narrative that I had the car in low, my father had to dismiss that the roaring stopped when the pickup passed. The other way we tend to handle this is to treat facts we can’t dismiss as exceptions. This allows us to “encyst” contradictory information. Watch a bigot encounter someone who doesn’t fit his narrative, and odds are he’ll treat them as an exception rather than to question his world view.

Of course, no one is immune to this. Certainly not myself. The question is more than how do we know something to be so; it’s also how do we know we have an impartial opinion?

If I had the answer to that, I’d write a self-help book. The best any of us can manage is to be vigilant with ourselves; the hardest is to be self-honest.

When you run into others with a narrative you know to be wrong, you can point that out, but don’t hold your breath waiting for them to change their world view. Whether it’s someone on the Left labeling everyone to the right of Joe Stalin a fascist, or someone on the Right who’s convinced that John McCain was evil incarnate, or someone convinced a car is in low when it’s in drive, it’s all part and parcel of the same thing. Narratives are downright intractable.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to simply walk away.