Values, Ideology and the Narrative: Making Sense of the Voice in my Head

Never before have I been more keenly aware of the effect of the narrative on my state of mind, my ability to relate to other people, and my ability to work.

reading glasses on open book

An unfortunate and unexpected outcome of the global pandemic for me has been heightened annoyance with my father, who is to date safe from harm and also geographically out of my reach thousands of kilometres away. My father and I are very different, but we are also very much alike, and that makes me uncomfortable. The source of my discomfort is not that I scorn the one who provided half my genetic material and a large part of my ideology: it is the fact that the ideology I inherited from him actually interferes with my personal growth and, much to my recent surprise, my professional work.

My paternally inherited ideology includes (among many things) a strong work ethic, equal opportunity, economic freedom, and justice. None of these things is harmful – on the contrary, they are great values. But when these values get mixed up with certain narratives, they become ideologies. Ideologies are at best annoying and at worst downright dangerous. Here’s a thought experiment:

  • Take a strong work ethic and combine it with the narrative that people are basically lazy and don’t want to work.
  • Take equal opportunity and combine it with the narrative that we are all born equal.
  • Take economic freedom and combine it with the narrative that the market will always correct itself.
  • Take justice and combine it with the narrative that the punishment must fit the crime.

If you adhere to politically conservative ideology, you will likely see nothing at all wrong with any of those combinations. In fact, they might make perfect sense. If you lean further to the left, you might be horrified, or at least repulsed, by every one of them. Either way or somewhere in between, your Feeling Brain is off and running and your Thinking Brain is scrambling to catch up. This is, for better or worse, the way we operate. Don’t take my word for it – read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind or Mark Manson’s Everything is Fucked for well-researched psychological discussions of how we know the rational mind is not the one in charge.

But I digress. The difference between the value and the narrative is that a value can’t be proven or disproven, but a narrative can. Narratives are the stories we tell ourselves that add a new dimension to our values and turn them into ideologies. Compare the four thought experiments above with these:

  • Take a strong work ethic and combine it with the narrative that most people want to live productive lives, and many haven’t been given the chance, or just don’t know how.
  • Take equal opportunity and combine it with the narrative that some of us are born into far more privileged places in society and have no idea about the impact that systemic barriers can have.
  • Take economic freedom and combine it with the narrative that governments can and should guide the market in forward-thinking, problem-solving directions through incentives and penalties.
  • Take justice and combine it with the narrative that most people just want to be loved.

Too soft for you? Or does your Feeling Brain relax a little? I’m not here to preach or try to prove that the second list is better or more accurate than the first. I wish instead to assert that ideologies – defined by me as value plus narrative – can be dangerous, no matter where on the political spectrum you might fall. Ideologies are full of unconscious bias and are at the root of so much conflict and destruction. What if, as a solution, we were to stop trying to prove how right we are and try instead to hold our narratives – all of them – loosely?

Narratives are damaging only when we hold on to them so tightly that even in the face of evidence that contradicts them, we stay stuck because to change our mind would be too humiliating. But even that is a narrative: changing my mind and admitting I’m wrong means I’m somehow less than I would be if I could stick like glue to an idea no matter what.

Here’s where I see ideologies born of immovable narratives doing the most damage:

First, ideologies keep scientists from doing science. Science is not an ideology; it is a method of guessing, testing, and guessing again. Many people lost sight of this a long time ago and now think that if there is “no evidence” for something, it must mean “it’s not true” and not “we don’t know yet,” which – I swear to you on my entire education and profession – is what it actually means. Scientists don’t change their minds on a whim; they learn and readjust to new information. Or at least, they’re supposed to. They are victims of their own systemic barriers that contaminate science with ideology. For example, the value of “shared knowledge” combined with the narrative of “no one is interested in negative results” results in a phenomenon called “publication bias,” where ten clinical trials that failed to show a drug treatment made a difference do not make it to press while the one trial that did show a difference gets published and then everyone thinks there’s a new miracle cure. Ideology at its best: getting in the way of wondering what might actually be true because “publish or perish.”

