Heroes, Villains, and Strangers:
The Importance of Narrative Analysis in a “Fake News” World
In “When Narrative Matters More Than Fact,” Ashley Lamb-Sinclair argues that “Facts [ ] mean very little to people caught up in storylines.” When it comes to creating ideologies and perceptions about the world, narrative is more powerful than facts and figures. Human beings tend to believe ideas that arise out of internal narratives, and these narratives are often based on limited personal experience. In an era of “fake news,” there is a tendency for teachers to focus on fact-checking as a way for students to combat erroneous information. Lamb-Sinclair argues that fact-checking is not the most effective approach to addressing errors in perception. Rather than placing an emphasis on facts and figures, adults should teach young people to analyze narratives and identify unreliable narrators, as well as heroes and villains.
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Lamb-Sinclair argues that narratives shape beliefs, and minds are changed when narratives change. The author draws upon her own experiences and provides two examples of the way that narrative has affected her own views. In high school, a love of historical narrative affected the author so deeply that she chose to study history in college. Perhaps even more significantly, Sinclair’s youth experience working with two Latino men who were “a little more flirty than is probably appropriate to be toward a 17-year-old girl” became the source of her own temporary prejudice against older Latino males. It wasn’t until she moved to Southern California and became “sisters” with Latina women in a sorority that she was able to form a new image of Latino men. While in the sorority, she “went on dates with several men”, and had “the best carne asada” from the father of her Latino friend. These new experiences caused her internal narrative about Latino men to shift, and her perceptions changed along with the narrative.
The author also points out that in an era of “fake news,” an emphasis on fact-checking and trying to persuade people through facts is largely unsuccessful. Narrative is “rooted in the human experience,” and will always be more compelling than “a collection of facts.” Even when people are not conscious of being involved in narrative, they want to “connect with characters” and to follow a plot to its end through multiple “layers of conflict.” The fascination with story and narrative structure means that emphasizing the extent to which a statement is factual has little impact on someone, if that person has already formed a narrative that contradicts the facts. Lamb-Sinclair offers an alternative to fact-checking: “The best way to teach true understanding is not by teaching students facts (although that is still a valuable lesson); it is to teach them to analyze, as one does with elements of narrative.” The recent U.S. general election provides an example of how this alternative approach might be effective. Simply pointing out that “Donald Trump didn’t help save 2,100 jobs with the Carrier deal” may not be persuasive for someone who “has lost a job and gotten it back.” Creating a new narrative that challenges someone’s pre-existing narrative is far more likely to have an impact on causing someone to question her or his pre-existing views.
Lamb-Sinclair sees adults, and particularly teachers, as playing an important role in teaching younger people how to analyze narratives. Teachers must not only teach students how to be “critical thinkers who question the validity of facts,” but also how to dissect a narrative and to identify unreliable narrators. Teachers must “expose students to various types of characters and plotlines from many perspectives, both fictional and real” in order for students to develop the analytical skills necessary to engage with real-world narratives. The author suggests that if students are familiar with heroes and villains from literature and history, they will be equipped to recognize heroes and villains in real life situations.
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Sinclair illustrates her own commitment to narrative by omitting facts and figures from her article and relying on personal narratives to illustrate her points. The efficacy of this approach poignantly demonstrates how susceptible readers are to being swept up in a narrative that makes use of only personal stories and recent events. Sinclair never refers to any statistics or facts when describing the way that her perceptions of Latino men shifted over time, yet her story resonates with the reader and felt trustworthy and factual. The author states that while no one had “presented [her] with the facts, she understood much more of the story”. Sinclair is critically aware that she has simply rewritten the original narrative, implying that the story is ever changing and another set of experiences could quickly alter what she believes.
Lamb-Sinclair recognizes that not everyone has the opportunity to shift internal narratives through exposure to diverse people groups or experiences. The author states that while she was “lucky enough to â€¦ experience other cultures,” the general population is not so fortunate. For that reason, Lamb-Sinclair writes to encourage the education system to teach students analytical skills to avoid another generation where the “facts mean very little.” If teachers and other responsible adults fail to teach young people how to recognize unreliable narratives and real-world heroes or villains, prejudice and bigotry may take root in our society and permeate the ideologies of future generations.
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