Rod Hart Narrative Reasoning

From Modern Rhetorical Criticism, Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1990.

At first, narrative and reasoning seem antithetical. “Poets tell stories” is our initial response, “scientists reason.” But a growing number of scholars feel that there is a logic to storytelling, a logic the rhetorical critic must understand. According to such thinkers [for example, Fisher, 1987], much public policy is determined by the stories persuaders tell.

Sometimes, these stories are complex, springing from deep cultural roots; often, stories told today are but updated versions of centuries old tales. Because they are practical people, persuaders do not tell these stories with the novelist’s richness of detail or sense of abandon. Persuaders normally tell only snippets of stories, an anecdote here, an abbreviated fable there, always moving listeners forward to some propositional conclusion. But narratives do advance persuasion because: (1) They disarm listeners by enchanting them, (2) they awaken within listeners dormant experiences and feelings, and (3) they expose, subtly, some sort of propositional argument. Recent scholars have shown that people reason differently in the presence of narrative. Its native features suggest why.

1. Narrative occurs in a natural time_line. There are beginnings, middles, and endings to narrative. Once we start on a narrative, we feel compelled to follow it through to its conclusion. All stories, even bad stories, inspire the need to see how they turn out. Narratives always tempt us with closure.

2. Narrative includes characterization. People are interested in people. Narratives are the stories of what people do. Often, narratives introduce interesting people, sometimes grand people, to an audience. When we read or hear such narratives, our natural sense of identification makes us want to find out more about the lives of the people described.

3. Narrative presents detail. A good story, such as a fine novel, transports us to another time or place by offering fine_grained treatments. When the narrator describes the clothes people wear or the customs they follow or the dialect they speak, we come to know that time and place as if it were our own. Details captivate.

4. Narrative is primitive. No culture exists without narrative. Most cultures celebrate their sacred narratives on a regular basis (for example, a Fourth of July celebration) and indoctrinate their young by means of narrative (for example, fairy tales). Narrative appeals to the child in us, because, unlike life, it contains a complete story with certain consequences.

5. Narrative doesn’t argue … obviously. If a narrator tries to make a point too forcefully, we feel cheated. Good narrative holds open the illusion that we__as listeners and readers__help to determine its meaning. Narrative is depropositionalized argument, argument with a hidden bottom line. Narrators charm audiences because they only promise a story well told.

These propositions apply to all narratives, but rhetorical narratives have special features, special obligations, in addition. For example, because rhetorical narrative is narrative, opponents find it hard to attack (“it’s only a story, after all”). But because rhetorical narrative is also rhetorical, because it is storytelling_with_a_purpose, it must also abide by certain rules of purposiveness. Thus, rhetorical narratives are (l)normally brief, (2) often repetitious, (3) sketchy in characterization, (4) frequently interrupted, and (5) rarely exotic. In the middle of his

Checkers Speech, for example, Richard Nixon launched into just such a narrative. He did not produce great poetry at that time, but he did produce passably good rhetoric, especially for the white, Protestant, middle_income voter that he especially wanted to reach:

[[see Nixon’s Checkers’ speech]]

There are many attractive aspects to Mr. Nixon’s narrative. Nixon displays himself as a reluctant narrator, reminding us that “this is unprecedented in the history of American politics,” giving us the sense that the story is being pried out of him and is, therefore, especially worthy of attention. It is also an uncontrived narrative. That is, Nixon discounts his own heroism (“I was just there when the bombs were falling”) and interrupts himself several times ( incidentally, as I have said before, I have not engaged in any legal practice .. .”), establishing that the story has not been prepared, that it is pouring out of his soul, not out of his head. The familiar characters contained in the story are also comforting: a hard_working young man, a selfless wife, sacrificing parents, dog_loving children. Characters like these can be found nightly in almost any television drama and they serve to humanize the protagonist as only storytelling can. According to Mader [1973], a narrative must also have rhetorical presence, a vividness of detail that brings to life the ideas advanced. Mr. Nixon achieves this by nicely weaving into his narrative specific places (the South Pacific, Alexandria, Whittler), sums and dates (“we’ve got a house in Washington, which cost $41,000 and on which we owe $20,000”), buildings (the Riggs Bank, Union Station), and, most important, people (Pat, Tricia, and Julie). He also uses some amount of dramatic variety, weaving the serious (his wartime experiences) with the whimsical (the beloved Checkers), as well as displaying a nice touch for dramatic understatement by suddenly introducing facts that have no obvious argumentative burden (for example, he could not convert his GI policy; his folks are living in a home he owns; he has a 1950 Oldsmobile). Finally, Mr. Nixon is careful to establish narrative authenticity by never commenting explicitly on the principle guiding his narrative or the generalization he hopes listeners will draw from his story. Rather, he presents the story as just a story, asking only that the audience permit him to tell his humble tale. In 1952, this tale left many a moist cheek.

