“Alternative Facts” and the Humanities

I have been concerned about “alternative facts” even before that term got popularized in the last month or two. I have studied African American culture for the past two decades, and I have learned how the history of racism was (and is) built on a series of “alternative facts”: whites are smarter than blacks, blacks are lazy, black bodies are weaker or stronger, blacks are violent, etc. These alternative facts become the narratives that shape how people think and see the world. On the other hand, stories and cultural narratives, like Martin Luther King’s Dream or how Rosa Parks’s tired feet caused her to sit in the white section of a bus, can help foster empathy and can change the world. Stories are thus a conundrum, sometimes supporting racism (or other forms of hate) and other times challenging it.

Stories are fundamental to human experience. The history of the humanities is a series of intellectual debates on the role of storytelling in helping us understand the world. For philosophers, such as Aristotle, knowledge acquisition and learning is rooted in careful observation of the world, where we see without being affected by narrative context. For others, both the natural world and human creations, everything from a poem to the Constitution, cannot merely be observed; rather they must be interpreted based on the narratives that generate them. In other words, these critics would argue that what we know about the world make sense only within certain narrative frames.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” arguably the starting point of all philosophical inquiry, uses a story and a set of analogies to demonstrate things are not always as they appear and human perception and understanding are frequently faulty. For Plato, human perception and understanding are the starting points for discussions of ethics, justice, and the foundations of a moral state. Socrates, the hero of Plato’s The Republic, claims to know nothing and lack wisdom. In the Platonic dialogues, the careful questioning of Socrates reveals that his interlocutors do not know as much as they claim to know and their conceptions of justice cannot withstand critical interrogation. Their supposed knowledge is bound up with unspoken or unrealized assumptions and cultural narratives.

More recently, scholars have looked even more closely at the origin and purpose of stories, narratives, and narrative framing. For Jonathan Gottschall, stories and narratives are neither superfluous and meaningless, nor are they entirely truthful or accurate representations of reality. Rather, Gottschall argues that they are deeply implicated in creating, strengthening, and reproducing social and cultural bonds. He further observes: “Research shows that story is constantly nibbling and kneadling us, shaping our minds without our knowledge or consent” (148). Gottschall’s research is focused on the evolutionary purpose of stories and how our minds have been organized to operate through story and emotion as much or more than logic.

George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist and linguist, connects how stories, or what he terms “frames” shape political ideology and voting behavior. “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act (xv). Lakoff identifies a conservative frame that emphasizes discipline, traditional morals, individualism and maximizing self-interest as key strategies to cut through the chaos of modern life (7-8). He further observes that this conservative frame distrusts government efforts to help people deal with difficult circumstances. By contrast, Lakoff argues the liberal or progressive frame emphasizes how government can nurture people and society by taking responsibility for the disenfranchised and empathizing with them (12). These frames, according to Lakoff, shape the country’s political divide, the political positions people take, and the legislation our representatives enact. Facts, in this context, do not stick in individual’s minds unless they confirm the frames they hold.

The humanities are obsessed with stories, what they mean, and how people use them in their daily lives. To some commentators, this is precisely what is wrong with the humanities: focusing on stories over facts, data, and scientific descriptions of reality. The research on stories and frames, however, teaches us that so much of what we think we know, even scientific knowledge, is rooted in specific political or cultural narratives and frames. So many of the political conflicts that dominate our news hinge on the opposing and contrasting stories that progressives and conservatives tell themselves about the country and the world. It is clear that data alone will not resolve these debates, especially as the term “alternative facts” gets thrown around with increasing regularity.

I would argue that the humanities, with its 500-year plus history of exploring stories, narratives, and frames, offer a key tool to working through these interpretive conflicts. Just about every literature, history, or philosophy classroom explores how different people or schools of thought interpret a specific text or idea. This is excellent training for negotiating the competing political narratives our country is facing. In the humanities, we teach students to hold multiple views or critical readings in their minds at the same time. We also teach students to distinguish the criticism from the critic who offers it. The humanities have a lot to say about how to work and re-work narratives, especially when those narratives are rooted in alternative facts.

I don’t think that the humanities are a panacea to cure all the conflict in today’s world. I do believe, however, that humanists and everyone who loves the humanities can find strength and wisdom in the traditions that have guided humanists for centuries. The very values and methods we love and cherish may be the key for making our world a better place.

Works Cited

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: BasicBooks, 1968.

George Lakoff. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004.

Jonathan Gottschall. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

 

This is a small part of an early draft of a bigger project I am working on about the role of storytelling in Critical Race Theory. I am planning on working on this project over the next six months.

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