Can a narrative lens help separate what’s real from what’s not?

Dahrendorf Post-doc Fellow Josefin Graef writes on rhetoric of authenticity, truth and identity.

According to Francis Fukuyama’s new book entitled Identity, a competition between rampant “political correctness” and the expression and recognition of “one’s true inner self” has taken hold in western politics. Donald Trump, he writes, “was the perfect practitioner of the ethics of authenticity that defines our age: he may be mendacious, malicious, bigoted, and unpresidential, but at least he says what he thinks”. Authenticity no longer means sticking to one’s campaign promises or appearing to be in touch with ‘ordinary’ people. Instead, it has become part of identity politics.

In narrative terms, this demand for being ‘real’ by expanding the range of what is accepted as morally legitimate has led to the creation of entire story worlds that do not correspond to social reality, as the narrative psychology expert Mark Freeman argued recently at a conference on the “Uses and Abuses of Storytelling” at the University of Turku. Importantly, however, many of the stories do have a kernel of truth, but their tellers let this stand for the story as a whole.

One of the most prominent examples of this mechanism is Trump’s insistence that (illegal) immigrants bring crime and therefore need to be kept out of western states altogether. The actual story, for both the US and other immigrant-receiving countries such as Germany, is that on the whole immigration does not increase crime levels. If at all, there is a statistically higher tendency towards criminality among young, less socially integrated men ­- who constitute a major share of migrants in Europe - regardless of nationality. Because of this truthful element, these stories and the worlds they create are not easily challenged. The problem is reinforced by the ‘age of outrage’, in which even broaching the subject of what constitutes ‘truth’ is difficult.

A crisis of truth?

Should we therefore be speaking of a crisis of truth? On the one hand, this label appears justified. If we question the very idea that there is a common world that helps us assess the truthfulness of a claim, then there is something at stake that cannot be saved through debate alone. These are the networks (composed of cultural practices, media, political institutions, etc.) behind the creation of knowledge itself. Trump’s promotion of the popular demand for ‘true self-expression’, therefore, not only disregards existing moral conventions, but actively challenges their social foundations.

This replacement of honesty with authenticity is at the core of post-truth politics. Its denial of (the necessity of) a shared social and political reality has become part and parcel of everyday political competition. This also applies to many countries outside the US. The many lies told during and in the aftermath of the Brexit campaign, for example, have consistently been glossed over by stakeholders across the political spectrum who have instead emphasised the need to implement “the decision of the British people”.

On the other hand, the notion of crisis may do more harm than good. As speaker Andreea Deciu Ritivoi explained at the conference, ‘crisis’ does not merely capture an emergency situation that demands an immediate response. Instead, it provides a particular frame of reference for making sense of lived experience. It limits the kind of stories we can tell and displaces, rather than promotes, agency.

It is therefore no surprise that crisis rhetoric forms an important part of populist political communication. By focusing on threats posed by external change, it justifies refuge in familiarity and intuition - not institutionalised procedures - as a way to provide immediate stability. Repeatedly linking failures across different policy areas allows populist actors to normalise a sense of crisis, which in turn multiplies and preserves uncertainties. Consequently, if we want to challenge ‘post-truth politics’, we are well advised to refrain from crisis rhetoric and instead address the collective uncertainties that underlie this phenomenon in the first place.

But how can this narrative perspective help those in areas such as political communications, journalism, and education to ensure that truthfulness, rather than claims to authenticity, informs public decision-making?

First, it is vital to be transparent about how knowledge is produced. Creating knowledge is always political, because making sense of the world is always rooted in social practices and institutions and serves particular interests. Only by acknowledging this is it possible to actively disentangle our storytelling from identity politics.

Second, narratives must be challenged with integrity and moral clarity. It does not suffice to be moral, we also need to talk about morality. If Trump, for example, speaks of heroes and villains, this moral opposition should not simply be ignored, but integrated into the response. Remember that stories are not meant to be factual, but affective—they are designed to make you feel something. Facts alone cannot be used as an effective narrative tool.

Third, tell the whole story. Media coverage and political communication need to take into account that the public is well aware of the connections between major political issues such as migration, the future of work, and levels of social security. Professional communicators need to offer more reflections on the big picture by showing how everyday stories from across the social, political, and economic spheres are linked to each other. This may also help in countering the populist reduction of multidimensional stories to their core truth.

Fourth, promote the reading of literature. Whether as part of school curricula, at book fairs, or through community projects, reading literature is essential for developing a feeling for complex, evocative, and multi-voiced storytelling. It teaches us that being authentic is not about renouncing social and moral norms, but about recognising the complexity of one’s own human condition—and that of others.


Josefin Graef is Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Dahrendorf Forum based in Berlin.

An earlier version of this commentary appeared on the Dahrendorf Forum website.