International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Coronavirus: what narrative for a pandemic?

By Ameline Vandenberghe

11.07.2020 · Countless accounts of the reality of COVID-19 have been made since the beginning of its outbreak. The political response itself has varied over time and from one country to another, from disregarding the virus as a “distant foreign health issue” to declaring war on an “invisible enemy”. This reinforced a feeling of distrust in the received information, political discourses and containment measures among some populations, driving certain persons to alternative narratives which include problematic conspiracy theories. This article proposes to review how these stories  provide a legitimization to uncooperative attitudes such as anti-lockdown protests by fashioning them “movements of resistance”. Its main argumentation is based on the premise that human actions can be understood by apprehending the narrative by which people live. It also recalls the function of narration in order to question and better define our current approach to narratives and reality.

Telling stories is probably the most ancient practice of giving sense and putting order in an otherwise chaotic world. Narration is at the core of human communication, as any transmitted fact or event is the result of some narrative process, i.e. a selection of relevant information arranged in a logical and meaningful sequence. According to communication theorist Walter R. Fisher’s narrative paradigm, human beings are to be understood as homo narrans, storytellers, who rather engage with narrative veracity than scientific rationality; concretely, they are more likely to adhere to coherent narrations (narrative probability) that “ring true” with their preconceptions (narrative fidelity) than to factual argumentation[1]. This poses a harmful potential of stories, when misleading but persuasive, as they do influence the way an audience perceives reality and accordingly acts upon this perceived reality, ergo impacting it.

Yet, new technologies, and more specifically social media, have eased up human expression and facilitated the expansion of and access to an overwhelming amount of subjective narratives: some being valid alternative analysis of events, shedding light to aspects left aside, others dangerously contributing to misinformation. Indeed, a considerable number of these narratives serves the public as information source despite some lacking sufficient knowledge of the given subject[2]. In anxious times, however, rational and reliable reports are crucial. Considering individuals' tendency to engage with stories that resonate with their experience and convictions, despite facts demonstrations, the visibility of fallacious contents on digital platforms is particularly problematic for their endorsement by some people might lead to a lack of cooperation with safety recommendations and/or dangerous behaviors (i.e. detergent injection). This addresses the issue of the relation between narratives and facts, and asks the question of how an objective trustworthiness of contents could be ensured without hindering freedom of speech. At this point, it is important to understand what circumstances make unchecked claims seem more credible, that is to say, accord more with people's experience.

In situations of limited influence over events, narratives can serve as a strategy to compensate for the control deprivation by enhancing a sense of control; stories, again, interpret and structure our environment that certain actions would affect, possibly causing an “expected outcome”[3]. As such, in situations of crisis, particularly where people might experience a feeling of dispossession, of powerlessness, suggesting another interpretation of events is not a mere act of rebellion, it is a means to regaining a feeling of control. In the context of COVID-19, not surprisingly, where the question of the origin of the virus or the outcome of the pandemic remains undetermined, the merits of the taken containment measures are still subject to debate. Worldwide, populations were suddenly required to stay at home and avoid social contact for an indefinite period of time, thus necessarily restricting fundamental liberties. Consequently, we could witness a larger gullibility for stories commonly called “conspiracy theories”, either depicting the virus as a hoax or human-made bioweapon, the political discourses as deceptive, or the containment measures as a way to control people. The trope is relentlessly the same: a higher power forum secretly plots against the rest of the world population for its own interest. These stories are satisfying because they give people an active role in their personal narrative: that of the enlightened and/or the resistant. Along the line of such narratives, insubordination is not only perceived as “nonconformism“, it becomes moral courage.

Despite being based on fallacies rather than facts, those narratives convey a statement: we are no obedient fools to be manipulated. Ironically discredited though as manifestation of a lack of critical and analytical thinking or social paranoia in time of crisis, they nevertheless underline the failure of politicians to gain the trust of their citizens. They failed to respond properly to their population’s needs, to provide them with a narrative they could endorse – which should be taken very seriously. The suspicion towards power structures cannot be put on the pandemic’s account alone, because in many countries distrust preexisted the virus, which is particularly observable in liberal democracies, where people are more prompt to express it[4]. Stories are all a certain reflection of the system in which they emerged as much as they are a response to it. As such, they must be understood in the specificity of their historical, sociopolitical, and more generally cultural, contexts.

In France for instance, skepticism towards political leaders has been recently flued by Prof. Raoult, a controversial infectious diseases specialist at odds with politicians for claiming he found a cure to the virus and testing this supposed miracle remedy against their guidelines. This created a myth among the public that portrays him as the new “providential man” authorities seek to silence – a recurring figure that is very much inscribed in the French tradition. To his followers, he now represents another emblem of contestation of a French establishment in the fashion of similar movements such as the yellow vests movement (Les Gilets Jaunes).

Thus, if conspiracy theories have gained in plausibility in these challenging times, it is also because the idea of authority figures not representing the best interest of ordinary people or disregarding democratic values is a widespread popular belief. They provide for those lacking the necessary resources to address more concrete critics. As such, conspiracy theories are part of a bigger narrative, that of the people against their leaders; a narrative of divide that these stories, through the actions they conduct, ultimately participate in perpetuating in times that need unity.

To some extent, it is possible to dismantle conspiracy theories by fact-checking; furthermore, the majority of them will presumably lose their persuasiveness once a new stability will be gained, sinking in the deep waters of the overinformation flow. However, they did underline unsolved issues of liberal societies, such as the visibility of misleading content in the name of freedom of speech and the public trust disruption with the political class. Both are particularly problematic, as confidence in the political apparatus and reliability of given information are essential for a well-functioning society. Considering the unpredictability of the future, the pandemic has been a reminder of the need of reconciled narratives in order to face challenging times together.  

For the past few months, it has been repeatedly suggested that these exceptional times should be the opportunity to reform previous socio-political and economic models, an occasion to reimagine the post-pandemic world, to change the course of the (hi)story. Hence, overcoming distrust narratives implies structural changes oriented towards a more inclusive and sustainable system, which future narratives of human experience could account for and people could identify with. The question is: what and whose story is currently being written? But more than ever: what do we want it to be? There is a causal relation: narratives shape our conception of the world, influencing decision-making and conducting actions, and our actions impact the world on which stories are based. That is the reason why there should be a re-exploration of the ethics dimension in storytelling. For the liberty to tell anything does not exempt anyone from the responsibility towards the truth and others.

Kurz-Link zum Teilen: https://www.uni-tuebingen.de/180585

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[1]      Fisher, Walter R. "Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument", Communication Monographs, vol 51, no. 1, 1984, pp. 1-22, DOI: 10.1080/03637758409390180

[2]

      Bullard, Sue Burzynski, "Social media and journalism: what works best and why it matters". Faculty Publications, College of Journalism & Mass Communications, vol 75, 2013, URL: digitalcommons.unl.edu/journalismfacpub/75

[3]      Chen, Charlene Y et al. "Control Deprivation Motivates Acquisition of Utilitarian Products". Journal of Consumer Research, vol 43, no. 6, 2017, pp. 1031–1047, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucw068

[4]      van der Meer, Tom  (2017, January 25). Political Trust and the “Crisis of Democracy”. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Retrieved 5 Jun. 2020, from https://oxfordre.com/politics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-77