How do human beings know things? On the surface that seems like a stupid question. We know things because we learn or experience them. For example, I know that Barack Obama was the first African-American president because I was alive for his election. I remember watching the news and reading articles about his victory over McCain. On the flipside, I know about things I wasn’t alive for because I learned about them. Like many students, I learned about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. However, experience and learning don’t really get at the philosophical heart of the initial question. Rather, they offer a simplistic, and therefore incomplete, answer to a deceptively tricky query.
A more nuanced approach to human knowledge seeks to discuss how we know what we know (i.e. how we actually acquire knowledge). Human knowledge is very much mediated by what’s around us. For example, news coverage was an intermediary for my learning about Obama’s election; textbooks served the same function for my learning about Roman history. Parents and teachers mediate our learning in early life. Even the sorts of toys we play with and the surroundings we find ourselves in have strong bearings on what we learn. Someone who has never seen an ocean would have a very different mental conception of one compared to someone who lives on the beach.
It’s incredibly important to think about how we know things, but no one does it. This is why some advertising agencies are paid obscene amounts of money to get us to buy products we don’t really need. They use all sorts of psychological tricks to undermine rationality and get people to spend money. Ads employ sexuality, plausible but flawed logic, and emotional appeals in order to minimize the amount of time that people spend actively thinking about their decisions.
While psychology offers numerous methods of influencing decisions, the most powerful tool that people use to impose their will on others is narrative. Jonathan Culler provides perhaps the best explication of narrative in his Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, stating that “stories … are the main way we make sense of things, whether in thinking of our lives as a progression leading somewhere or in telling ourselves what is happening in the world.” Plot offers a rhythm by which readers move from one event to the next within a series. This imposition of order on disparate events lends a given story the meaningfulness that people crave. Narratives capture the very human desire to “discover secrets, to know the end, to find the truth” and they occupy the critical function of “teaching us about the world, showing us how it works.”
Human beings are extremely inclined to listen to and believe in stories for the above reasons. Just look at Scientology as Exhibit 1. L. Ron Hubbard founded the religion based on a narrative that has evidently been compelling, given the organization’s thousands of global members. Perhaps the members of the Church of Scientology are particularly deluded or dim-witted, but I don’t think that’s that case. We’re just all vulnerable to a damn good story.
If you think you’re not similarly susceptible to narrative, just think about a war your country has been involved in recently. Chances are, you think that your country was in the right, or at least somewhat justified in going to war. Since I live in America, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan instantly come to mind. While many people don’t believe the wars were morally right, even they think that the US was economically justified in protecting its interests in the Middle East.
In spite of these cases, real events are invariably much messier and more chaotic than simplistic stories. There are rarely truly good guys and bad guys. Most stories are actually Gordian knots of intrigue. There’s no way to figure out which side is which or even what happened. Since our knowledge is always mediated, we’re presented with easily digestible narratives that eventually get codified into historical fact. This is why it’s so hard for Americans to fathom the fact that terrorists believe they’re the good guys in the narrative. Clearly, stories make information consumption efficient but reductive.
In his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the philosopher Thomas Kuhn criticized our tendency to distill history into a clean plotline. In discussing the history of science, he remarked that the field has been condensed into a progressive series of compounding discoveries. However, his central claim is that science has actually been a messy process governed by anomalies, crises, and the now cliché “paradigm shift.” When he first outlined the concept of paradigm shifts, Kuhn noted that science would undergo a paradigm shift and evolve when faced with an intractable problem that the existing methodologies could not solve. His account portrays a convoluted, circuitous view of scientific discoveries, rather than the clean textbook histories that schoolchildren are inculcated with.
Even so, simple stories remain most people’s primary means of consuming information. The news (whether in print, TV, radio, or web) relies on compelling anecdotes to get people to pay attention. Listeners are enraptured by lecturers who offer their lessons in fascinating narratives. The human affinity for storytelling is evident to everyone, especially the powerful. Indeed, controlling narratives is crucial for influencing people. It’s so important, in fact, that Edward Bernays wrote his 1928 classic Propaganda on the subject. He argues that propaganda is a means by which the powerful exert control over our society. He claims that, though propagandists might use shady tactics, they are a vital part of a democratic society:
Some of the phenomena of this process are criticized—the manipulation of news, the inflation of personality, and the general ballyhoo by which politicians and commercial products and social ideas are brought to the consciousness of the masses. The instruments by which public opinion is organized and focused may be misused. But such organization and focusing are necessary to orderly life.
In Bernays’ view, propaganda is a useful tool to court public approval, which he views as necessary for any worthwhile, large-scale undertaking. Without public support, few things can actually get done. For example, Donald Trump has only won the GOP nomination because he actually has a critical mass of supporters, even if that sounds implausible to you. His blustering speeches have served him well, as a sort of propaganda to curry public favor toward his point of view.
Due to the fact that we are so susceptible to narratives, it’s important to continually examine the reasons that certain stories prevail. Why does the weekly news cycle focus on the negative rather than the positive? Why do certain companies get press over others? Why are some groups’ achievements constantly overlooked? To figure out the answers to those questions and more, you need to unravel the connections between knowledge, narrative, and propaganda.
Also published on Medium.