The Walter Fisher Narrative Paradigm (WFNP) is a theory of interpersonal communication and human instincts, which argues that we all naturally take on the role of storyteller and therefore approach our lives as narratives. Specific to this course, WFNP has taken on the role not only of a descriptive theory but also of an applicable tool for understanding episodes both from history and from our daily lives. The five elements of WFNP, Nature, Beliefs and Behavior, Culture, Rationality, and Choice, are echoed in four units of our course (slavery, civil rights movement and television, hip hop, and social media) as well as in the historical incidents that have been developing before our very eyes this year at UVA. Using WFNP as a lens for understanding these incidents and our lives has provided striking evidence in support of author Mark Twain’s seminal quote that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”.
The first element of WFNP, Nature, creates its strong foundation. It says that we are all storytellers by nature, animals using symbols to create a narrative from our lives. This is certainly true of the process of creating the social changes we have examined. The basic question that humans always seem pushed to ask is “how will I be remembered? What will my story be? What is my legacy?”. For slaves, it was a struggle to be acknowledged and remembered at all. For those in the Civil Rights Movement, it was the struggle to put their story in front of a broader audience, culminating with Bloody Sunday being televised. For hip hop, it was the struggle to tell their story in an honest way, without corporate or political manipulation. And for social media, it has been the struggle to tell stories in real time, as they happen. These struggles are inherent to the process of being storytellers by nature. But the struggle of being storytellers by nature that I have come to understand through my experiences at UVA is that we often have little control over our own stories. Many times these narratives are forced upon us or reinterpreted long after we have control over them. In the same way that those on ground in Selma could not have known that 50 years later most people would know John Lewis but forget Diane Nash, Martese Johnson could not have known four months ago that his personal narrative would become embedded in the national conversation on police brutality with #JusticeForMartese. Because we are storytellers by nature, in each of these incidents of social change we are obligated to both create opportunities for ourselves to tell our stories and to take control of the aspects of our stories that are thrust upon us by circumstance.
The second element of WFNP, beliefs and behaviors, is the most ambiguous, but is centered around how we use “good reason” based on our own collections of information and knowledge. No matter what story we are trying to tell, we will come into those stories with assumptions and pre-existing narratives that we are trying to support or deny. Thinking to the civil rights movement and hip hop, both of these social changes were dependent on deconstructing the white populations belief and ‘knowledge’ that black communities were inherently inferior, violent, etc. In the same way, the Columbia Journalism School Review of this year’s controversial and retracted Rolling Stone article showed how the journalist who wrote the piece came into UVA with a story in mind (knowledge) and just looked to fill in that pre-existing belief with available and fitting information. I have been able to understand this relatively abstract aspect of the WFNP through the cheesy but concise the lyrics of the song Wonderful song from the musical Wicked – “A man’s called a traitor…or liberator. A rich man’s a thief…or philanthropist. Is one a crusader or ruthless invader? It’s all in which label is able to persist.”
And which label persists is largely dependent on culture, which is the fourth element of WFNP. Again, this element is both ambiguous and essential to our understanding of the stories we tell. Culture is made up of the beliefs, customs, preferences, stereotypes, and prejudices specific to a certain community. Highlighting and contrasting these cultures often becomes an incredible effective tool for turning information into an appealing story. When people travel to different communities, they often come back and are excited to share the surprising cultural constructs and customs they witnessed. The spirituals and songs of the slave South were effective because they had specific cultural relevance to their community and mixed cultural concepts from both African tradition and southern Protestantism. Televising the Civil Rights Movement was effective because it brought southern life into northern living rooms, just like hip hop brought urban black poverty into white suburban bedrooms. These contrasts in culture and experience are what give the stories we tell life and shock value. The “fly on the wall” appeal of stories like the Rolling Stone piece and videos like the one of Martese on the Corner is dependent on those mediums ability to provide a window into someone’s cultural experience.
Particularly in the current context at UVA, the fourth element of WFNP, rationality, is directly tied to individual understandings and experiences with culture. Rationality asks whether a story rings true. The visual imagery of Bloody Sunday provided this rationality by rejecting any shadow of a doubt about southern stories of mistreatment at the hands of the government. I have personally seen students and alumni divided on whether the stories told by Rolling Stone and in the aftermath of Martese Johnson’s arrest this year “rang true”. While many argued that the assault depicted in the Rolling Stone article seemed plausible, others argued that details like the UVA fight song quoted as a ‘popular’ song when in fact few students are familiar with it gave the story a sense of fiction that they could not overcome to believe the story. In the Martese Johnson case, many white students highlighted their own sense of Charlottesville law enforcement as relatively “relaxed” in an effort to reject the story, while many other black students spoke to the similarity of Martese’s treatment to treatment they had seen or experienced them selves. Ultimately, this forces us as storytellers to make decisions about which audiences it is most important to ‘convince’ with our stories.
The last element of WFNP, choice, transitions the paradigm from the perspective of the storyteller to the perspective of the audience/listener. Just as people are naturally empowered and positioned to be storytellers, we are also all an autonomous audience, able to choose among the stories of others. Effective social movements put issues right in our face, so that we cannot ignore them. However, using our beliefs, culture, and rationality, we can resist certain stories while embedding others into our own personal narratives. Ask a student of history what caused the Civil War. Ask a civil rights leader whether voting rights or economic equality is more important. Ask a hip hop artist whether they want to effect political or social change. Ask a Twitter user whether #BlackLivesMatter or #YesAllWomen is more influential. Ask a UVA student which of this year’s controversies and tragedies they will remember most in 10 years. The answers to all of those questions will be different depending on whom you ask, because of this powerful element of choice.
Combined, the five elements of the WFNP should be seen both as a tool for empowering and understanding social communication and social change and also as a challenge. They show that the road to social change is complicated, but also that it is possible and important, and that history has much to teach us as we strive to continue making progress in our communities and beyond.