Scholars who have investigated the rhetorical uses of narratives seem both fascinated and alarmed by what they find. Bennett and Edelman [1985], for example, observe that the narrator’s role is an extraordinarily powerful one, a role whose innocence inhibits listeners from thinking about the arguments embedded in the tales being told them. These authors note that political elites (which includes both office_holders and journalists) often tell simpler stories than is warranted by the facts and often mislead audiences in their rush to tell the simplest and most comforting story possible. Bennett and Edelman warn that life itself is rarely as simple as storybook life and rarely permits pat solutions to life’s problems. Rhetorical narratives can become addictive for listeners, they warn, and they observe that stories like Mr. Nixon’s leave out a thousand facts for each one they include. For a number of reasons, then, it is useful for the critic to examine narratives carefully. The following critical probes seem especially suited to doing so:

1. Does the narrative spring from a master narrative? Hillbruner [1960] notes that many contemporary narratives have their roots in older narratives and that the critic who is sensitive to such antecedents can discover the new implications of these old stories. He found, for example, that the ancient Greek notion of a great chain of being, wherein all life_forms occupied a different rung on some mystical ladder with God at the top, was still being used by U.S, segregationists twenty centuries later to justify their treatment of blacks (blacks supposedly being a rung down from whites on the great chain). Similarly, Bass [1985] found that Lyndon Johnson used an ancient rescue/salvation narrative to justify the nation’s involvement in the Dominican Republic in 1965. In yet another study, Conrad [1983] found evidence of romantic narratives in the rhetoric of the Moral Majority, rhetors who fancied themselves as modern knights of the round table obliged to care for society’s most defenseless members (the “unborn” child).

2. What propositional content is the narrative designed to reveal? Although narratives do not argue explicitly, they do indeed argue. Their style of argument is devastatingly natural, because it uses a realistic time line to tell who did what when. But behind any narrative lie primitive rhetorical decisions forthe speaker: Which facts to stress and which to ignore? Which characters to mention, which to amplify? When to start the story, when to stop it? By making each of these decisions and dozens more like them, the persuader/narrator is also deciding which ideas to amplify and which to thrust into the background. Ferry [1983], for example, notes that one of the most popular narratives in Nazi Germany conceived of the jew_as_parasite, an organism that had infiltrated German society and later undermined it. Ferry argues that the power of such a story lies in its “figurative logic,” in the way it encouraged audiences to think of Jews as “evil, unnatural, and destructive” [p. 234] and hence not worthy of concern. By “bracketing” the Jews in this way, by removing their human status, the parasite story licensed new conclusions about their cultural and political status as well. To accept such a metaphor, says Ferry, was to accept a whole new way of thinking as well.

3. What propositional content is the narrative designed to mask? This probe encourages the critic to inquire into the underlying purpose of the narrative at hand. When telling a story, after all, the persuader operates preemptively by not doing something else. Instead of telling his tale, for example, Richard Nixon could have straightforwardly detailed (1) whose idea it was to have an expense fund, (2) how many dollars were given to how many persons for what purposes, and (3) when the last expenditure was made and why. Dealing directly with these matters would have been uncomfortable for Mr. Nixon. So he told a story.

Kirkwood [1983] comments on the mood_changing power of narrative (it comforts us; it relaxes us) and observes how fiction or a shocking tale suspends “ordinary rationality” and places it in the service of escapist visions. He notes that the humble parable, for example, is really a very powerful form of argument, because it (1) shifts the discussion from actual fact to imagined or re_created fact, (2) subsumes the discussion of principle to the discussion of narrative detail, and (3) reduces the listener to childlike (that is, story_loving) status. Because the narrator takes on a “mantle of spiritual parenthood” [p. 72], says Kirkwood, narrative is not a small matter. When narrative is on stage, then, the critic is wise to look off stage.

Some critics would have us add a fourth, less descriptive, question about narrative: How effectively and how faithfully does the narrative deal with its subject matter? This, of course, is the evaluation question and it is important to ask, because storytelling seems so innocent. Fisher

[1987] argues that any narrative will have varying amounts of both narrative probability (good story qualities: followability, completeness, believability) and narrative fidelity (reliability and truthfulness) and that the critic should inspect narrative closely for both features.

General guidelines for effective rhetoric can help the critic judge narrative probability, but, as Warnick [1987] notes, we do not yet have clear standards for measuring either truthfulness or reliability. As for reliability__the extent to which the narrative matches the reality it purports to describe__individual critics will have to use their own good judgment by determining (1) what was knowable in a given case, (2) what was knowable by the speaker in particular, and (3) how faithfully the resulting narrative captures what was known.

Ultimately, of course, there can be no final determination on such matters, for accuracy and goodness often exist in the eye of the beholder. But it seems clear that narrative must be inspected carefully. Alone, narrative can be diverting. When combined with rhetoric and introduced into discussions of public policy, however, its diversions must be studied for a basic reason: Rhetorical stories have entailments, they imply consequences. Narrative demands vigilance, because the reasoning it encourages is often as facile as the stories themselves are compelling.