The Story of Our Stories: Part II

Continued from Part I

The Meta-Narratives and Their Destruction

The term was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. He described meta-narratives as the ‘big’ stories that we tell ourselves that help us understand the world: things like Religion, Nationalism, Racism, Capitalism, Democracy, etc.

Meta-narratives are the stories used to understand and legitimize other, smaller stories, and they are the ways by which we understand the world. In a very real sense, they’re what we use to create order and meaning out of existence. They are what gave the modern world its character.

The problem with these stories, though, is that they were thought of as universal truths. Look at any of them closely enough, and you can find caveats, over-generalizations, and in many cases, plain untruth. Lyotard contended that they were often created to serve society’s existing power-structures.

The American Dream is a meta-narrative. As a nation, we look at people who are successful, the ones to be really admired, as those who came from nothing, and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s the idea that anyone can make it here with grit, pluck, and hard work; Horatio Alger stories come to mind.

Through this story, we can understand the world, albeit in a cruel way. There is a moral implication with this kind of a story: the wealthy gained their riches through hard work and grit. Those that don’t have wealth are simply lazy. It’s the way Americans explain poverty and economic injustice.

Nowadays, however, we understand that the truth is way, way more complicated than we thought. We thought we were the most economically mobile country on earth. That might have, once, been true, but today, we can understand that many other countries beat us the in the ‘rags to riches’ mobility we hold in such esteem.

We, as a nation, are coming around to the complexity of this idea. The Pew Trusts conducted a survey asking if Americans have opportunities for economic mobility. Only 64% of us do, the lowest since they started doing the survey. This lack of faith makes sense, because with better information, we know that this story doesn’t reflect reality. They also conducted a report,Economic Mobility in the United States,” to actually see what the economic chances of rising in the US were. The report concluded:

The analysis makes it clear that children born into different economic circumstances can expect very distinct economic futures. The degree to which family advantage is transmitted suggests that opportunities for economic success are very unequally distributed. Although no one would be surprised that children from higher-income families enjoy some advantages, this report reveals them to be dramatic.

Lyotard predicted that these meta-narratives would break down because they were too simple to stand up under scrutiny. They would be washed away under a torrent of new information, and they would be tossed aside.  That’s what it means to live in a postmodern society. We have a familiarity with relativism and subjectivity. Truth with a capital ‘T’ is hard to come by.

He thought meta-narratives would be replaced with smaller narratives. This would allow our stories to be more local and nuanced, and therefore true. Instead of the idea that the rich are rich through hard work and grit, we understand that this is too simple a story; hard work plays a role, but so do luck, demographics, history, racism, etc.

However, that isn’t what happened.  

What’s happening instead is that people have clung to different meta-narratives even more tightly as they slip away under the gush of information that we’ve been receiving the past few years.

Faith in America illustrates this perfectly. People are becoming less faithful in America, in that fewer people are going to church, fewer people affiliated with any faith. Any faith is a really powerful meta-narrative, because it’s a way people understand and make meaning out of the world.

Something that I think a lot of people assumed was that, myself included, was that when people lost faith, they would be more tolerant, more progressive, because a lot of the culture wars that we fight in this country are based on faith, and faith is difficult to argue.

Unfortunately, that assumption is terribly wrong.

A recent article in the Atlantic describes how as church attendance declines, the non-churchgoing public is more tolerant in many ways – in terms of pot legalization and gay marriage – but more brutal in other ways – more apt to adapt a racist and nativist view of the world. Instead of doing away with the Judeo-Christian values and replacing them with liberal tolerance, people have done something else. They have taken a third way few people saw coming: racist and nationalist ideas are getting picked out of the trash and seriously discussed.

Nobody can really know why we’re going back to these particular narratives. We could point to economic instability, racial fear, etc. and of course there is no one reason that Americans are turning to race and nation as their bedrock. I think, though, that we don’t seriously discuss them anymore. After the Second World War, we knew the consequences of racist and nationalist ideologies. We didn’t debate them, because tens of millions of annihilated people was the counterargument. We saw where those stories lead. This was an inoculation of sorts, but we are in desperate need of a booster shot.

But that’s the problem with people. It’s much harder for us to unite around our positive ideals than it is to unite against a common enemy. And up until very recently, we had one.

For decades after the war, we had the Soviet Union to unify us. After 1991, we lost that unifying force. Until that point, the world had clear competing meta-narratives that drove large parts of the globe. You had capitalist and communist meta-narratives playing out in opposition to each other, with anti-colonial and non-aligned movements weaving through the world as well.

This made the world easier to understand. Like all meta-narratives, it was too simple a way of looking at a globe full of humanity, but it gave us a sense of ourselves. We were freedom loving capitalists fighting communist oppressors.

Suddenly, the wall falls. Within two years, the whole Soviet empire falls to the ground. Democracy, Capitalism, these are the victors on the world stage.

It’s easy to see why the 90’s was such an optimistic time in American life. It really did seem like we were on the right side of history, and that were were marching off to a great future for the world. We were marching off together. Russians were no longer the boogeymen of our popular culture. They were our new friends, having seen the light. The world was becoming more free, more democratic. We’d won, and it was time to do two things: celebrate the fruits of our victory and keep winning.

Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. This meta-narrative cracked too. The Towers fell. Wars destabilized us, our enemies, and friends. Democracy retreated. Dictators rose, including one that was elected on the platform of genocide. Now we have a president that, instead of helping lead the government, tweets at 3am.

Usually, when meta-narratives break down, meta-narratives in other parts of the world remain intact. Today, that isn’t true. With all the turmoil we have in the US, it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in Russia, Nigeria, the EU, the Philippines, the Middle East, etc. Much of the world shared the same narrative. It was an ideological mono-culture. When that narrative was smashed, everyone began to scramble.

However, there are two other meta-narratives Americans have shorn up in their place: the Individual, and Science.

Continued in Part III…

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