The Modern Survival Guide #82
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. And the process of shaping views fascinates me because it’s one of those things that shapes the world, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in very overt incidents. A lot of that process consists of taking a story that’s being presented one way and flipping it — changing the meaning so entirely that the story shifts narratives.¹
This is alternately called “spin,” “propaganda,” and sometimes just “lying.” Some people think it’s dishonest and immoral. Sometimes they aren’t wrong. Other times flipping a story is a necessity — it’s not that uncommon for the source of a narrative to have dishonest, immoral, counterproductive goals (compared to your own), after all. But regardless of motivation and morality, it is certainly a reality of our modern world that narrative shaping dominates our news and opinion media. Accordingly I think it’s worth our while to talk about how it works.
Flipping a Story — Changing Narratives Without Changing Subjects
Ok, so let’s talk about flipping stories. You start with an issue — something going on in the world. Fundamentally, flipping a story is about talking about the issue from a different perspective, and getting your audience to buy into your perspective. That’s how we shape narratives. We’re going to need an example here, so why not go with current events? At the time of writing, the US is embroiled in a border crises. The simple facts of the story are as follows:
- Millions of migrant workers come to the US every year to work.
- Many of these migrant workers are illegal immigrants.
- The Trump Administration has stepped up enforcement of Section 1325 of Title 8 in the U.S. Code, which criminalizes illegal immigration.
- Illegal immigrants are being detained in large, crowded camps while they await trial or deportation, because that’s what happens when you step up detentions without increasing resources for holding people.
- The conditions in these camps are not healthy, in some documented cases, because of the huge numbers of people being detained and the crowded conditions in which they are being kept.
- Many people support the detention policies, for a variety of reasons, mostly breaking down along the lines of law & order hardliners and nativist activism. Many other people oppose them, mostly on humanitarian grounds.
This is obviously a complex, evolving situation. The narrative in which it is presented, though, is how people interpret what it means.
Are we enforcing the laws, as we should as a nation of law? Are we perpetuating racism and nativist xenophobia? Are we committing human rights violations? Are we protecting the country from foreign criminals? Are we ignoring or supporting economic policies and other factors that drive migrant workers’ incentives? Are we protecting the country from terrorists? Are we preventing people from achieving the American Dream of a better life?
All of these narratives, and more besides, are potential lenses through which we could view this situation. Each of these uses a story — remember that stories are how we create the reality in which we think we live. Stories build narratives; narratives build worldviews. Worldviews tell us which actions are “correct.” “Correct” actions get fought for and implemented.
In order to make one of these narratives dominant over the others, we have to influence what people take from the story, and influence how that information integrates into their worldview. That means highlighting specific aspects of the story to the exclusion of others, and linking those concepts to something that the audience automatically assumes to be “correct.”
For example, if I wanted to push the “illegal immigrants are lawbreakers and therefore deserve to be rounded up and deported” version of the story, I would introduce that narrative with a reminder that America is a nation of laws. I would focus on how applying the law fairly and impartially is a cornerstone of our country’s ideals, and how this is a key factor that makes our country great. I would play on my audience’s desire to see America as a shining beacon of legal jurisprudence, and play up the service of the LEO community.
Note the tone and content of the article — the issue is firmly portrayed as only being one of law and order. People who oppose deportations are cast as hypocrites and in opposition to the principles of law and order. This is a limited view of the issue, but it focuses the audience down to one key issue of governance and then hammers that perspective home.
On the flip side, if I wanted to present the issue as one of human rights violations, I would look at the crowded conditions of the internment camps. I would focus on the number of deaths that have occurred among migrants in US custody. I would focus on the issue of family separation as a method of deterrence. I would make comparisons to concentration camps, and make statements about the failure of American/Christian values of decency, tolerance, and humane treatment.
Note the tone and content of the article — it’s an appeal to the heartstrings, and a reminder that we are supposed to be the “good guys.” It’s a categorical historical denunciation of a system that the article implicitly assumes that we should oppose on grounds of humanity. This is a limited view of the issue, but it focuses the audience down on a moral argument and then hammers that argument home.
These are different narratives of the same subject. They are describing the exact same situation, with more or less the exact same set of facts, but the issue is presented in an entirely different light depending on which article you read.
Seven Rules for Flipping a Story
These examples highlight seven key rules for flipping a story, and these are applicable regardless of which side you’re trying to support:
- Don’t lie. Lies damage your credibility, and credibility is everything when you’re trying to guide a narrative. You have to be believable. That means using the facts, whatever the facts are. That doesn’t mean you have to use all the facts — in fact, you shouldn’t.
- Pick facts that support your story. Flipping a story isn’t about making an actual rational argument, it’s about presenting a viewpoint. Accordingly we’re not using the scientific method here. Pick the facts that support your spin, and run with them.
- Narrow the focus. Don’t try to explain, justify, or discuss the whole issue. Remember that almost everything in life that counts as a major issue is complicated. Audiences don’t have time for complicated. Audiences like things simple. Narrow the issue down to just one facet, and then focus on that.
- Market the appeal. Pick a facet of the story that appeals to your audience — something that strikes an emotional, moral, patriotic, religious, or ideological chord. Pick one, at most two, facets of the issue and run with them. You’re not going for complex argument, you’re going for shallow surface reaction and emotional appeal.
- Claim legitimacy. Reference your narrative against something that the audience will implicitly recognize as a source of legitimacy or authority. Law, religion, morality, etc.
- Put a face on it. Remember that people like stories, and stories are usually about people (or anthropomorphic personifications). Reference your narrative against a person or persons with whom the audience feels a connection. Then build a story around them that makes your point.
- Use images to reinforce your story. A picture is worth a thousand words. The right image can reinforce your story, and using images in combination with words activates different parts of the brain, making it more likely that your audience will remember the narrative.
The next time you read an opinion piece, keep an eye out for these rules. if you see them being followed, you’re reading a story designed to shape a narrative, not to make a rational argument or present a considered opinion.
Flipping Narratives in Modern Life
Most of what we in America think of as media content, in this day and age, consists of narrative flipping. Pundits, talk show hosts, opinion writers, and entertainment shows all use these methods to present issues in a way that fits their narrative. Remember the point of all this — everyone has goals. Shaping the narrative helps or hinders their achievement of those goals.
And again, this isn’t to say that narrative flipping like this is inherently good or inherently evil. This is a tool, and it’s a tool you have to use and have to understand if you want to succeed in the modern world. This isn’t just for public figures and big national policies. This is something that goes on in offices, churches, social groups, and interpersonal relationships. Everyone flips narratives, often without recognizing that’s what they’re doing.
It behooves us as consumers of information, as participants in society, and as members of the modern world to understand what’s going on here. Our lives are impacted in major ways by the worldviews of our peers and our countrymen. Those worldviews are impacted in major ways by the narratives swirling around us. So pay attention to the narratives — especially the ones you might need to flip.
¹Some definitions: when I say “narrative” in this article, I’m talking about a deliberate perspective that presents an issue in a particular way. This is also called a “frame” in political science texts. When I say “story,” I’m talking about the way you use facts, people, events, and appeals to authority to present that narrative.