Story, or narrative, is the next piece of our communication ethics discussion, and in the vein of reflection and deliberation as “goods” promoted and protected by communication ethics, I’ll share the narrative(s) that shape my life right now. But first, I’ll give a brief overview of the role of narrative in communication ethics, and perhaps give you, dear reader, an opportunity to think about your story.
When we think of communication ethics, and communication in general, it’s easy to focus on “the practices, ‘the how,’ of application and the philosophy, or sense of ‘why'” of communicative practices (Arnett, Harden Fritz, & Bell, 2009, p. 37). And rightly so–the why and the how drive the foreground of action. However, foregrounded action doesn’t exist without a background, and “the communicative background that offers interpretive guidance for decision making” is the narrative, the story (Arnett et al., 2009, pp. 37-38). While we will have our own personal stories, in the context of communication ethics, the narrative is the public story, “agreed upon by a group of people” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 37), and the story is “a dwelling place…a location for values where one finds implications” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 38). Think of the cliche about the fish, intimately aware of all of it’s environment except for the water that surrounds it. It recognizes the foreground, but is oblivious to the background. So it is with narrative in communication ethics–we can be attentive to the foreground of the action of communication but blind to the story that is the equivalent of the water that we swim in. Thus, to approach communication in a mindful way, we have to suss out the narrative we live in.
More accurately, we have to discern the narratives we live in–there’s going to be more than one. In fact, there’s “a multiplicity of narratives within which persons and communities find meaning” (Arnett et al., 2009, p.38). And these multiplicities create conflicts as they “generate rival understandings of virtue and competing views of the good” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 38). Communication ethics refers to these as “petite narratives,” and each of these little narratives argues for “the importance and value of a given set of communicative goods” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 38) and “offer guidelines for living and evaluating one’s own life and that of others” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 53). Thus, in communication, we may find ourself in the battle of the “oughts,” what ought to happen because its right, true, good, just, etc. To sum it up, “differing narratives function as differing grounds for differing oughts” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 40). My narrative of polite conversation may be to ignore conflict and “let things slide” since I live in the “nice girls” narrative; however, my partner, who lives in the narrative that intelligent people can (and should) engage in conflict interprets my “nice girl” story as a “weak girl” story while I interpret his “intelligent people” story as the “mean guy” narrative. I “oughta” be more confrontational while he “oughta” by nicer. Two petite narratives cause a grande problem.
So, this leads us to the main reflective event–what’s my story? What narratives background (or even foreground) my life? For many years, my dominant narrative framework was a strict religious dogma that influenced every element of my life (think: poverty, chastity, obedience), and all of my evaluation of goods for myself and others were based on this belief system. However, my narrative changed, and I found my sense of the good changed, leaving behind a lot of the strict moral rules of my youth, and now I’m living what I call a “Sex and the City” narrative, with career, relationships, and cute shoes as dominant parts of the story. Comparing the former narrative to the current narrative, many of my basic “goods” remain the same–kindness, honesty, love, integrity, tolerance, self-awareness, ambition–but they were framed in entirely different contexts. Integrity in the first narrative meant integrity to an external belief system (God, religion, the Bible) where integrity in the current narrative means integrity to my personal beliefs and to my own word. There are many other narratives at play in my life, running in the background. I’m living the story of the middle-class American woman born in the second half of the 20th Century, a beneficiary of second- and third-wave feminism, for whom the glass ceiling was being shattered just before her arrival on the scene. I’m living the story of the dutiful family caregiver, having spent most of my life from age 5 forward taking care of someone (parents, siblings) at the expense of my own carefree lifestyle. In a parallel narrative (or sub-narrative), I live the story of the career woman who is balancing work/life issues. I live the story of a large-sized woman in a small-sized world. I live the story of the supportive friend, the helpful neighbor, the responsible citizen. I live a multiplicity of narratives, indeed.
Thus, I find myself in the midst of all of these “petite” narratives with one “meta” narrative (one narrative to rule them all): it’s all a story. My deepest philosophical narrative, the one that has taken the place of the religious narrative, is that everything is a story. Everything around us is a story, either of our own creation or of someone else’s. It’s up to me to be aware of these stories, and if I don’t like the story I’m living, to choose another. It’s not always easy to move from one narrative to another, but it’s worth the effort to create a new storyline when the old one no longer works.
And so you have my narrative(s). Ask me tomorrow, and they may have entirely changed. That’s the beauty (and the challenge) of living the narrative.
We tell stories about ourselves and others all the time. The narrative paradigm states that “Humans are storytellers”and as such are “full participants in the making and interpreting of their communication from a story-laden context” (Fisher, 1987, as cited in Arnett et al., 2009, p. 38). We are swimming in a sea of narratives, some that we open embrace, others running unseen in the background. In communication scenarios, we will bump up against competing narratives. Our own narratives will compete within us, as we navigate our shifting roles as a character in the story of our lives, or simply of the communicative moment. When you find yourself experiencing tension in communication, don’t be afraid to ask yourself and “the Other” of the communication, “What’s your story? What’s our story?”
A question for you: I like to say if my life were a movie, it would be a screwball comedy. I stumble around through crazy adventures, but at the end of the day I save the farm, get the boy, and live happily ever after. If your life were a movie, what kind of movie would it be?
Arnett, R.C., Harden Fritz, J.M., & Bell, L.M. (2009). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference. Los Angeles, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.