OPINION: Current events cannot be understood through narratives alone

Multiple official documents including a map of the United States and the census sit on a table.
Phillip Kong ’24 argues that reliance on personal narratives alone isn’t enough for the public to understand an issue. (Ethan Diaz • The Student Life)

For several months now, my Instagram feed has been filled with stories and videos about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans who have suffered at the hands of racist police. The posts condemn institutions, call for change and aim to raise awareness about the problem of police brutality. 

While I marvel at the number of my peers who are committed to achieving social justice for victims of systemic racism, I worry about how they’ve supported their opinions and spread information to others. Although narratives provide a powerful window into a world that would usually be buried by reports of numbers and figures, it is irresponsible to educate oneself about historical and current events through narratives alone, as they can be misleading about situations and create narrow views of complex events.

Narratives convey information in a way that has an intended takeaway for the audience by following underlying plots and evoking emotion. Further, they are typically told from the first-person or third-person singular perspective, focusing on the experiences of an individual. 

Non-narrative sources, on the other hand, include information from a variety of perspectives, which may include narratives but come from many individuals. Additionally, they consistently organize information in ways that can be accessed by readers equally. These sources include but are not limited to laws and official documents, quantitative data, meta-analyses and rigorous large sample qualitative data, which provide a broader view of a certain issue without the framework of a plot. 

To start, narratives about the same subject can be contradictory. For instance, if one only uses videos of the desperate situation of Palestinian children to argue for Palestinian independence without following them with more general facts and figures, they will not be able to have a nuanced conversation with someone on the opposite side of this issue who has heard stories about Palestinian violence against Israelis. Having more general knowledge on both sides allows for productive discussions on similar grounds.

Narratives simplify complex situations into just the issues they express. The disproportionate amount of atrocities committed by the police against Black people is egregious, and those who are infuriated by the lack of justice for individual victims are in the right. However, focusing on specific cases ignores the overarching problem of police brutality that affects a population even larger than the Black population and is a result of deeply rooted institutional racism that extends beyond the actions of a few American cops.

Second, basing one’s opinion on individual accounts can lead to overlooking the experiences of groups of people whose voices cannot be heard. In Maoist China, for example, peasants and young people, formerly oppressed groups, were mobilized and able to leave behind memoirs and records. They paint a picture of the heartless exploitation of peasants by the landlords. What is missing, however, are records of the policies implemented by the Chinese Communist Party that prevented the children of landlords from attending school and the murders of such landlords. The available narratives paint a lopsided picture of the land reforms in China.

I am not suggesting that we ignore the experiences of individuals when learning about an event or establishing an opinion. Rather, I propose that before indulging in heartbreaking stories, we learn as much as possible from non-narrative sources first. 

Non-narrative sources are by no means objective, as they also face problems of bias on the part of their authors, such as in authoritarian regimes. However, in a globalized society where countries can conduct research on other nations, the subjectivity of non-narrative sources is reduced compared to singular stories, which are harder to validate through alternative perspectives.

Once there is a general idea of a situation through non-narrative sources, anecdotes can enrich a reader’s understanding about what the facts and figures missed by showing their real-world significance. 

Additionally, when spreading information to raise awareness or educate others, one should share non-narrative sources before or in conjunction with stories.

One may argue that non-narrative reports are not as accessible as individual narratives, as it is difficult to read through many pages of writing without a plot, plus there may be the additional labor of interpreting numbers and graphs. Therefore, to reach a larger audience, it is better to use stories, which are easy to understand.

However, there are accessible ways in which non-narrative sources are presented. For instance, plain language summaries often accompany technical reports. Moreover, the essence of many quantitative sources can be easily interpreted through alternative methods of presentation, like graphs and figures. It is also possible to write a narrative based on a large number of stories that have been analyzed and coded to extract main themes. This would be considered a non-narrative source, because it’s not a story from an individual but a summary of data.

Public awareness of current issues isn’t enough — people must also understand them comprehensively. Even if more members of society can be informed, if they are misguided or have narrow opinions, it can lead to ineffective or harmful change. For example, the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, though employing a fictional narrative, diverted people’s attention away from the responsibilities of corporations in preventing pollution.

We live in a world where information moves quickly, as social media and mobile technology have made it possible to be connected with people around the world. At the same time, we are connected to the lives and experiences of all those people. This unprecedented interconnectedness between people of different backgrounds holds immense potential for us to understand more about different corners of society. However, we also need to be evermore vigilant about informing ourselves responsibly, not through narratives alone but in conjunction with non-narrative sources.

Phillip Kong PO ’24 is from Toronto, Canada. His favorite season is summer.

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