Q&A: Has "Narrative" Replaced "Truth"?
with John McWhorter
My friend John McWhorter has got a problem with what the term “narrative” has become. An inelegantly phrased comment about race at a party can, if the wrong person hears it, become a plot point about America’s continuing problem with “white supremacy.” A rude or thoughtless remark becomes “evidence” that we’re still repeating the same old story about oppression and resistance. After all, “Occasional backwardness aside, we’ve come a long way in this country” is a less exciting story than, “African Americans still have a boot on our necks. The struggle is as real in 2023 as it was in 1963.”
I take John’s point. And yet, I don’t want to abandon “narrative” as an explanatory device. Because, in fact, there is still a racial struggle in America, but the villain of the story is not, as it was in the mid-twentieth century, white resistance to black self-determination. It’s a more complicated story where the heroes and villains are often not so clearcut. We must rewrite the narrative from an erroneous account in which white supremacy still waits, twirling its mustache, to waylay black progress at every turn to a story in which troubled African American communities struggle against entrenched dysfunction and triumph by developing their own abilities. Discarding “narrative” altogether would deprive us of the ability to understand ourselves as the heroes of our stories.
Perhaps that’s not exactly realistic—heroes and villains are the stuff of fiction, not reality. Still, we can acknowledge that no good story entirely lines up with reality without discarding the power of stories to guide us toward virtue and success. In this excerpt from our most recent Substack subscriber-only Q&A session, John and I debate the uses of “narrative” as a socially valuable explanatory device. I think we end up on the same page, but it’s the way we get there that’s interesting.
This clip is taken from a subscriber-only Q&A session. For access to Q&As, comments, early episodes, and a host of other benefits, click below and subscribe.
Do you think that the preponderance of the word “narrative” is negative, in that it feeds into the notion of a person or a group having “my truth” or “our truth”?
This is Kevin Peet asking this question.
Is this usage a legacy of postmodernism? It seems to me it's a retreat from the straightforward notion of truth.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Yeah. I hate that word, the way it's evolved, because it can be used to mean “the way I feel.” The way I choose to frame my story is an alternate version of what the rest of you think of as empirical truth, and you have to respect it because I'm brown. I don't like it. I don't like it at all.
Even, say, twenty years ago, the word “narrative,” in that sense, was pejorative. Landmark uses it. You go to Landmark in order to figure out what to do with your life, because you're feeling kind of lost. Landmark, at least twenty years ago, was using that. “Oh no, you're being held back by a narrative.” No folks, I did not do Landmark, but back then many people thought that I should. And so I went to a couple of foundational meetings. No, you're being held back by a narrative. And what they meant by that was something that does not correspond with reality.
But now, of course—I hate to say it—it's the CRT thing. The idea is that the racial narrative coming from an individual represents that person. You know, Hasan Minhaj, the South Asian comedian who's been caught telling stories about racist things that happened to him that didn't actually happen to him. And he defends himself by saying that he's using these things and these routines because he's representing people of his ethnicity and their experience. That's the narrative thing. And I'm not with it. I don't like it. “What happened to me is a truth.” No, what happened to you is based on facts that the rest of us should be able to assess. So no, I don't like this new use of narrative.
I can sympathize with, agree with your objections to the misuse in that way, the way that you described of the concept. But I want to hold onto it anyway. I have this little thing that I do in some of my writing about race where I talk about the bias narrative and the development narrative. And I'm contrasting two different accounts that people are inclined to give. Folk wisdom, ways of representing history. The bias narrative being, “White supremacy has done us wrong. Structural racism needs to get its knee off of our black necks. Our ancestors were dispossessed and, you know, et cetera.” All the woes. Prisons overflowing broken families, low test scores, violent crime, blah, blah. Everything is accounted for by this historical account. So I use the word narrative to refer to this cluster of tales that people tell each other about what's going on in the world.
And I contrast that with another narrative, a counter-narrative, the development narrative, where the focus is on …
This is Thomas Sowell, right?
Yeah. You're going to develop your capacities to produce, and you're going to be more valued when you do. And that requires investment in skills and it requires acquiring discipline and it requires raising up our children. It requires developing the potential, the human potential. They're not mutually exclusive, but these are different narratives.
I want to hold onto this idea that you can identify, contrast, and argue about the stories we tell our children about how the world came to be what it is. What about America? What about the narratives that we tell about the country? And of course, warts and all, the country, but is it a rapacious bandit society of plundering racists, as the Ta-Nehisi Coateses of the world would have it? Or is it a city on a hill, as the Reaganites would have it? Those are contrasting narratives. Maybe neither one will suit you, but the concept, it seems to me, is useful.
This brings us back to "the Jews," as one says. I get you on that.
That's a narrative for you.
Yeah. And notice that Jewish people talk about the suffering, all these terrible things that were done to us and still are. But the idea is not, “We suffered, and therefore you should understand why we are down.” The idea is, “We suffered, and we triumphed.” And they're proud of it. That is part of why people are jealous of them. If there is what I think of as genuine antisemitism, part of it is jealousy.
Yeah, all right. A narrative can be used well. So for example, how do you tell black history? And the fashionable way of telling black history is here are the obstacles, and therefore you have to understand that's why more of us are poor than you might expect. That's really the story. Of course, nobody would say it that way, but that is the implication of the idea that to talk too much about black victory is considered pollyannaish and tacky and even disturbing among many, because once you talk too much about the successes, you're not talking about people banging their fists against the wall of structural racism and falling away, leaving a track of blood along the wall.
That's the story that we're supposed to tell. So I think a black history narrative that was about how we had triumphed would be much more useful, not pollyannaish, especially today, when so many of us have triumphed. Sure. That is a positive usage of narrative, but I worry about the way it's used among a certain kind of person.
Which would be in the same area that [Kevin Peet] is gesturing at when he says “postmodern” and when he talks about “truth is relative.” Yeah, the idea that anybody can spin a narrative and no matter who they are and what evidence they might cite to support their account, they should be taken seriously because it's their account after all.