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The Treachery of Narratives

September 7th, 2016 | 13 min read

By Alastair Roberts

Yesterday, Vanity Fair published a damning investigative article on Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the biotech start-up Theranos. Over the past few years, Holmes has never been far from the spotlight. She delivered a popular TED talk, won countless awards and placements on prestigious lists in publications such as TIME, Forbes, and Glamour for her supposed inspirational achievements, and was celebrated by many as an example of a woman achieving in the male world of big business. Last year, Forbes listed her as one of ‘America’s Richest Self-Made Women’, with an eye-watering fortune of $4.5 billion. Today her net worth is estimated to be nothing.

Once the darling of Silicon Valley, fêted as a brilliant young woman who was going to change the world, Holmes’ downfall has been swift and devastating. Following an article in The Wall Street Journal that called into question the safety and effectiveness of the blood testing technology at the core of Theranos’ business, the veil of secrecy and lies that surrounded the technology rapidly unravelled, as various journalistic, legal, and medical inquiries pulled it apart.

I watched videos of Holmes describing the work of Theranos before any of this came out, back when she was still a lauded wunderkind and icon of young female achievement. As a layperson, I had unanswered questions, mostly arising from the problems with considerably expanding blood testing without adequately accounting for the base rate fallacy. I presumed that smarter people than I had good answers to these problems. In retrospect, perhaps they didn’t. In contexts like TED, where experiencing inspiration is prioritized, little space is allowed for the difficult questions, the questions that might unsettle our exciting new certainties or cast doubt upon bold and inspiring theories.

When narratives exist independent of the actual facts on the ground, problems inevitably arise.

Nick Bilton’s Vanity Fair article is definitely worth a read. Perhaps the most striking dimension of it for me was his attention to the role played by ‘narrative’ in Holmes’ rise and in the credence that people gave to her. Perhaps more than anything else, Holmes’ success lay in a story, a story about a revolutionary new technology that would transform the way blood testing is conducted, and a story about a young woman excelling in the male world of innovation and technology.

Holmes appreciated the importance of narrative, the importance of crafting and maintaining a grand myth around herself and her company and establishing a powerful and iconic personal image, much as Steve Jobs did at Apple. Bilton observes:

In Silicon Valley, every company has an origin story—a fable, often slightly embellished, that humanizes its mission for the purpose of winning over investors, the press, and, if it ever gets to that point, customers, too. These origin stories can provide a unique, and uniquely powerful, lubricant in the Valley.

As a young woman who was aiming to change the world, Holmes had the sort of story that progressive Silicon Valley, deeply concerned about cultivating an image of diversity and gender equality, most desires. People who desperately wanted to believe these stories never asked the searching and unwelcome questions. Powerful stories have a way of doing that to us.

Back when people were first starting to tug at the loose threads of Holmes’ narratives, Mattie Kahn wrote a piece in defense of her over on Elle, subtitled ‘No matter what happens to the biotech start-up, feminists need CEO Elizabeth Holmes.’ Within the article, Kahn lamented the paucity of female role models in big business and emphasized the importance of holding onto the few narratives and icons that we do have.

After mentioning the woes and failures of Ellen Pao at Reddit, Jill Abramson at the New York Times, and Carol Bartz at Yahoo!, Kahn says that she now struggles to name more than two remaining prominent women to admire in Silicon Valley: Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer. After the last year, in which Mayer was ranked as one of the world’s most disappointing leaders by Forbes, Kahn’s list may be even shorter still.

Feminism’s icons in politics haven’t fared especially well over the past year either. Angela Merkel, TIME’s person of the year in 2015 was celebrated for her welcoming in of about one million refugees and migrants in that year. One year on, Merkel is mired in political struggles and her handling of the migrant crisis is increasingly appearing to be a misjudgement of potentially catastrophic proportions. In another soured narrative, the prospect of an iconic Hillary presidency is leaving many of the young women one would expect to support her cold, as rumours and evidence of incompetence, deceit, and corruption grow around her. A further former icon of women’s political advance, Dilma Rousseff, the first female president of Brazil, was removed from office last week.

The attraction of iconic figures and compelling narratives is far from exclusive to feminism. It is also a phenomenon that is unlikely to disappear any time soon, as it arises from our natural instincts and promises great rewards. The right icon or narrative can galvanize people into a cause, move them to action, overwhelm opposition, and settle the course of public policy. While a thousand deaths are just a statistic, for instance, we will process an iconic photograph or a powerful personal narrative on a deep and visceral level. The rewards for a movement that attaches its cause to an affecting image or narrative can be considerable.

Public opinion on the migrant situation in Europe has moved this way and that on the basis of competing narratives, images, and icons. Pictures of the drowned toddler, Aylan Kurdi provoked a groundswell of public anger at Europe’s failure to welcome migrants. The accounts of mass sexual assault in Cologne provided a powerful point in a competing narrative.

Narratives cause us to neglect the complexities of an issue.

Images and narratives don’t merely personalize issues, they also tend to blind us to a vast array of complicating factors that come into view when we approach issue from a more global and objective vantage point. Not only do such narratives and icons typically greatly distort our perspective of the larger phenomena they purport to provide a window upon, they also have a peculiar propensity to fall apart under examination or over time.

