Narrative Derangement Syndrome

Source: Taylor Swift, Official Music Video for Anti-Hero

It’s us, hi.

We’re the problem. It’s us.

I suppose we can’t take credit for everything. After all, Epsilon Theory is just a quirky little finance and politics publisher with a bit of news meta-criticism thrown in for good measure. But as it is our life’s work to show you the linguistic sausage-making of narrative, expose how narrative is being used to tell you how to think, and equip you to spot narrative in the wild, we bear some responsibility for what has happened to the idea of “narrative” over the last decade.

Over the years that we and others have been calling attention to the nudging state and nudging oligarchy, citizens have likewise become increasingly attuned to how powerful institutions frame and massage information to elicit a particular response. That is a good thing. In the midst of that, however, our collective heightened narrative awareness has too often given way to something else entirely: narrative antipathy. That is, we think, probably not such a good thing. Narrative is now a pejorative. It is now a powerful and widely understood term used to dismiss another’s contentions and credibility. We now justify all manner of sins simply because we believe someone tried to tell us how to think – and many of those sins are far greater than any attempted manipulation to which we were subjected.

To be sure, vigilance against narrative is a fundamental duty of the politically engaged citizen. That vigilance is how we replace thoughtless compliance with the preferences of a nudging state and nudging oligarchy with critical thought and autonomy of mind instead. Narrative antipathy, however, simply replaces one form of thoughtless compliance with another. Instead of blithely submitting to the framing and opinions-presented-as-fact spoon-fed to us by corporate media institutions, we blithely and confidently disregard entire populations of humans and entire fields of human knowledge simply because they were part of an effort to nudge us.

I get it. Narrative antipathy feels like it should be a natural extension of or a response to narrative awareness. I tell you that it is the opposite. Narrative awareness is an on switch for autonomy of mind. Narrative antipathy is an off switch.

And there is nothing more useful to manipulative institutions than an off switch for autonomy of mind.

Narrative Derangement Syndrome – the self-righteous switching off of the brain in response to any hint of manipulation of our interpretation of facts has itself become one of the most powerful tools for the institutions and individuals who use the power of narrative to tell us how to think.

How can we observe this?

However you like and wherever you look.

We have argued on these pages, for example, that opinion language in news articles has risen rapidly, largely starting in 2016 for reasons I suspect you can puzzle out yourself. We show this history on our Fiat News dashboard at, where, incidentally, levels are currently approaching pandemic-era peaks. Yet those exhibits chart the prevalence of language indicative of a narrative being promoted. In this case, we are more interested in how much narrative is being talked about in the open. How much is the existence of narrative being acknowledged and discussed in the framing of other stories and topics?

The answer, in short, relative to any point in recent history, is more. A lot more.

Using the complete Lexis Nexis / Moreover dataset available to us, we constructed a simple index of the frequency of news articles discussing “the narrative” or “a narrative.” Nothing fancy. Thankfully, we don’t need fancy to understand what this chart is telling us.

Source: Epsilon Theory, Lexis Nexis, Quid

With the exception of 2020 to 2021, when something changed that I suspect you can once again probably puzzle out yourself, US-based media outlets increased the number of articles with explicit references to “the narrative” in every single year in the last decade. Today, the frequency of these references is more than 70% higher than it was in 2014.

Among the pundit class, discussion of “the narrative” is not widespread – it is universal. A politically engaged, online personality who does not discuss “the narrative,” who does not use the term regularly to weaken an opposing argument as an opinionated spin on facts, is a unicorn. It doesn’t exist.

This is not a red-blue thing. Red Tribe loves to discuss “the narrative.”

Blue Tribe also loves to discuss “the narrative.”

To be sure, some of these observations are barely different from the kinds that we make around these parts. That is, they simply reflect the awareness of narrative. But in most of the cases above, the description of something as a narrative is being deployed as a rhetorical technique to malign another perspective. It is an attempt to frame what the ambiguous they want you to believe. It is a pejorative, designed to make the proponents look like compliant sheep and the promoters like manipulative tyrants.

