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November 28, 2015
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Preferred narratives

Happy New Year! A recent “Morning Edition” segment discussed how newspapers in England are more openly political than ours. In that story, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen opined that we should know more about the biases and beliefs of reporters, rather than rely on their supposed objectivity (which Rosen referred to as “The View from Nowhere”). I think Rosen has a strong point. So, although I’m a columnist rather than a journalist, let me start this year by sharing some of the experiences that have led me to my present positions.

Of course, as consumers of media, our own biases and beliefs also affect the way we see things, and it’s good to bring those to the surface as well. Each one of us has what I call a “Preferred Narrative”—a framework through which we interpret the world around us. Information that reinforces this narrative is attractive to us, and we may accept it without question; after all, it “makes sense.” Information that contradicts our particular narrative is difficult to even see or hear, much less evaluate dispassionately.

This concept explains why two people can look at identical events and come up with two entirely different, mutually exclusive and seemingly irrefutable interpretations. It’s easier to remove your own appendix than to get someone to abandon their Preferred Narrative, particularly if they’ve been working under its assumptions for a number of years.

Our Preferred Narratives are mostly subconscious—we may not even know we have them, or where they came from—but I think I can point to a couple of sources for my own.

In spring 1978, I was a senior at Harvard College during the “divestment” controversy. Student activists were trying to convince Harvard to discard any investments that supported the apartheid regime in South Africa. As an undergraduate, I had been pretty apolitical up to that time, preferring to focus on my studies, theatre, and other, um, extracurricular pursuits. So I didn’t know much about the issue, or about the realities of life in South Africa.

As it happened, some of the top officials of the Harvard Corporation—the folks who handled the money—decided to hold an “open forum” where they could hear opinions about what they should do. Out of curiosity, I attended. One of the speakers was a journalist from Soweto who was at Harvard on a fellowship that year—and he spoke in moving, first-hand detail about the suffering that apartheid inflicted on the people of his community.

To me, his testimony was a revelation. I had not previously considered the high price at which my own comfort and privilege were being bought, and here I was being confronted by stark evidence. But even more of a revelation was the reaction of the wealthy and powerful folks at the front of the room: nothing. I saw no flicker of emotion, no dismay or concern or even sympathy on those stern faces. This was my introduction to a certain harsh reality.

Following this meeting, the Harvard Corporation announced that it would release a definitive statement clarifying its investment decisions. But that statement, when it came, merely declared that the corporation would undertake further study of the question, punting the issue into the fall. Students responded with a large protest and a brief occupation of University Hall.

It occurred to me at the time that the Harvard administration might have meant to offer us some instruction by their delay, a lesson entitled “Power Means We Can Do What We Want, When We Want To, and You Can’t Force Us—Particularly When Money is Involved.” But eventually, there was some divestment, even some by Harvard, and eventually, of course, the apartheid regime died.

So that, I think, was the genesis of my political outlook, of my distrust of the powerful, my belief in the amorality of wealth and my propensity to back underdogs. Then in the spring of 1979 came a little incident at Three Mile Island, which led me to Seabrook, NH, and the Clamshell Alliance, and… but that’s a story for another time.

(So, what is your Preferred Narrative—and where did it come from? What feeds it now? Let me know: )