Tag: Narrative

How To: Avoid False Equivalence

Whether it’s politics, storytelling, technology or just our day to day lives, we love to find balance in things. There’s something so tempting about making things equal. It is an especially powerful temptation in our tribal politics. The more polarized we become, the more important it is to avoid being wrong, lest our opponents seize on the opportunity to undermine us. We begin to create equality and balance where none exist, for the sake of our agendas and egos.


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How To: Pick Your Politics (Part I)

This blog has done a lot of talking around already existing political fault lines. I’ve discussed how to trust, how to value your vote and how to maintain civil dialogue, but I’ve stayed away from directly influencing your politics. For good reason! It’s a sensitive issue that everyone feels very personally about, even if they don’t have a strong opinion and would prefer people don’t discuss it in their presence. Nonetheless, it is hard to make much of politics if we aren’t prepared to build or buy into a political philosophy, and there are a handful of non-partisan steps we can take to make sure that our information is directing meaningful action towards functional accountability in our system.

To start at the beginning: distinguish what is actually political.


Sometimes it feels like every choice can be a political one, from the way we wear our hair to the brands of shoes we buy. And yes, personal choices are often reflections of a political philosophy. But that’s not really something that can be affected by voting. Answering a single question can easily let you know what counts: does the government (local, state, federal) have the power to affect this? The list that emerges is full of the big items that voters say they care about every election: the economy, jobs, health, food, safety, civil rights, security, education, immigration, transportation, environment, the judiciary, etcetera. This is the starting line for what we can affect politically.

Now that you have the big categories that government can affect (whether or not you want them to), consider which systems you interact with regularly.


As a city-dweller, I am constantly interacting with transportation, and it’s a big local issue. If you travel frequently or have family in a foreign country, immigration law might be something you interact with regularly. If you or a loved one has dealt with serious injury, maybe you’ll interact more regularly with health care and insurance companies. Make a list of the stuff that immediately stands out to you, without creating any kind of order.

Ok, now you know what I’m going to say: rank the political areas that mean the most to you. Think about what engages you, what motivates you, what ignites your passions. What is something that makes you want to learn?


Don’t be ashamed of your ranking or think that it’s unimportant. This is your list of what is essential to your politics. This is the stuff that will get you to the voting booth. You have no obligation to make your list look like others’ lists. Set the most urgent issues at the top, and go in descending order for whatever makes you pay more attention to your politicians.

Finally, you’re ready to think about results you want from these political areas. Instinct will have you cast your mind towards utopian scenarios where things are perfect and completely fixed. Avoid that impulse for a moment, and ask about something a little different: what is the least you’d accept as progress? If you want a local trash pickup that is environmentally friendly, would you accept publicly funded recycling bins as a start? If you think taxes are too high, can you think of a cut that would set your mind at ease that they’re going the right direction?


Have an idea of the minimum results you’d accept from elected officials, and what would disappoint you.

The beauty of this process is that it is ongoing and versatile. If you’re practicing citizenship regularly, you’ll find yourself doing this process over and over again as old problems are addressed and new ones crop up.  It can be used on local issues like designating park area, designing bike paths and alleviating traffic problems, or it can function as a blueprint for national politics. It doesn’t require sharing, but this exercise should help clarify a worldview for you. It should help you determine what kind of results you really want from government and the consequences of those choices.

At the end of Part I, we should all have a strong idea of what government means to us, and what we think it should be doing, independent of what others want or say. And Part II? You’ll have to wait and see.

How To: Have A Civil Conversation


As I was composing last week’s post about how we’re closer in purpose than it appears in our polarized time, I realized that I was also setting out (incomplete) guidelines on how to engage civilly. So it made a lot of sense to follow up with a How-To on not devolving immediately into screaming matches over politics, whether that’s online or at the family reunion this summer.

Warning: if you’re the kind of person who holds grudges, please do not start or engage in political arguments. This advice is only useful if you can…


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Myth Smack: We’re Polarized

It sounds counterintuitive to say that we’re not polarized as a nation. We see each other as almost separate countries.