Second, ideologies keep people stuck and close off minds. Our narratives can tell us things like we know stuff better than experts do, that all governments are corrupt, that our tax dollars are wasted, that people can’t be trusted, that all men are scum, that all women are a pain in the ass, that millennials are stupid, that boomers are stupider, that people are idiots, that the world is going to hell in a handcart… Should I go on? If you carry any of these narratives with you, your ideologies will make it pretty hard to have a rousing, constructive debate with anyone about anything of importance. Just check out the comments online, where clashing ideologies run amok.

Third, the narratives that create ideologies can kill. Where do you think people get the idea that suicide is a reasonable option? Not from a value, but definitely from a narrative. Why do we start wars or hate our neighbours? Narratives. Why do we give up on our hopes and dreams? Yup – narratives.

So now for some good news: Narratives are actually there for our choosing. They are impermanent, optional, changeable, and to change your narrative is a sign of tremendous strength because it forces you to let go of pride and embrace humility. Even better: narratives colour, shape and direct your values, and you have total control over this process in your own mind. Think of the earlier contrasting ideological statements. Think of the power we have to shape our narratives consciously, constantly, and to be always open to having them change.

And the even better news: All narratives are true, and all are false. Take any narrative from this post, and I can give you at least three carefully nuanced reasons in either direction. Try it if you don’t believe me. It’s like Schrodinger’s hypothesis; it’s that profound and hard to understand. But it’s so easily experienced. Try picking a narrative and acting on it when you next encounter a stranger. Are you going to see that person as a lazy freeloader or as someone who has had a lot of hard knocks and really just needs a break? Are you going to gently question your knee-jerk reaction (i.e., your unconscious bias) even as you accept it for what it is – an involuntary reaction, not a truth?

I mentioned the negative impact of inherited ideologies on my professional life, and I should come back to that. In my work writing grant applications, I encounter things that send a voice on a rant inside my head. It can be so loud that I can’t even focus (not that focus during a global pandemic is so easy in the first place). For example, I’ve been reading a lot lately about principles of equity, diversity and inclusion, which are to be explicitly and specifically woven in to a 20-page proposal. I’m reading Canadian government sources about things like unconscious bias, microaggression, and intersectionality, and all I can hear in my head is something that sounds like my father scoffing. If I listen to “him,” I will start scoffing too, and I cannot afford to do that, never mind that I am horrified at the possibility. So I yell at the voice in my head to shut up and let me work. And I create my own narratives about my father that defend me against that voice (which, I must point out, is not actually his voice, but an invention of my own mind based on a lifetime of experience and conditioning). These narratives are damaging because they drive a wedge between us and make me want nothing to do with him – so much so that when he shares his unsolicited opinion of the state of the world with me (an opinion which undermines so much of what I am trying to focus on in my life) I tell him this and send him away. And it feels awful. And I’m no better as focusing than I was before.

I’ve spent my whole career working with people who learn for a living. I still learn for a living. Seriously: I get paid to read and figure stuff out and then write about it. I get paid to work with people who are trying every day to solve really big problems and make the world a little better for everyone. How awesome is that? Yes, there are politics and personalities that trip people up. There are clashing ideologies and there are power struggles and there is bureaucracy. But there is also an expectation that we learn about and practice principles (values) like equity, diversity, and inclusion, and that we be open to new ways of looking at things (narratives) that we had not considered before.

It seems to me that one way out of my mental quagmire is to stop holding on so tightly to my narratives – any and all of them – and start accepting them as impermanent lenses through which I view the world, myself, and my father. Such practice might help me be a better person. And maybe, just maybe, it will help me find a way to be comfortable in my father’s company, no matter what narrative he happens to be clinging to. I would like that very much.

I want to thank my friend Ken MacDonell for engaging me on the topic of narratives and helping me see them, and other people, more neutrally. I also want to thank my husband of 25 years (?!), Gilles Detillieux, for believing other people might actually appreciate hearing this perspective. Finally, to my father, and you know who you are: thank you for the gift of critical thinking, and for giving me the space to figure things out.