What can JR Smith tell us about Communication Theory?

This is about sports, but also not about sports.

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Watch this video:

Wasn’t that a thrilling victory? Who could be more clutch than the greatest player of all time?

Now watch this video:

That doesn’t even make any sense. How would a professional basketball player forget the score and make such an awful decision?

Which one is the real ending?

Narrative framing is a critical aspect of human understanding. Stories allow us to import a variety of underlying relationships between acts, actors, scenes, purposes, and agental decisions. The items in that last sentence are from Kenneth Burke’s Pentad, the basis of much dramatistic research in rhetorical studies. Why do we use such a theoretical construct? After all, this has no deep brain science, voxels, or even surveys upon which we do a bunch of stats. Narrative is a way of knowing, and the accounts offered by narrative theory, and potential normative actions translated from these insights are highly effective. Or to put it another way — we already have a robust theoretical construct that works, we shouldn’t replace it with a far weaker one that looks more sciencey. Walter Fischer inaugurated this as the narrative paradigm. If you haven’t read this in a few years, you should. If you have never read it, do.

Within our narrative paradigm, we evaluate stories for their fidelity. Acts of characters are judged against what we know about those characters. A professional basketball player would be assumed to know basic basketball strategy and maintain situational awareness during a game, just as a surgeon would keep track of the appendix.

This causes considerable challenges when things that are really of the norm happen, like when JR Smith doesn’t keep track of the score, or when other probabilities go haywire. Thus the raw excitement of the game itself, and why people want to watch.

In the context of this basketball game the result is trivial. It’s a game. In other contexts, we need to account for how to deal with the JRs Smith of the narrative universe. What happens when the narrative universe loses most of the established priors? Sports are a key site for people to think and talk about probability. The 3-point shot revolution is a popular algebra lesson where 2x=3y and Bayesian probability trackers accompany many scores.

The lesson here: don’t let narrative fidelity rewrite your stories when the empirical dimensions shift. Earlier in this note I mentioned that JR Smith is a professional basketball player, and you likely imported your normal ontological assumptions about a person with that job. For those of you who don’t know basketball, it would be equally important for you to know that JR Smith is a notorious character. Why does fake news yank so many chains? Because it fits with narrative fidelity. Why are so many political strategies so oblivious? Because we like our older stories.

So here is the kicker: how do we use narrative coherence as a standard in incoherent times? Some of my facebook feed participants seem to think that declaring the acts of the President “not normal” has some political effect. I have argued in other posts on this platform that this is a losing play in the political game. The normal progression where we consider the internal coherence and external coherence of the story does not work in this world, Black Swan events are now seemingly common place. Instead of seeing this as a total loss, there is a chance here to recalibrate the other standards we have for coherence, to say wow — there are so many high variance games today. Perhaps most important we can choose the narratives that we would have interacted with all along. At the end of the day, the strategic revolution of the Warriors offense is quite real, the superiority of the Warriors had higher narrative salience than JR making a mistake. The story remains coherent. Perhaps what is really happening in public culture is that we are trying to shift from stories about our JRs, our Presidents be they Trump, Obama, Bush or Clinton to a story about the imaginary community of a nation, finding that there was never any coherence there.

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