There are people from every state who say they are willing to tear apart their communities and save the “good ones” from the devastation, whether that’s snarky liberals on a blog or gun-toting secessionists in the Mountain West. It seems like we can never ever agree on things, and even when we do express some consensus, we’re all suspicious of the others’ motives.

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Myth Smack: Our Votes Don’t Matter

Myth Smack: Our Votes Don’t Matter

It cannot be stressed enough: voting matters. Voting matters a lot. It’s one of the most important and central acts of our government. Citizenship cannot exist without it. And yes, while it will take other, more consistent actions to bring your worldview to full fruition, almost nothing you can try to accomplish through politics will happen without casting a ballot.

Yet the myth persists among too many people that voting doesn’t matter.


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How To: Trust A Politician

Wait, please hear me out! Trust feels precious enough that none of us really wants to spare any for politics, let alone anyone who can’t go three words without pandering. But the bad news is that our political system runs on trust, so we’ll all have to find some way to build it for the people we hire to write and manage the rules of society.

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How To: Separate Real and Fake News

Separating fact from fiction is one of the most important tasks we have as citizens. Sure, there’s the high-minded political philosophy that we must seek truth to be whole, but I’m just talking about practical terms. Frankly, if we don’t know what is actually happening day to day in our lives and in the world around us, we’re going to make some really bad decisions. Maybe it’s deciding that we can perform field operations because we’ve watched a lot of Grey’s Anatomy. Maybe it’s deciding that we should try driving stunts because it looked super cool in the most recent Fast and Furious. Or maybe it’s sending thousands of servicemembers to distant lands to die.

Fake news isn’t dangerous because we disagree with it; it’s dangerous because it changes our reactions. It keeps us from seeing problems we need to fix, and turns things that are harmless into urgent issues. Indulge in fake news, and suddenly we’re tilting at windmills and ignoring bandits and thieves.

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How To: Remember Why We Bother

Politics is a gross, messy thing, like cleaning cat litter or moving dripping garbage or doing your freshman bio fetal pig lab barehanded because you don’t have latex gloves that fit. And just like those gross, messy things, politics is necessary. You could ignore the cat litter or the garbage or the fetal pig lab, but consequences will pile up in ways that will only make the final and inevitable reckoning worse.

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How To: Define A Scandal

Who doesn’t love a political scandal? In our Age of Outrage, there’s almost nothing that we want more. Scandal comes from feet on the Resolute Desk or the Oval Office couches, from vouching for friends or appointing them to your Cabinet, from firing Deputy Attorneys General because they wouldn’t affirm your political goals, and from sexual harassment with a cigar. In fact, it almost seems like we can turn anything into a scandal, which has the disconcerting effect of making almost anything normal.

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Week 7 – How Does Narrative Shape Our Politics?

Due to time constraints, I did not have the ability to record a video this week. Here’s what I would have said (probably, after enough takes and editing) mixed with what I would have written separately.

Stories. Our lives are controlled by stories: about ourselves, about our world, about each other. Narratives, real and fictional, are how we learn and how we have a sense of what’s meaningful in the world.

That makes us both strong and vulnerable. Strength comes from resilience. Being able to make sense of our world through narrative lets us endure, fight, believe, connect and cooperate. But the vulnerability is that any bad info that sneaks into those narratives can completely disorient us, make cooperation difficult and paralyze our problem-solving.

It’s because of our wildly different narratives – liberal and conservative – that we’re so polarized now. And those different narratives aren’t just about seeing the same facts differently, but having completely different universes of fact.

Last week, I talked about how we stopped trusting the arbiters of common facts: news media.

Some of that lost trust was deliberate, using attacks from people who had a particular interest in dissolving that trust. Some of the loss of trust was news media making big mistakes and not lining up with what was really happening. But the part we can control and haven’t done, as citizens, is creating a meaningful narrative about how to deal with this lack of trust.

