Tuesday, November 19, 2019
I have mentioned in past blogs the importance of the "narrative paradigm" in communications theory. In a nutshell, this theory argues that there is more to persuasion than the logic of your argument. Instead, the "truthiness" of an argument can be compelling, regardless of its objective merits, when it matches the life-experiences and biases of the reader or listener.
In legal writing, we often use allusions, or even meme-like story indexes, in order to quickly hijack the meaning behind a certain story or narrative to fit our needs. This often takes the form of biblical parables in an attempt to quickly convey the "truthiness" of a statement. The parable of the two builders, one who builds on sand and another who builds on rock, for instance, is cited in several cases. The gist of the parable being that if you do not have a good foundation, you cannot build a lasting structure or legal argument.
Citing to the parable, courts often make this comparison. Thus, "a motion built on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny." Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, 2012 WL 1067076, *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012) (unpublished). Or "using the common law as the basis for reasoning, is like building a house upon the sands instead of upon the rock." Ex parte Estep, 129 F.Supp. 557, 558 (N.D. Tex. 1955). Or, even more simply, "[t]he argument is as insubstantial as a house built upon the sand." Russel v. Gonyer, 264 F.2d 761, 762 (1st Cir. 1959).
We all think we get the gist of this parable - that you must have a firm foundation in your home, life, or argument, or it will all fall apart when tested. But most of us don't really understand what it originally meant.
Ray Vander Laan, a theologian with extensive time and training in the middle east, has pointed out that this understanding of the parable is most likely incomplete. In the part of the world that this story was first circulated, the people lived in a rocky desert, where the rocks occasionally give way to even, sand-covered wadis. The floor of a wadi would be the easiest place to build. It would also be the most foolish, because wadis flood in a very predictable and eye-catching fashion:
This cultural knowledge changes the meaning of the well-known parable. It isn't just foolish to build on sand because sand shifts - it is insane to build on sand, because the house will inevitably flood and be destroyed.
This illustration is important for more than just the biblically minded. It shows that the power of a story depends on its understanding, and that this understanding can shift and change over time and cultures. That means that when we reference allusions, or reference stories, we need to make sure that our readers will have the same understanding as ourselves.
Now, as long as our intended meaning meets the understanding of our audience, it does not really matter that the original meaning was something different. Thus, the quotations above still work, because the general understanding of the parable is that a shifting foundation is bad. It is only if we were communicating with the original audience that meaning would be lost.
But this story serves as a reminder that our storytelling is only effective when we know that our audience is going to understand it. I have commented before about how obscure literary references might be admirable, but ineffective if the reader has no reference to the work. Understanding the audience, and their reception of a particularly story index or allusion is necessary to properly telling the story. To paraphrase a well-known marketing book, "To be successful... today, you must touch base with reality. And the only reality that counts is what's already in the [audience's] mind." Al Ries & Jack Trout, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind 5 (rev'd ed. 1986).
This is not relevant just to the use of existing narratives, but to the stories you put together in your briefing. Remember that you may know the entire case and every detail, but that the court only knows what your present to them in the record. In order to make sure they hear the story you know, you must be sure to preserve all of the pieces of that story (by ensuring that all of your evidence makes it into the record at the trial level) and that you then present, on appeal, a complete narrative that contains each event or fact that makes your client's story persuasive. This includes facts that may not seem even legally relevant, but that are relevant to your audience.
In short, be sure you know what is in your audience's mind before you rely on narrative references to persuade them. Otherwise, you will be building an argument on shifting sand. And everyone knows that's a bad idea.
(Image source: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The (Greater) Tower of Babel (Vienna), 1563)