You can see the brains shutting off more clearly, however, when ordinary citizens start seeing ghosts of narratives they dislike in every fact that might conceivably be attached to it. Consider an example from only a few weeks ago, when my business partner and friend Ben Hunt posted the simplest of factoids about global temperatures.

No cringey “Trust the Science” memes. No “we must shut down the world economy” pablum. No “capitalism must die or else the world will.” Just, “Wow, it looks like it is the hottest it has been in a long time.” There is no narrative language, no manipulation, no attempt to conflate ideas, no policy promotion here. It is a dry, interesting fact. There are interesting questions to be asked in response. Questions about methodology, measurement techniques and devices, causes – all sorts of things. A couple people wanted to talk about that.

I’ll give you three guesses what the rest of the replies look like, and the first two don’t count.

As you can see, it takes very little for anti-narrative to emerge as a narrative in its own right. It takes very little for common knowledge to form around little pockets of linguistic gravity.

This is what Narrative Derangement Syndrome (NDS) produces: citizens who are so geared up to fight “the narrative” that any fact, statement or person uttering something which has ever been used or might conceivably be used to promote “the narrative” to manipulate public opinion is now to be shunned, corrected and reframed in context of the anti-narrative narrative. We just can’t have people saying things, even potentially true things, which others might misuse to support “the narrative” we perceive to dominate common knowledge. These men are arguing with a ghost, a specter conjured by their own NDS.

Now, perhaps your response to Ben’s original tweet is to say, “Yeah, but you know why he posted it. You know what he meant.” That is our brain on NDS – especially at its intersection with The Culture Wars and the widening gyre. Those sloppy pattern-recognition machines we keep in our skulls hear a statement of fact that sounds like the kinds that are sometimes used to support a narrative we hate, and our impulse to nuke the speaker and the narrative he is obviously pushing becomes difficult to control. Sound familiar? Sound a little bit like the effect that narrative has on the unaware?

Yet fearful, pre-emptive nuclear strikes on anything that looks like it might serve “the narrative” are far from the only ways that NDS infects our public sphere. The more deranged we become by the gall of the corporate media and political institutions to abuse the public trust with dishonest narratives, the more preposterous things even the best among us are willing to countenance.

Speaking of some of the best among us, Victor Davis Hanson was once an historian.

That’s not fair. Not just an historian. A good one. Maybe a great one. His fabulous 2006 text, A War Like No Other, is a critical part of my own homeschool curriculum for my children. Like the best history, it tells the what and how and less the why, leaving that for the reader to surmise.

Today, however, NDS has transformed Hanson into an apologist for what should be anathema to any historian: the rejection of uncomfortable fact for comfortable fiction, simply because the former is being used as part of manipulative nudges by oppressive, coercive institutions and individuals. Former President Trump recently amplified a Hanson essay in which Hanson espoused this new-found mantra.

It is easy to birth conspiracy theories.

All that is required is chronic government stonewalling of reasonable requests for transparency. Then add in high officials serially lying under oath, along with the blatantly unequal application of the law. Institutionalize arguments from authority of politicians and bureaucrats who refuse to adjudicate arguments empirically.

Include the weaponization of investigatory and intelligence bureaucracies. Finish with the transformation of an obsequious media into a mouthpiece of the state. And presto, you end up with a skeptical, cynical public that learns to believe the very opposite from what it is told by elites.

How to Create Conspiracy Theories, by Victor Davis Hanson, American Greatness (July 24, 2023)

It is not hard to see precisely what it is that Hanson is saying: that the embrace of conspiracy theories is an act of the rational on no other basis than the tendency toward manipulation and “warping” of facts by the political elite and key media institutions.

But whether true or not, why would some not believe that—given the efforts of the state to hide and warp facts?

Consider what drives rational people to embrace supposed “conspiracy” theories around the so-called “insurrection?”

How to Create Conspiracy Theories, by Victor Davis Hanson, American Greatness (July 24, 2023)

Hanson’s Giuliani-esque turn asks us to consider: can we really blame people for latching on to off-the-wall conspiracy theories when they’re constantly being subjected to dishonest narratives?

