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?