Narrative…What Does It Mean?

You’ve heard it before.

Every time you turn on the TV, it’s there.

“That doesn’t fit the narrative.”

“We’ve got to control the narrative.”

“It’s all about the narrative!”

Whether you watch Fox or CNN, read Breitbart or the Huffington Post, or have ever turned on your computer, TV, or radio, that word “Narrative” is everywhere.

But what does it mean?

The Boy Who Cried “Propaganda!”

A Google dictionary search defines Narrative as a spoken or written account of connected events; a story.”

That definition’s good, but it doesn’t cut it completely. It’s only part of the picture.

To understand the rest, let’s take a look at the Father of the Narrative, Edward L. Bernays.

In his day though, they didn’t call it “The Narrative.”

They called it Propaganda.

Listen to Bernays in his own words, circa 1928:

“I am aware that the word ‘propaganda’ carries to many minds an unpleasant connotation. Yet whether, in any instance propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merits of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published” (Bernays 20).

Bernays defined Propaganda as “any institution or scheme propagating a doctrine or system” (Bernays 21).

Nothing more, nothing less.

In a way, the Google Dictionary definition of Narrative and Bernay’s definition of Propaganda are the same…they’re a story showing you the rules of the road.

Think about the boy who cried wolf: there’s “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story” that is “propagating a doctrine or system.”

The “story” is a kid cries wolf and lies about it. The village doesn’t buy it after the third false alarm, when the wolf really shows up, and so he eats the kid.

The “doctrine or system” propagated by the story is: don’t lie. It’ll get you killed!

“You Didn’t Start The Fire”

The “doctrine or system” being propagated by a “story” can be good or bad. While many people think it can only be in support of a political regime, that is only part of the picture.

The “doctrine or system” being propagated by a “story” has got to be rooted in an eternal truth about human condition, patterns of behavior that are the bread and butter of human nature.

If it’s not, it won’t be effective. Nobody is going to pay attention to it. “Any institution or scheme propagating a doctrine or system” have got to root their “spoken or written account of connected events” in this fact.

In this way, “The Narrative” or “Propaganda” is like fire. It can warm your house or it can burn it down. Bernays quotes The Scientific American to explain the difference between good propaganda and bad propaganda:

“Truth is mighty and must prevail, and if any body of men believe that they have discovered a valuable truth, it is not merely their privilege but their duty to disseminate that truth…Propaganda becomes vicious and reprehensive only when its authors consciously and deliberately disseminate what they know to be lies, or when they aim at effects which they know to be prejudicial to the common good” (Bernays 22).

Think about this:

Joseph Goebbels was a big fan of Bernays and used his techniques to run the Nazi brainwashing machine. Propaganda led to the conquest of Europe and the extermination at Auschwitz.

But our guys at the War Department were big fans of Bernays, too. And they used his techniques to explain the Nazi threat to the United States. Propaganda inspired our troops to storm Fortress Europe on D-Day and liberate the death camps at Auschwitz.

Propaganda built an evil empire and brought on the Holocaust.

Propaganda destroyed an evil empire and ended the Holocaust.

But that’s not the way we think about it, not these days.

“I Hate These Blurred Lines”

These days, we use the word “Propaganda” to describe the lies of the bad guys to further their evil goals. We use the much more benign word “Narrative” to describe the truth of the good guys to further their good goals.

No evil group today is going to say they use propaganda. Everybody and his brother, good or bad, is going to call it “The Narrative.”

That’s why we at the Mind at War have put together what we call “The Narrative Propaganda Checklist.”

It’s a six category cheat sheet to understand the different story elements that are used in Propaganda…or “Narrative”, if you prefer it.

We fit the claims of any political group or institution…good or bad…onto the cheat sheet. For any Propaganda Narrative to be effective, the claims of the group or institution have got to check off all the cheat sheet’s boxes.

But that’s not the end of it. Not by a long shot.

Once we’ve mapped out their claims, we then give them the once-over…see if they hold water to the facts.

Every institution uses “a spoken or written account of connected events; a story” that is “propagating a doctrine or system.” That alone doesn’t tell you if it’s true or not.

The facts do.

So if the facts behind a group’s Propaganda Narrative are true, they’re probably a good group of guys. If the facts aren’t true, they’re probably bad.

Want to see the cheat sheet?

Check out the first three of six categories on the Propaganda Checklist in our latest article “Narrative Propaganda Checklist: Part 1“!

Sources Cited

Bernays, Edward L. Propaganda. 1928.


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