Yes. Mercy, yes. We can blame them. We should blame them. We must blame them.

My goodness, when did our expectations of politically engaged citizens become so flaccid?

Look, folks. Yes, political, media and academic institutions aggressively promote narratives about climate change. They highlight confirmatory and downplay contradictory data, so as not to “confuse” the audience to adopt the “wrong” interpretation. They change the metrics and measures they present when the old ones aren’t as supportive of the “correct” interpretations. They extrapolate from evidence of some probabilistic impact of climate change on extreme weather events to call every Category 4 hurricane a “result” of climate change, then revert to referring to milder-than-expected weather observations as “normal weather variations” that we shouldn’t draw comfort from. They treat massively expensive political policy prescriptions, some of which would have devastating effects on human quality of life, all of which treat policy impact on global mean temperatures as a mathematical identity without accounting for human behavior or second and third order economic effects, as being incontrovertible and synonymous with the underlying climate science.

No, that does not give us license to ignore that our climate does indeed appear to be warmer, and that our collective behaviors are probably influencing it. The deliberately manipulative practice which equates every global climate policy initiative with The Science doesn’t give us license to immediately dismiss any policy or climate discussion, sight unseen, just because we “see the narrative they’re pushing.”

Yes, public health and their missionaries among media institutions aggressively promote narratives about pandemics. They issue noble lies about masks, falsely claiming N95s won’t help private citizens so as to retain limited supply for first responders. They withhold or downplay data if they believe it might induce unwise decisions by citizens. They knowingly conflate severity reduction with infection risk. They flit back-and-forth among mottes-and-baileys constructed from hospital resource strain arguments, long-term costs to public health infrastructure and avoiding active community spread, depending on what will produce the most aggressive sound bite. Without evidence, they immediately dismiss as conspiracy theory plausible, if circumstantial curiosity about the origins of a virus, then call that utterly unscientific practice The Science. As officials, when criticized, they conflate their very selves with The Science. They treat complicated social policies with both costs and benefits – like school and business closures – as synonymous with The Science. As a thing only epidemiologists and virologists get to have opinions about, even when the calculus crosses multiple fields in which those professionals hold no particular expertise. They routinely treat absence of evidence as evidence of absence then condescend to those who actually understand the difference. They parade around lockdown-for-thee-but-not-for-me hypocrisy in full, justified confidence that media institutions will give them a pass.

No, that doesn’t grant us a license to thoroughly reject the expertise and advice of the field of epidemiology and call ourselves shrewd. No, it doesn’t mean we are expressing some noble form of intellectual autonomy by rejecting an effective vaccine which shows ample evidence of representing a vastly lower risk than contracting the disease it prevents or weakens among most demographic and comorbidity groups. No, it doesn’t mean we ought to lean into every new conspiracy about luciferase, aborted fetus parts, 5g chips, or DNA scrambling that pops out of YouTube or the latest Pentecostal Health and Freedom conference just because our press and public health institutions bombarded us with narratives laden with noble lie after noble lie for 3 years.

Yes, the news media and political institutions aggressively promote narratives that frame ordinary, common sense ideas like requiring voters to provide identification as rank voter suppression. They frame claims of electoral fraud as innocuous and benign when they are sympathetic to the claimant, and as treasonous when they are not. They suppress and undermine unfavorable stories about the sons of favored candidates, then gleefully promote linguistically identical, opinion-laden pieces tearing disfavored candidates to bits for personal scandals. When it suits their aims, they call riots coups, foreign collusion proven and tell us precisely how to think about those who might offer an alternative description. When it suits their aims, they call foreign collusion impossible, riots mostly peaceful protests, and never say anything about them ever again, then tell us precisely how to think about those who might offer an alternative description.

