Are Black-and-White Narratives Manipulative?

Donald Miller

Last year I was watching an interview with a foreign diplomat and found myself sucked into his perspective. His people were good people, he claimed, and they were being attacked by bad people. They were being attacked by a culture that didn’t love their children, were evil, a people who deserved to die. His military was operating in self defense as they attacked their enemies.

I can’t tell you how captivating the narrative was.

But doing a little research revealed the leader was more than a little biased. The truth is he was mostly right, but they’d also done plenty to provoke their supposed enemies. Still, this leader was subscribing to a good guy/bad guy narrative and was repeating that narrative to the world, casting himself as the hero in the white hat.

This sort of leadership is very effective. If you want to get people on your side, paint an opposition as an enemy and paint yourself as the hero and give a call to action to the masses.

The sad thing is, though, this sort of rhetoric almost always ends in extreme violence.

Are there examples of extreme evil? Yes. There are certainly good guy/bad guy scenarios playing out in reality. But what’s interesting is that bad guys use the same trick. They position themselves as good guys. Research any evil dictator and you’ll almost always find a guy who championed the rights of the poor and oppressed. Dictators position themselves as perfectly clean good guys fighting perfectly dirty bad guys.

The black and white perspective is, of course, a lie.

And Christians should never fall for it. The truth is, we are all depraved. And none of us are fully wearing a white hat except for Christ. And those who do take on Christ’s white hat are usually killed willingly by the bad guys. Quite a confusing narrative!

*Photo by William Brawley, Creative Commons

Being a student of story, I know there’s a radical difference between the way movies and novels work and the way reality works. In fictional stories, a writer is best to create a clear good guy and a clear bad guy so the reader doesn’t get confused.

But here’s the Biblical truth about life: There are rarely clear good guys and clear bad guys in life.

A person who thinks and communicates in clear good guy and clear bad guy narratives may be deceiving you or deceiving themselves or both. There is always a back story. There are always multiple perspectives and very few leaders get elected by seeing things objectively. People elect leaders who position themselves as heroes chasing down bandits.

What I love about the Bible is all the heroes (save Christ) are flawed. The heroes often killed a guy or slept with somebody’s wife a few chapters before their big climactic scene. And the Bible has no problem telling the truth about the hero because the Bible is true. It’s our newsfeeds and politicians and, well, screenwriters who sensationalize reality for easier consumption. We are addicted, it seems, to a fast-food form of reality. We like our truth processed.

The truth isn’t so intoxicating as a Nicholas Sparks novel. So can we handle it?

The point is if life is so messy a red flag should go up when we hear people framing reality in black and white, good guy/bad guy terms. It’s a captivating narrative, but most often it’s fiction.

So how do we live in a messy world? Here are some tips:

    1. Listen differently. When somebody, either a politician or your ten-year old child, starts framing narratives in black and white terms, help them understand life is more complicated.

    2. Play for the percentages. What I mean by this is to see things like peace and justice as a needle on a readout. Our job is to move the needle a little in the right direction and accept the fact conflict may never be completely resolved. We are not the true good guys fighting the true bad guys. That’s a story for Jesus and Satan. You and I and everybody on the planet are neither. Lets make a rule: Only demonize demons. Real people should be seen as real people.

    3. Press back. When somebody frames narratives in black and white (unless they’re a screenwriter pitching their most recent work) press back. We can’t keep being manipulated. Simply say their framing of the situation sounds a bit simplified for the purposes of drama. The truth is, black and white narratives are, in fact, reductionistic. It’s the job of a professional storyteller to reduce narratives for easier consumption. But those of us who do not deal in fiction need to see the world from a more accurate perspective.

    4. Don’t tell false narratives. We must get in the habit of living within, and yet not being afraid of or dismayed by, complicated narratives. Before taking action or forming an opinion, let’s make sure we can see a situation from at least three perspectives (I chose three because it’s a myth there are only two.)

Narrative is the most powerful force to manipulate the masses. Let’s be careful how we use it. And let’s not be manipulated.

My question is this: How do we reconcile the Hollywood narratives we constantly hear with the “die at the hands of your enemy” example of Christ and the Apostles? Are we willing to “lose” in the eyes of the world in order to be faithful to Christ?

Or are we misreading the Bible? Should we ignore the example of Christ and go back to the Old Testament and go to war for our faith and truly see ourselves as “good guys” and “them” as “bad guys?”

Important questions. Would love to hear your opinions.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.