When grand causes stake much of their fortune upon single cases, the actual facts of those cases can become a threat, as people become profoundly invested in disputed claims concerning the minutiae of cases that are far from straightforward. Stories are burdened with a symbolism that the facts or reality cannot bear. The quest for powerful symbols also tends to attract us to extreme and polarizing cases, the very cases that are most likely to prove unreliable. The movement against college rape focused heavily upon sensational stories such as Jackie’s in Sabrina Erdely’s ‘A Rape on Campus’, a story that later had to be retracted after it was discovered to be a fabrication. Sadly, Jackie’s fabricated story was quite unrepresentative of the problem of college rape, both in its sensational characteristics and in the fact that it was untrue. By tethering a worthy cause to such a story much needed credibility was forfeited.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also suffered from the fact that a number of its prominent narratives have not held up well under examination. The fact that so much of the movement’s energy was catalysed by specific martyrdom stories has resulted in much effect being wasted on maintaining the dubious details of specific cases, distracting attention from the enduring systemic problems those cases were supposed to highlight. Martyrs of the LGBT movement such as Matthew Shepard and Harvey Milk also have stories that have lost much of their force under interrogation.

This is certainly not just a problem for other movements: Christians can be as bad at this as any others, and often are much worse. Many of the prominent stories of the ‘persecution’ of Christians in the West that are publicized in the Christian press, for instance, turn out to be distorted, stories of employees breaching company policies, harassing or mistreating others, or of professing Christians making an unpleasant nuisance of themselves. We believe the stories that we are told without closely examining them because we want to believe them. They so effectively symbolize our narrative that their truthiness suffices to demonstrate their veracity.

The same can be true of attractive testimonies and iconic figures who represent us. As a young teen, I remember my church using the story of Hansie Cronje, the captain of the South African cricket team, in some of its evangelistic literature. Not only was Cronje a dynamic and popular sports figure, he was also a clean cut, ‘born again’ Christian. Unfortunately, only a few years later Cronje was discovered to have been involved in match-fixing, in a scandal that threw the entire sport into crisis. Rumors of serial adultery also surfaced.

With these revelations, Cronje’s profession of faith was suddenly called into question. The signs, I was assured, had been there all along: the sort of Christian teachers with whom he had been associated were not orthodox conservative evangelicals. While I largely agreed, I found it telling and unfortunate that such scrutiny and attention to troubling details only occurred as a self-protective measure once our former hero became tainted with scandal, rather than through a commitment to truth and care in the choice of associations when we first chose him to symbolize what our church’s faith stood for.

Narratives can be used to conceal horrifying evil.

Other cases are far more troubling still. After the death of the British entertainer Jimmy Savile a few years ago, his history of predatory sexual abuse of children came to light. Savile was a popular man beloved by many establishment and media figures, who gained much from associating themselves with him. He even received a papal knighthood. He also systematically abused hundreds of children.

The rumors had always surrounded him, but the attractive power of his narrative, his power as a popular figure, and the amount that people were invested—both financially and emotionally—in his narrative and image discouraged people from looking further. No one wanted the rumors to be true, so people didn’t examine him too closely. Similar things can be said about Bill Cosby, whose sexual crimes only became widely believable as the emotional power of his story upon the American public started to wane.

Without a corresponding and self-denying critical and investigatory commitment, our natural appetite for and attraction to icons and narratives can prove one of the deepest threats to the credibility of the witness of our churches and to the well-being of those within them. Rather than experiencing schadenfreude or a sense of moral superiority as we examine the wreckage of compelling narratives like Elizabeth Holmes’ that hoodwinked other communities, now is the time to recognize and to learn to resist the same instincts in ourselves.

Narratives have a natural hold upon us and much has been written upon the need to celebrate and make the most of ‘narrative’ as Christians. Indeed, much recent theological reflection takes the form of first person narrative. However, while narrative can be powerful and worthwhile and there are things worth celebrating in our narrative instinct, that same instinct can be one of the most powerful snares in the lives of our communities. If we are going to have a healthy narrative instinct, it must necessarily be accompanied by a counteractive force, an anti-narrative impulse that unsettles and disrupts the narratives that, left unchecked, can so easily control and blind us to unwelcome truths.

In a culture that loves stars and icons, we can desire our own stars and icons like the nations, putting our trust in them. Christian culture so often recklessly invests its credibility, witness, and energy in fickle celebrities and prominent leaders, leaders that all too frequently are revealed to have feet of clay. As Christians we so often have narratives that we are invested in and attracted by, the sorts of narratives that disable the immune system of our critical faculties, just when we might most need them.

At such times, we can benefit both from the development of communities of internal critique and from receptivity to external critics, which may require overcoming our urge to circle the wagons. Scandals are hardly ever without advance warning signs, if we pay attention, and listen to those warnings. Those warnings will often come from people we instinctively dislike. The warnings will run directly against what we want to believe. They will offend our sense of truthiness. But they should be heeded nonetheless.

Developing communities of healthy internal critique is difficult too. How often do you see evangelical Christians prepared to break ranks and sharply challenge someone in their immediate circles? The lack of examples and exemplars of such behavior perpetuates and intensifies a culture where prevailing narratives and icons are upheld uncritically. We all like to criticize the other side, yet are reluctant to ask tough and searching questions of our own. We don’t like to challenge our friends and to risk the possibility that they react against or marginalize us. We feel uncomfortable and defensive in places where everyone is rendered vulnerable to challenge and criticism.

However, contrary to our feelings, such uncomfortable places are the safest of all. We are safest in places where prevailing narratives are stress-tested on all sides by difficult questions and close examination. We are safest in places where prominent figures are not immune to close scrutiny. We are safest in places with a multitude of counsellors who are prepared bravely to speak the truth independently, and not merely to echo or support favoured narratives. Such persons are a community’s immune system. Their criticisms and challenges may sting, but the disasters they may save us from are worth every unpleasant smart.