No, that doesn’t mean we get to call ourselves justified or thoughtful for buying into the delusions of a pillow salesman about hacked voting machines, or made-up nonsense about boxes of ballots, hordes of zombie voters or sophomoric geolocation grifts about mules. We are not granted license to pretend that seeking to install false electors or engage the vice president to unconstitutionally reject the valid electors of several states under the aegis of vague threats lobbed by the former president on social media is in any way normal or OK simply because the media gave us big feelings when they pushed narrative after narrative built on the foundations of their susceptibility to that other derangement syndrome.

Is Hanson at least partially correct? Does the existence of a nudging state and a nudging oligarchy, hell-bent on using the power of narrative to shape public opinion and manufacture consent, aid the emergence of conspiracy theories? Of course it does! Loss of faith in institutions has sweeping consequences. Our vulnerability to the truly ridiculous, so long as it tells a better story, is one of them.

But contrary to Hanson’s claim that this is “all that is required”, it is nowhere near sufficient.

The real recipe for a conspiracy theory class is precisely the same as the recipe for a compliant class: a narrative that allows them to turn off their brain. In the same way that the latter turn off their brains through an utter lack of awareness of how words shape their world, the former do so by antipathy.

The complete citizen must be able to reject both – to be constantly vigilant for and aware of narrative without allowing that awareness to transform into narrative derangement syndrome. He must be capable of both calling out coercion by the nudging state and nudging oligarchy while maintaining his capacity to absorb facts about the world without fear of how they might be used by others to serve “the narrative.”

It’s not easy to do both. But if we consume any media at all and still care about maintaining autonomy over our own thoughts, it is our only choice.

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  1. Avatar for fxpoet fxpoet says:

    The problem with this process is that it is so easy to become angry at the constant attempts to push your opinion in either direction that many engaged individuals with clear thoughts ultimately ignore both sides of the narrative. And I don’t think that is necessarily the best outcome either.

  2. Thanks for the constant vigilance in reminding us that yes indeed we can hold conflicting thoughts in our heads and hearts. I really like your adjective, coercion. The spirited essay reminded me that we are all (or at least I am) anxious to read the Final part of the MOGCOM series. When does it drop?

  3. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    In September, I hope. Still trying to solicit more views of analogs to make the idea as comprehensive and applicable to as many people as possible, including the many who understandably found the charismatic subject matter to be utterly foreign!

  4. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Agreed on all counts. For me, fighting both temptations has to be the order of the day; still, there are worse things than to pull away from a table where there’s no winning.

  5. You either die a hero or you live long enough to become the villain! The appropriation of ‘narrative’ by the widening gyre has felt obvious for a few years now.

    I enjoyed the note. I was thinking towards the end that the ET use of ‘narrative’ and the gyre’s use of it are not the same, in a similar way to your phrasing from mogcom (that I’ve liked and been using) about understanding when the topic is the story about the story, and not so much the story itself.

    The construction of the fiat index is the proof that came to mind of this distinction in meaning. The linguistic phrasing that the fiat index is looking for to reflect narrative is completely devoid of anything that would trigger the NDS responses you showed above!


    I perhaps am writing this to justify my own ‘narrative hypersensitivity’. This is a phrase I’ve used with the ET crew a number of times…at first reading today’s note I was like ‘oh shit I have NDS’. But upon further thought I think that my hypersensitivity carries this same distinction of being about the story about the story, whereas NDS is about the story itself. For example, I read an article the other day and was utterly triggered by a sentence that started with “After all, …”. :rofl: If there is a fiat index Hall of Shame I nominate this phrase.

  6. Avatar for jewing jewing says:

    While not a failsafe, I have found that intentionally acquiring my news through reading, as opposed to seeing or hearing, has helped force a bit of distance from the conflagration. Sure, the media in print is still very much aflame, but one can consume it at one’s own pace, and it is much easier to keep the filtered lenses on (and no, they are not polarized).

    And yes, I took that metaphor waaaay too far there. The image that now comes to mind is Elton John in his best specs watching a dumpster full of newsprint burn.

  7. Avatar for KCP KCP says:

    It seems that our USA culture has become increasingly infected with the need for something to “Love to Hate” or “Hate to Love”, especially around politics and the myriad of related institutions. I say “seems” as perhaps we’ve always been that way and the infection was not so blatantly apparent?

