Narratives can be dangerous

“Social media are the ideal platform for misusing narratives because that is where experiences are being shared,” says Maria Mäkelä, director of the project Dangers of Narrative.

“Social media are the ideal platform for misusing narratives because that is where experiences are being shared,” says Maria Mäkelä, director of the project Dangers of Narrative.

How and why has narrative become a defining (discursive) form of well-being and social participation? What are the risks involved in this? How can researchers contribute to a critical understanding of the power and dangers of narrative?

Maria Mäkelä, docent and university lecturer at the University of Tampere, Finland, is the head of the research project Dangers of Narrative: Contemporary Story-Critical Narratology. The two-year project is funded by the Kone Foundation, and it enables six literary narratologists to collaborate with a multidisciplinary research community in order to study the risks involved in the uses of the narrative form.

According to Mäkelä, the project was born from the need to present a critique of the instrumental and utilitarian ideas of the value of literature.

“This kind of thinking is part of the general ‘self-help’ trend in our culture, in which everything is only about self-improvement and not about gaining new perspectives on something other than yourself. In my opinion, it is better to think that the benefits of literature are not just something I gain for myself by reading. This criticism of the utilitarian conception of literature is also applicable to narratives,” Mäkelä says.

“We want to challenge the sweeping claims of the usefulness of narratives and would rather say something more specific about their uses. This is what literary research is about for me, about starting from the specific and only then proceeding towards something more general,” Mäkelä says.

The possibilities inherent in the narrative form have been favourably appraised for decades. According to Mäkelä, the stock of narrative has risen since the so-called narrative turn, which occurred in literary studies in the 1970s–1990s. Shortly afterwards, following the rise of consultancy and therapy cultures, the narrative turn took many other branches of cultural life by storm.

Focus on individual experiences

The Dangers of Narrative project is also active on social media. The project analyses topical narratives that arise in the media and allows its followers to blow the whistle on the apparent misuses of narrative. According to Mäkelä, the project is not about evaluating the ends to which narratives are used; instead, the focus is on the specific ways narrative is used as a means. Nowadays, narratives are particularly used for relating experiences.

“In Finland, the best demonstration of the power of narrative was received when The Finns’ Party secretary Riikka Slunga-Poutsalo went on record saying: ‘Whether or not the story is true does not matter, because this is how people experience these things’. It became a cultural meme because it fits so many situations these days. The focus has shifted to the individual experience, and narrative is the form best suited for relating that experience,” Mäkelä says.

One of the core concepts in the project is the exemplum. Mäkelä elucidates the history of the concept and the kind of thinking it propagates:

“The concept of exemplum is found in literary history. Before modern times, narratives were typically exemplary, and the truthfulness of their particulars was not even questioned. We never hear Jesus say ‘this happened to one of my friends in Nazareth’; instead, he tells a parable with a moral. The truth is in the moral lesson that is being shared through the story. The story itself is only a surface, and by scratching it, the socially shared truth can be found,” Mäkelä explains.

The exemplum works in social media

Social media are the ideal environment for taking advantage of the exemplum because they are where experiences are shared. According to Mäkelä, online environments constitute the optimal platform for the return of the exemplum.

“However, today it is not the morally righteous action that is described, like it used to be in the stories predating modern times. Instead, the contemporary exemplum conveys the right type of reaction, emotion, or experience,” Mäkelä says.

The logic of exempla is especially prominent on social media: when an emotionally powerful story has already gained attention, it no longer matters whether it is actually true. By this logic, a personal experience can also evolve into one that supposedly represents the experiences of a larger group of people. According to Mäkelä, the danger of this kind of representativeness is that even when the stories are untrue, they may be used in many contexts, including political decision-making. The discussion and uproar in the Finnish media about the forced return flights of asylum-seekers is a good example of the latter.

“The case of the return flights gives us an illuminating but also a distressing example of the whether-or-not-the-story-is-true logic of exempla. It turned out that contrary to some stories shared in the media, there were no children or families with children on that particular return flight from Finland, which was targeted by protesters. But there could have been – and there have been, on earlier return flights. I, too, wept over the wrong children, so to speak. This type of social media representativeness confuses our moral compasses. Even more alarming is the fact that the comments and actions of politicians depend on exempla. Even Prime Minister Juha Sipilä was more affected by the individual and experiential comments of midwives on television than by research results giving clear evidence of the inequality of working life and lower salaries in female-dominated sectors.”

Story-critical thinking across disciplines

The Dangers of Narrative project is driven by the will to establish a novel, story-critical paradigm of narrative studies, and to urge narratologists to cooperate with different professionals such as journalists, therapists, teachers, and carers. According to Mäkelä, the aim is to inspire people to apply story-critical thinking in different areas of society.

At the moment, all the researchers in the project are literary scholars, but they will be later joined by researchers from other disciplines, such as history, philosophy, and sociology. In the future, the project will organise (at least) two larger public events and compile a guidebook for story-critical thinking.
Mäkelä emphasises that literary scholars are exceptionally well equipped to analyse narratives.

“Over the decades, highly specific tools for analysing narratives have been developed in literary studies. We have been trained to read very complex texts, which means that we are also able to read simple narratives in sophisticated ways. We can, in a sense, call on the complexity of fiction even when reading simple, viral narratives. This is also one of the most substantial contributions that literary research can make to society,” Mäkelä says.

Narrative is also bacterial

Criticising narrative is not easy even for the researchers themselves. Narrative engages us emotionally, and this is also reflected in the responses to the project. The researchers have to stay attuned to the ethical problems that may be facing the project itself.

“When you criticise a narrative, the typical consequence is that you have to go against the grain of affective consensus. For example, it is not at all easy to criticise the discussion around the return flights. It is no fun to be the spoilsport, and we recognise that many of the uses of narrative that we criticise are actually laden with good intentions.”

“If you oppose the use of narrative form, you may end up opposing truly good intentions to give a voice to people who are marginalised and deprived of the power to influence. These types of defence mechanisms seem inherent to the narrative form; narrative is like bacteria that has become resistant to antibiotics.”

According to Mäkelä, other dangers of narrative include the transformation of emotions and experiences into facts and the broader societal danger of certain types of narratives being permitted while others are excluded.

“The narrative form offers an experiential contact. It can bring about a great deal of good, but problems arise when it becomes the dominant way of relaying information. Narrative may also be a fundamentally antidemocratic form, because it singles out and emphasises the individual.”

“The broader societal danger is that the facts and things that are untellable are excluded. For example, science cannot be based on the notion that everything has to be presentable in a narrative form. In science, there are other forms that make information equally communicable and shareable.”

What should the narrative-savvy reader watch out for right now? Mäkelä recommends keeping an eye out for narratives connected to Finland’s centenary celebration of independence.

“Everyone is talking about having to find the new story of Finland. However, one must remember that crafting stories always involves selection and exclusion. Do we really want to create the story of Finland according to some selective principle? Why do we have to have a story of Finland? There are two assumptions behind this type of thinking that are pure fantasy: one is that there could be an easily communicable package about what Finland is, and the other is that there might be a shared experience of being Finnish. What nonsense,” Mäkelä says.

Text: Anna Ojalahti
Photograph: Jonne Renvall
Translation: Sanni Irjala