Meta-stories and Their Discontents (Some Notes On The End of Season 1 of Serial)

Like a great many other people, I am hooked on the Serial podcast; I’m fascinated with the kind of long-form storytelling that Koenig and company are doing. Just the same, I have some…concerns. [1] The main thing I want to explore in this post is the possibility that the recently completed season of Serial is best understood not as a true crime story, but as a meta-narrative about (and potentially very critical of) true crime storytelling, and that this reading may alleviate some ethical concerns while raising others. Put another way: Serial attempts to chart a course along the axes of both ethical and epistemic responsibility relative to a justice system and a media environment that too often fails at both under the influence of errant narratives.

[Spoilers for season one of Serial follow, so if for some reason you’re saving up all of the episodes for the future and don’t want to know what happened, you’d best skip what’s next. This is going to be sloppy going, so don’t hold out too much hope for good philosophy here…it’s more meditation than argument.]

Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?

Who are you going to believe, me or your own lying eyes?

First: a brief word about what I mean by epistemic responsibility in this context. [2] With regard to practice of writing stories about the lives of other people, particularly where one is tempted to make judgements of certain kinds about occurrences in those lives, I take it as ideal to base one’s judgments on the best available information, combined with careful awareness of how one’s own preferences may color one’s understanding of or collection of that information. By “best available”, I am referring not only to the amount of information one possesses (where more is often, but not always, better), but also to its relevance to the matter at hand, to its truth value, etc. Most importantly, my reading of Serial here depends on an idea of epistemic responsibility that includes the ability to defer judgment or to refuse to judge where the above (admittedly vague) conditions aren’t satisfyingly met — and sometimes even when they are. This is, really, the sort of epistemic responsibility that is supposed to be a part of both legal and journalistic practice. Of course, I say “supposed to be” because it often is not, and the result can be both unjust and tragic.

Given the above: It is not an accident that the final episode of Serial is called “What We Know.” Nor is it accidental that “what we know” is very, very little indeed, and that admitting it turns out to be the show’s strongest expression of both epistemic and ethical responsibility, one that runs against the demands of both procedural justice and entertainment for an “ending” to fit the story. The story of a refusal to tell this or that story is what I find most compelling here.

The great epistemic danger (which is also a serious ethical danger) for journalistic and for legal storytellers [3] is the compelling need for satisfying stories. The internal logic of a story can be powerful — there’s a sort of narrative necessity that, when combined with one’s own preferences and assumptions, can lead to rather horrible decisions. Events do happen that do not fit our narratives, but when forced to choose between them, sometimes it’s just easier for us to side with the narrative than with the truth, regardless of what information is in our possession. “Print the legend,” right?

This is just the danger that Koenig and company have been dealing with so carefully (and often with expressed frustration and confusion) for all 12 episodes of the podcast. Each episode explores not just the story of Hae Min Lee’s murder, or of Adnan Syed’s case — it explores the ways in which friends, family, community members, law enforcement, etc. tell that story, and it suggests that there is something about all of these tellings that ought to concern us. Each episode finds facts (what few there are) matched up against competing narratives motivated by many different presuppositions and concerns and expectations. It also finds those facts either recognized or ignored in the context of various constructed narratives.

Koenig’s odd investment in exploring various people’s impressions, including her own, of some of the personalities involved (Adnan and Jay in particular) is more hinderance than help for the purpose of actually finding the truth about what happened to Hae. Indeed, it plays (unintentionally, I think) into some of the narratives that anti-domestic violence and abuse activists often find themselves fighting (“he was such a nice guy — he wouldn’t hit is wife!”). After all, horrible people can sometimes be quite charming, even to their victims, which is why impressions of this kind are really not much use — except for telling a good story. For telling a good story, these are just the things one wants to talk about, regardless of whether or not the story is true. While the show ultimately calls this bad habit into question, its indulgence of some stories, in the absence of others, is sometimes a problem. For example: we never really hear from Hae’s family, and while her diary is slightly informative, it is presented in the context of a story we already know, culturally speaking — one in which the diaries of teenaged girls are treated as more comic than informative. Serial may be willing to call narratives directly connected to certain facts of the case into question, but it often fails to question or contextualize certain other stories as well as it probably should. It is striking that the story Koenig et. al. want to tell (about stories themselves) refuses to go there.

There remains something ethically redeeming, though, in what Serial does include and study. Juxtaposing Koenig’s refusal to stretch the facts she has to fit a narrative with her willingness to explore the narrative commitments of others in depth seems to me to present an understanding of the Serial project that is really less about Hae or Adnan or Jay, or about their communities, than it is about true crime storytelling itself. The show’s epistemic responsibility makes it also stand for a kind of ethical claim: if telling a good story is not the same as finding the truth, then true crime reporting or even criminal investigation that begins and ends with working out the internal logic of a narrative may be unethical by virtue of being epistemically irresponsible from the outset. Instead of being a show about finding the evidence to serve a narrative, it is a show about a tiny and inadequate set of facts in search of a narrative that never quite finds what it’s looking for in a sea of competing stories — and that failure to find a narrative is the most ethical story it can tell.

As Koenig says at the end, if she were a juror, she would have to vote to acquit — not because she believes with certainty that Adnan is innocent (she does not), but because the facts as presented and the story as told do not warrant a finding of guilt in a legal context. Responsibility about the story and its telling demands this kind of ethical response from her, and from the story she herself is telling about it.


[1] I’m not going to repeat them all here — others have raised a fair number of concerns about how the show handles race, how it handles gender, how it handles religion, etc.

[2] This is really going to be some rough-and-ready stuff rather than proper virtue epistemology, which is not really my area of specialization. I’m mostly interested in deploying a concept of epistemic responsibility here as a way to link up Serial‘s apparent design with a particular set of ethical concerns that I think are inseparable from season 1’s true crime reporting format. There will be no deep exploration of virtue epistemology, or much demonstrated awareness of the current literature on that subject, in this post. I defer to the expertise of others for more technical explorations of the relevant concepts.

[3] Let’s not kid ourselves about it — lawyers and LEO’s are constantly in the business of telling stories, and many of the practical demands of their work are built around certain agreed-upon rules for telling them.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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