    I’ll add that, generally our ability and willing to listen has been diminished into the frequencies of “Love to Hate” or “Hate to Love”.

    Sadly, i strongly believe these positions fill some void in people, like bullying does, like booze, drugs, sex, gambling, hording, whatever-ing and the NEED TO BE RIGHT and NEED TO WIN.

    The narrative process described through many of these ET posts/comments feeds this, IMO…the media knows their audience and feeds the Love to Haters and Hate to Lovers - hungry/needy eyeballs mean $.

    Sadly, i really think the energy people spend in LTH or HTL will only dissipate when it has to for an individual or when people have no choice but to admit that the position they held in a narrative was wrong…with no “Yes, but.(s)”.

    Unfortunately these magnetic poles prevent us from having meaningful discussions, debates and decisioning. For example, could we possibly have a healthy discussion in the USA on climate? Are we making the right investments related to climate? what if we are wrong on carbon dioxide? What other atmospheric and earth factors should we study harder?

    Not a chance - it would stop after “What if we are wrong on CO”.

    What breaks the pattern - i have no idea.

    But, as others have stated, we do have the power not to be sucked in, to educate our kids to think critically and openly and contribute productive efforts in our local communities - that’s a good safe harbor.

  8. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    You may already be thinking of this or familiar with this, but we call this the Game of You. Everything reduced to Mirror or Rage engagements.

  9. I so rarely agree with an entire anything.

    I agree entirely with this note.

    The best lies, after all, are tightly wrapped around a truth.

  10. Has @bhunt confessed to you yet that he hates this note of yours…because he didn’t write it?

  11. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    :sweat_smile: Not yet, but in his defense we mostly air out our mutual grievances through board games, video games and D&D campaigns.

  12. The media reaction to Trump’s mugshot is the example par excellence of NDS. The reaction to @bhunt’s X post on record hot temperatures at least required a headline to set it off. With the mug shot Trump’s defiant stare is all it took. No headline or caption was necessary.

  13. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Pre-emptive narrative and anti-narrative strikes as far as the eye can see. MAD was supposed to be a deterrent, but in narrative world it reads more like a suggestion.

  14. This essay should be required reading (in university). I hope you will PDF it, thx.

  15. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Kind of you to say. It will be available in PDF form soon.

  16. Thank you for writing this. My biggest frustration these past few years is that I am not allowed to have a reasonable belief/opinion about anything anymore without suffering violence for being “one of the other side”. My personal life has been similar to what happens to Ben Hunt on twitter when he talks about covid or climate change. My conservative acquaintances act like I’m an evil socialist, pedophile pushing the woke agenda, and my liberal acquaintances act like I’m an evil racist, misogynist pining for “the days when white men were on top”. I am neither of those things. It makes me want to rage and cry all at the same time.

  17. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    FWIW, I find writing about it to be both therapeutic and helpful to thinking clearly about it.

  18. I’m going to need more time to digest this. Academically, I understand your point about the apathy leading to a closed mind. Viscerally, I don’t know if I can bring another reaction. Hanson’s quote was pretty spot on in my mind (this is the first time I’ve read it). I think apathy is the natural reaction to realizing that a constant barrage of propaganda really, truly, is the water in which we swim in 2023. It’s everywhere from every single company trying to sell anything, to culture wars, red v blue teams, analysts, bulls/bears, social media, clickbait, etc. It’s not just everywhere, it’s to the point that it’s the only thing left.
    The “What the heck is water?” fish are the baseline. The “How’s the water?” fish has been red-pilled. Perhaps the highest mind in the parable is the narrator breaking the 5th wall. I don’t truly think the vast majority of us can get to the 5th wall let alone break it. I certainly have enough trouble on my own.

  19. Avatar for rguinn rguinn says:

    Yep. And make no mistake, I’m no better at this than you or anyone else. But I think what we’re talking about is closer to nihilism than apathy. Whenever we’re in control of our conscious faculties, I still think we have to try.

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