Powder and the mirror: policy, fiction and storytelling

“Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors, We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from things in the darkness” – Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors

A policy-maker is a writer of fiction. And as writers of fiction we use the same narrative techniques and tropes as novelists, poets and film makers. Because what else can we do? The fiction industry – the multi-billion dollar superstructure that exists to entertain and divert us – sets the bar so high.

The mess, the chaos and the arbitrariness of reality will never measure up to the best that the industry can offer. Therefore – we edit; we prune and we cultivate. We collect the shards of experience that suit our purpose, we downplay those that do not.

In the US, we have the American Dream. In the UK, recently, the takes of the “strivers“. The “hard-working families”. This is a story we can all get behind. Working hard, playing by the rules, going the extra mile (and maybe an enormous amount of spectacularly unlikely luck…). Leads to success.

How much of policy-making cleaves to that story? How much public money props up this clever, counter-factual myth?

Recent variants downplay everything but luck and perseverance. The Olympians. The X-factor. One shining moment of awesome. This is enough to sustain allegiance to the machines of state.

The last page, the final strains of a chord, the curtain falling on an echo of a closing speech, living happily ever after; all that grates on me. The finality is false, because there you still are, the reader, the observer, the listener, with a gaping chasm in front of you, left out of the resolution of the story that seduced you into thinking yourself inside it. […] An ending always leaves you standing in the whistling vacancy of a storyless landscape. – Jenny Diski, Strangers on a Train

A writer of fiction can aspire to (or subvert) the closing moment of “happily ever after”. A writer of public policy has no such luxury. Or no such requirement. Policy, though it says so much about the future, really concerns nothing but the eternal present of rolling news and social media. The never-ceasing quest for the “announceable“.

Most of what you see in the media, reported as announced by the government has either already happened or will never happen. It is a compelling addiction – to present the problem, the diagnosis and the solution in one speech. Your minister does not present policy, he (and it is – still, sadly, in 2012 – nearly always a man) presents a three-act blockbuster.

In UK Higher Education, the problem was the needs of students not being met… Actually, let’s do this properly:

“IN A WORLD… where students are unable to take the courses they demand, where business cannot employ the trained staff they need – inflexible and inefficient universities, unchanged for a century, hold all the cards. [sepia shot of Senior Common Room, with glasses of port and evidence of fine dining]. But one man [slow-motion portrait of David Willetts gesticulating] had the vision and the foresight to use government funding and direction  to put… STUDENTS AT THE HEART OF THE SYSTEM [chromatic rising choral score, heavy drums, fade to black and then to…] AUGUST 2010.”

Problem. Diagnosis. Solution. Compelling, heartwarming and every single iota demonstrably and inarguably a complete lie. And any student of history will tell you that this is a form of lying as old as time – from the Virgin Queen to the Son of Man.

 The web is in many ways an internet of attractions more than it is a medium germane to more traditional narrative forms that we have come to expect given our immersion in 20th century film, television and radio. – Jim Groom, An internet of attractions

The rise of social media as a primary policy communications channel is the first chink visible in an increasingly impregnable suit of armour for many years. The opportunity exists because the response comes before analysis. If you read parliamentary reports in newspapers (and you should, as your children will think them as otherworldly as we do public information films) you will note that so much of the skill of the sketch-writer (and just note that job title!)  is to turn a series of largely unrelated and frequently absurd events into a narrative. Social media dispenses with that.

As soon as the text of any announcement (generally made available substantially before the announcement is made, to allow journalists a head-start) is public, the ten or fifteen people who really get that micro-policy area will be tearing it to shreds – on a forum, by email, or on twitter. By the time that the details are on the page of an online newspaper, each faction will have agreed and shared a “line” (again, the language is theatrical) which will be hammered to the point of nonsense in the comments below-the-line.

This is new.

We perceive events in isolation. We expect moments of diversion, not narrative super-structures. This is why the mid-90s theories of post-modernism are once again quoted by policymakers as indicative  models of an increasingly prismatic reality.

Fox News demonstrated this well on election night, as a carefully constructed worldview was brought crashing down by the continuing liberal bias of US voters. Until this, the success of the right-wing was based on the appeal of the re-affirming narrative – if we could just get back to an imagined past (genuinely, after L.P. Hartley, a foreign country) then all of the uncertainty we face will be over.

But as society becomes more pluralistic and more tolerant, that impulse becomes less and less reliable. The new right insists on the primacy of numbers and the innumerate cousin of the number, the infographic.

There is nothing spectacular or notable about numbers – they are just another way, as open to bias and distortion as any other, of telling a story. They are a tool, not a solution. Relative, not absolute. They are a retreat into another imagined reality, another reflection of whatever truth may be.

Red means run, son, the numbers all add up to nothing – Neil Young, Powderfinger

And why limit ourselves to numbers? The world of fiction; film, music, writing, even rhetoric tell us the power of the other options we have. We know how a graph can reduce something rich and strange  into something very easily misunderstood. The fashion is for figures, but if we take policy seriously as an art not a science we owe it to ourselves to stand apart from fashion.

[see also: Mark Johnson on Education and History]

This post originally appeared at Followers of the Apocalypse 

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