Whatever narrative was easiest to accept, whether it was that the news media was inherently corrupt or that it was incapable of reform, has done little to solve the problem. Worse still: because we couldn’t agree on what was going wrong, we just kept reinforcing the same narratives over and over again.

So liberals felt like their ideas were never taken seriously, and thus they checked out of traditional news media, and conservatives felt that the entire system was biased against them, and that they needed their own outlets, untainted by liberalism, to provide information.

That left us pretty separated, and pretty messed up. Each side has gotten so embedded in a narrative – about what is real, who is good, what is bad, what constitutes evidence – that we don’t even talk to each other. It’s like speaking separate languages and thinking that shouting louder will get the other person to understand.

What we need are common terms and common understandings. And the first step of that is identifying our current narrative and challenging every last bit of it.

But before we start, it’s important to realize that whatever is happening now has absolutely happened before in human history. Let’s learn from their mistakes.

Such as: Prohibition. I think we all can agree that the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was a mistake. We may come from different angles on this: libertarians dislike the idea that the government should legislate what you can put in your body; liberals disagree that we should legislate morality, and conservatives dislike the interference in the free market.

Nonetheless, 3/4 of the states and 2/3 of each legislative house agreed to stop the production and sale of alcohol.

Yeah, when said like that, it sounds nuts, right?

The narrative that many told themselves was that alcohol could be found in every problematic situation. Bankruptcy, domestic abuse, disability in children, poverty, poorly integrated immigrants…the list went on and on. The frequency of alcohol’s interaction with these problems was mistaken as the cause. This is why we try to say over and over again: correlation is not causation.

Alcohol wasn’t causing the problems; it was often a symptom of them. But by creating a scapegoat narrative, alcohol became the root of all evil. And how did we end this narrative? Well, it took a lot of misery, violence and hypocrisy. Regular Americans found the law hunting them down for innocuous imbibing. Criminal enterprises exploited the closed market, whether that was selling alcohol barely better than poison, or consolidating power and territory by any means necessary. And plenty of lawmakers and powerful people talked Dry but drank Wet. And those who were willing to supply and accommodate them were sick of being talked about as a problem when they were providing a solution.

As more issues began to pile up, it was clear that even if alcohol itself were a problem, Prohibition was far from a solution.

So how can we apply this to our own lives now?

First: check your narrative. The easiest way to do this is to pretend that you have to explain the situation and your solutions to a non-American (or if the problem is really big, a peaceful alien). What kind of terms will you use to give them a sense of what is really happening? What kind of questions would they ask? And how does the information available to you come together into a single, reasonable explanation?

If you find yourself faltering and saying, “Uh, give me a sec, I can prove it,” ask if that piece of evidence really proves what you think it does. Don’t embellish what it is and don’t try to force a narrative.

Second: ask questions. If you have a gap in your narrative that doesn’t immediately make you wrong. But it does mean that you’ll have to make sense of what’s missing.

Third: what are the people disagreeing with you saying? For any narrative to be meaningful, it has to be able to answer its critics with the same terms and understanding. If you’re using terms that they don’t understand, if you’re not even able to agree on what is happening, your narrative needs a lot of work. Maybe you’re wrong, or maybe they are, but your narrative had better be able to stand on equal footing with an opponent, enough that a neutral party can understand the situation.

Fourth: respect the opposition. Now, there are some arguments that are not worth respecting – apartheid, genocide, mass murder, killing journalists. But aside from fundamentally immoral premises (ideas that would/should be rejected anytime, anywhere), respect that your opponent’s narrative is truly and deeply real to them. Remember that narratives are how we make sense of the world. They may be wrong, but they’re probably not believing in this to spite you. And if they are, they are part of the unacceptable premises above. Narratives feed into our worldviews, and just like a worldview has to be able to encompass people who disagree, so must our narratives.

So tweet @citizenzeroblog how you’ve challenged your own narratives about something using the hashtag #CheckTheNarrative. And ask yourself: what are you going to do with your democracy?