Narrative can override truth

July 28, 2010


Not to startle you, but you have a narrative in your head. Dozens of them, in fact.

You’re hardly unique. We all carry around these narratives, these perceptions of How Things Are: customer service is extinct; athletes are spoiled and overpaid; kids these days don’t know what real music is; this newspaper has an anti-conservative/anti-liberal bias, whatever.

Some narratives are unsupported by fact, others sit atop a mountain of empirical evidence. The point is, we all have them and when some incident appears to confirm one, we rush to use it in our blogs, our barroom debates, our newspaper columns.

For instance, when Sarah Palin recently mangled the word “repudiate” (she kept saying “refudiate”) she was roundly ridiculed because it fit neatly into an existing narrative: Palin’s a dummy. Granted, it’s a narrative she herself created and has helped maintain, beginning with bungling a softball question (what do you read?) from Katie Couric in 2008.

Still, it’s worth noting that when President Obama mispronounced the word “corpsman” (“corpse-man,” he said) some months back, it received much less notice. That’s because there is no narrative that says Obama’s a dummy. To the contrary, he’s generally regarded, whatever one thinks of his politics, as a pretty sharp customer. So he got a break Palin did not.

But debate by iconic example often isn’t debate at all, if by that word you mean intellectual give-and-take, thrust-and-parry. Instead, one slams down one’s examples like a royal flush in poker. Game over, rake in the pot. And never mind the fairness or even the truth of the tale. After all, the object is not to reason, elucidate or persuade but simply to win, i.e., leave the opponent embarrassed and/or speechless.

Last week’s sliming of Shirley Sherrod offers a telling signpost of how far into this intellectual mudpit we have slid. With the exception of Sherrod herself, every major player was more interested in projecting or protecting a narrative than in simply finding and telling the truth.

Blogger Andrew Breitbart was so desperate to push a narrative of the NAACP as a hotbed of anti-white bias that he posted an excerpt of Sherrod’s speech to that organization as “proof” she was a racist without caring if she was.

The NAACP was so desperate to protect itself from Breitbart’s narrative that it promptly condemned Sherrod without even checking if the video was legit.

Team Obama was so desperate to avoid furthering the right wing’s “liberal extremist” narrative that it sacked Sherrod from the Agriculture Department without asking if she was really the hate monger Breitbart said.

As the world now knows, she wasn’t. She was the opposite of a hate monger, a fact indisputably proven by the simple expedient of listening to what she said.

That he was so easily able to move the White House and the NAACP to action (and media titans like Bill O’Reilly to condemnation) with such a crude hoax suggests Breitbart understands an essential truth of modern discourse: Stroke our existing narratives and we stop thinking. We are content to skate the surface of profound issues, call it debate and then wonder why the only people who hear us are the ones who already agree.

Ten years ago, Arthur Teitelbaum, then an official of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in another context: “Beware the moments when facts seem to confirm prejudices. Such times are traps, when the well-meaning are misled and the mean-spirited gain confidence.”

It is excellent advice. What does Breitbart exemplify, if not a mean-spirited confidence? Why not? He knows that we are a people loath to listen, resistant to reason, imprisoned by our own narratives ... easily fooled.

And the mudpit is getting full.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com. lpitts@miamiherald.com


bradh 7 years, 10 months ago

The Star gets rid of this knucklehead and now the LJW picks him up?

Ms. Sherrod had a nice story about not helping a white farmer because she was black, only to learn that it isn't about race, but about being poor and needing help. Nice story and good learning tool, something we can all learn from. Pitts is right in that as a nation we need to be open to listening.

The problem is that if Ms. Sherrod was white and the farmer was black Mr. Pitts would not have the same reaction; he'd be the first to call for her firing. Mr. Pitts is one of the worst people at having preconceived notions, never mind the facts, the very thing he disingenuously argues against here.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

"The problem is that if Ms. Sherrod was white and the farmer was black Mr. Pitts would not have the same reaction; he'd be the first to call for her firing."

Is this a fact? Or did Pitts just rattle loose your own racist narrative, bradh?

Ralph Reed 7 years, 10 months ago

@bradh: You must be new here. Pitts has been in the LJW for several years. Welcome.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 10 months ago

Good column, Mr. Pitts. Keep up the good work and help promote the conversation.

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 10 months ago

Good article. He's absolutely right. He knows that if a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth. Scary. Makes me miss Paul Harvey. With him you always got to know "the rest of the story." Don't let this happen to you this election cycle. Educate yourself, step out of your own personal narrative, know all the issues before you vote.

Scott Drummond 7 years, 10 months ago

OK, the manipulators, propagandists and salesmen have nearly taken over. What is going to turn it around? A better educated public? More diverse media choices for the masses of people?

What will you do today to combat these forces?

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 10 months ago

Must you use every thread to slam Obama.? How about YOU step out of THAT narrative. PLEASE!!

Matt Torres 7 years, 10 months ago

You forgot to pepper your post with the word "lamestream" at least once. Just trying to help you with your own narrative.

Maddy Griffin 7 years, 10 months ago

I watch a lot of different news outlets and read a lot of different papers, but Faux Noise is not my idea of reality. You might find yourself a little less bitter if you'd expand your mind and quit believing everything you hear there.

jafs 7 years, 10 months ago

Well, we'll see.

How do you think that a state law taking over what's supposed to be a federal responsibility is ok?

jafs 7 years, 10 months ago


But I suspect it's against the law.

Scott Drummond 7 years, 10 months ago

And the court has now ruled. Let the narrative about the idiot judge Clinton appointed begin...

jayhawklawrence 7 years, 10 months ago

Very insightful and an educational perspective on something we all struggle with.

Another great column by a great writer and thinker.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

There are so many, no one could possibly criticize every one of them.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

"Palin appears to continue to be a threat to the left."

At present, she's not threat to anyone. If she ever became president, she'd be a threat to every living thing on this planet (expect maybe cockroaches, who'd likely survive about anything.)

Richard Payton 7 years, 10 months ago

The best journalism article I've read from Leonard Pitts, Jr.

K_Verses_The_World 7 years, 10 months ago

Freedom just around the corner for you But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?

blindrabbit 7 years, 10 months ago

"Narrative Can Override Truth" When I first read the heading of this story I thought it said "Negative Can Override Truth", the mantra of the Tea-Party and the RNC.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 10 months ago

He never said he doesn't have his own narratives. And in the case of Paul, the narrative fits like a glove.

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