03 July 2011

Narrative Subsumption

At the present moment, there's a bunch of lengthy discussions going on in various places over how Rebecca Watson noted very publicly that being propositioned in an elevator at 04h00 was an indication of the kind of behavior that discourages women from showing up at atheist conferences, and these discussions are full of the usual total gibbering failure of communication one might expect.

What occurs to me is that much of the process failure, the thing that keeps communication from happening, is that most of those involved are presenting the events as narrative, but by no means the same narrative.  It's a contest to see whose narrative wins, what becomes the accepted story describing the events, and, well, this has a bunch of drawbacks.

First off, events don't form narratives; brains form narratives, and the process must be thought of as lossy compression, because every time someone studies it, they find it's plenty lossy.  ("this is an instance of common pattern, isn't it?  Oh look, there go the inconvenient details..." saith the narrativizing brain.)

Secondly, narrative implies moral judgement; you can't even get to a utilitarian metric, you get to a sort of "what kind of story is this, that such an event would be found therein?" filter, and the discussion, rather than being about events, or even the kind of pattern represented by the events, starts being about the kind of perception appropriate to the kind of story that is said to contain and describe the events, and things have promptly gone too meta to have an actual conversation about. (At least not without a very large common body of terminology already being established.)

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, narrative subsumption is a way to construct hierarchy.  It's a conflict over whose reality map, whose pattern of perception, is considered right, and inescapably about how everyone else's, or every other story, is wrong.  This can be effective (he says, pointing to five thousand years of kings and emperors establishing political legitimacy through connection with official, god-sanctioned narratives describing ideals for society, human behavior, and individual persons) if the goal is to produce conformance to a fixed pattern of authority, but it is an active, ongoing barrier to co-operating in groups, especially flexible groups with situational organization.  (That is, you don't expect a fixed hierarchy to produce people who can handle all the problems; you grant authority relative to skill and past results at solving similar kinds of problem/doing this presently relevant kind of work.)

So, really, actually co-operating in groups—collaborative effort to solve problems—requires something other than a fixed hierarchy. (Just for starters, you probably don't know what the problem really is when you start.  You're going to have to change the people (which people, or what the know how to do) involved in order to actually succeed.)  But narrative subsumption—you must agree with me that this is the right way to tell the story—will only give you a hierarchy, so it won't solve the problem.

So, generally, don't do that.


jennie said...

I think I see what you're saying, but I'm not sure what to do about it. From what I've read of the kerfuffle, one party said "This happened. It made me feel this way. It was an unpleasant thing. Don't do this sort of unpleasant thing."

So there's one narrative, yes? That this thing was unpleasant ("creepy"), Moral: this thing is not a thing that people should do (if they want certain results).

Another party said "It was a harmless thing. You are overreacting."

And that's another narrative, yes? That the thing that happened was not a creepy thing. Moral: that individuals should indeed do that thing and things like that thing, and that if no actual physical harm ensues it's all good.

And then a bunch of stuff happened and people reacted. And, interestingly, the folk tradition happened to both the incidental Ur-narrative (which isn't the real Ur-narrative. People wouldn't have reacted with quite so much vehemence if this story had not been told many times before, I don't think.), and to the response narrative.

What I'm not sure is where and why the discussion turned from "This is a series of events and here's what they meant to me. Please consider this in your future actions," to "My story is the only story." And not being sure where and why, I'm not sure how the teller (or any other teller) can forstall this in the future, so that actual communication can happen.

Graydon said...

I have no very good idea what to do about it; I think it's a major cultural shift sort of issue, and that there probably isn't a single thing to do as a result.

So far as I can tell, there's the feminist axiom set that says "the default answer is NO; unless and until she communicates specifically to you in a sustained and unambiguous way that she's interested in you That Way, the answer is a flat, unambiguous, uncontexted no", and the patriarchal axiom set that says "the default answer is yes, with exceptions".

Most of the folks reacting to Watson seem to be having a moral (="most basic question - Am I good?") reaction to being told that they're doing something bad (by holding an axiom that the default answer is "yes, with exceptions"; that really is bad) by either denying the validity of the feminist axiom or invoking rules of social politeness ("how dare you say such a thing!" vs "it's factual, it needs no defense"). There are some layers of privilege management failure on top of that, but I think that's what's really going on and why there's such passionate intensity about the axiom that the default answer is "yes, with exceptions"; having to give that up means acknowledging you're a bad person, or it means the even tougher task of adopting a non-moralistic ethical framework.