There is a great deal of emphasis on “messaging,” which, as it is commonly used and understood among blogosphere politicos, means out-sloganeering the opposition. While this is a necessary aspect of the political strategic struggle we are trapped in, it is also a surrender to that which traps us in it, and a ceding of the subtler and more essential narrative to those positions which benefit most from the reduction rather than expansion of information. That which is less rational, and that which is less motivated by goodwill, gain strength from the characterization of the competing positions on diverse issues as mere opposite and equal ideological convictions, on an issue-by-issue basis. That achievement obscures the fact that underneath this issue-by-issue struggle is the deeper, more coherent struggle between reason and goodwill, on the one hand, and irrationality and indifference to the welfare of others (if not outright malice) on the other.
The remedy to this problem lies in adding a new layer to our efforts. We cannot abandon the superficial political struggle, the battle of messages in service to reason and goodwill on an issue-by-issue basis. But that does not mean that we cannot also confront the deeper and more consequential challenge of writing the underlying narrative in favor of reason and goodwill, not as they relate to each issue, but rather as they inform all issues. This is what I call “meta-messaging.”
Perhaps the subtlest and least “nailed down” aspect of my proposal (A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified, How to make a kinder and more reasonable world) is how to use frames and narratives in service to reason and goodwill. In the posts I linked to, I used the example of “A Christmas Carol,” which is both such a form of communication, and is a story about a magical analogy of such communication. Another that is very similar in both of these respects is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Obviously, there is a Christmas “goodwill” narrative that is reinforced in several Christmas stories.
But many other narratives also qualify, including several fictionalized popularizations of real people and real events. Some examples are “Gandhi,” “Invictus” (which I just watched last night), “Amistad,” to name a few that come immediately to mind. There are real events, documented and incorporated into our national meme-scape, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and countless movies and stories that reinforce the idea that goodwill makes us whole and happy, whereas malice and extreme individualism diminish us.
There are competing narratives as well, narratives that glorify individualism, that make a virtue out of mutual indifference, that rationalize and justify social irresponsibility. In one sense, the political substructure, the zeitgeist, is the product of a complex articulation of narratives, and the political struggle at that level is over influencing how these narratives aggregate, what overarching paradigms emerge as a result. And that is the struggle that is most critical to win (see The Politics of Consciousness).
I believe that narratives informed by reason and goodwill enjoy a “comparative advantage” (as economists put it), particularly in the long run, for two reasons: 1) They engender a more pleasant feeling in those who embrace them than the opposing narratives engender in those who embrace those (just as Scrooge was happier when he embraced the former, after his transformation, than he was throughout the many years in which he succumbed to the latter, prior to his transformation); and 2) the slight but constant pressure on history favoring rationality, or “utility,” causes those arrangements which yield greater aggregate benefits to prevail in the long run over those that don’t.
So the challenge is to play on these advantages, but not to passively rely on them. We need to compose, coopt, weave together, reinforce, assemble, and disseminate “armies” of narratives which coalesce into the maximum transmission of the desired effect, using all of the skills of the human mind and of human organization available to us. This is the second component of my proposal, which forms a kind of bridge between organizing in service only to mutual goodwill (not substantive political agendas), and lubricating the means of making well-informed and well-reasoned assessments of what public policies serve goodwill on a societal-wide scale.
This bridge, therefore, needs to take existing narratives in a particular direction, emphasizing our interdependence, emphasizing our ability to use government as an agency of a collective will, emphasizing the logical extension of interpersonal goodwill into public policy goodwill, and emphasizing that this is possible, that this is plausible, that this is right and good and natural.
There are huge bodies of existing literature to build on, from ancient epic myths to historical chapters to triumphs of collective will over shared adversity and in service to shared aspirations. Think how often we do this using the “Apollo Moon Landing” narrative: Every time someone wants to argue in favor of a concerted national effort to tackle a national problem, the fact that we collectively landed a man on the moon is invoked as a narrative argument in favor of national collective action in pursuit of difficult to achieve massive goals.
But it has been, up until now, a haphazard, decentralized, seat-of-the-pants strategy, used sporadically in service to uncoordinated and disparate arguments. This, in a sense, is my central point: Rather than invoking powerful tools in scattered and uncoordinated ways, it’s time to make an effort to focus them on pressure points that underwrite the entire spectrum of reasonable policies in service to universal goodwill. It’s time to work on developing, consciously and painstakingly, one integrated, powerful narrative to reinforce one coherent and unifying pair of values, and by doing so, advocating for everything that adheres to those values.