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Cognitive scientist George Lakoff (among others) confirmed (in The Political Mind) what we all have long known: People are not particularly “rational” in the old, Enlightenment sense of the word. We aren’t primarily persuaded by good arguments, but rather by good narratives, swayed more effectively by appeals to emotion than by appeals to reason.

Many of us are familiar with the frustrating futility of mobilizing a well-informed and well-reasoned argument in public discourse, only to have it crash impotently against the shoals of blind and inflexible ideology. We are not engaged in a rational national debate, but rather in a national competition of narratives.

This perspective defines a set of guiding principles for those committed to reason, humility, and humanity:

1) That we engage in this competition of narratives very consciously and strategically;

2) that one cornerstone of that strategy be the recognition that it is a competition of narratives, not sound bites, and that therefore sound bites should be used to invoke larger narratives rather than to reinforce the ritual of superficial political jousting;

3) that we should always anchor policy arguments in larger, consistent and coherent narratives, and make every policy debate an instance in that larger competition of narratives;

4) that our overarching narrative should be that we are the champions of reason and humanity (or reason in service to humanity);

5) that we use well-informed and well-reasoned arguments not just (or even primarily) for their own sake, but also as a constant reinforcement of the narrative that we are champions of reason and humanity;

6) that we strive to be, and to appear to be, the reasonable people of goodwill in every interaction, refraining as much as possible from ad hominem attacks and angry rants, avoiding the exploitation of trivialities, and instead arguing our positions calmly and reasonably and compellingly, not just through logical, empirical argumentation, but also through emotionally compelling metaphors and analogies and real life stories;

7) that we emphasize the importance of how we think rather than what we think, of procedures and attitudes rather than substantive conclusions, because the former is the algorithm that determines the latter –cultivating greater commitment to reason and compassion in the determination of specific policy positions should be our core agenda; and

8) that we suggest in every argument that none of us has all the answers, that oneself (the reasonable person of goodwill speaking or writing in that moment) might be wrong on some or all matters, and that what we most need as a people is for as many of us as possible, of all ideological inclinations, to agree to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world.

I’ve discussed various aspects of this in various other essays, ranging from the examination of the dynamics of our cognitive landscape (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix) to the importance of “walking the walk” (see. e.g., The Power of “Walking the Walk”, The Ultimate Political Challenge, The Foundational Progressive Agenda, and The Politics of Kindness) to what I call “meta-messaging,” which is the communication and dissemination of the underlying narrative of reason and humanity (see. e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives and “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few).

The underlying narrative of reason and humanity (or reason in service to humanity) generates more specific narratives by answering the question “what does reason, inspired by and leavened by imagination and empathy, applied to evidence reliably derived, suggest are the best policies for humanity?” That question doesn’t eliminate debate, but rather frames it, and those who want to argue positions that don’t purport to answer it can be directly challenged by the narrative itself.

(It’s possible to narrow the underlying narrative for particular audiences, if one element of it seems to unpalatable to that audience, particularly changing “humanity” to “the American national/public interest.” And it’s generally recommended to frame the narrative in different ways for different audiences, down to choosing the vocabulary that most resonates with that audience.)

As a result, there are many economic, constitutional/legal, moral, and other social systemic components and sub-components to this underlying narrative. There is, in fact, an entire corpus of economic, constitutional and legal, moral, and other social systemic arguments that are generated by the underlying narrative, each of which must be converted into narratives of their own, using compelling metaphors and analogies, and emotionally evocative real life stories, but always referring back to the well-informed and well-reasoned arguments, not so much for their own inherent persuasive value, but more for their value as a constant signification of being reasonable people, members of a movement defined by reason in service to humanity.

The opposing narrative, which frames itself in terms of “Christian values” or “Liberty” or “Patriotism” (or, to be fair, some parallel left-wing ideological reductions) is, in the frame of our narrative, “irrationality in service to inhumanity” (by definition, since that which opposes “reason in service to humanity” is its opposite). Most often, it relies on some stagnant, historically produced dogma, degrading those that are vital parts of our institutional framework in one way or another (e.g., Judeo-Christian morality, constitutional law, and fundamental economic principles) into false idols that undermine both the reason and the humanity of adherents (e.g., fundamentalist religious bigotry and brutality, “constitutional idolatry” and ideologically skewed and dogmatic interpretation, and selection of a preferred archaic economist whose doctrine rationalizes the preferred ideological convictions).

The more we succeed in framing our national political ideological debate as a debate between these two narratives, the more we will attract people with the weakest current ideological convictions, because, all other things being equal, more people are likely to be attracted to (that is, wish to be identified with) the narrative of “reason in service to humanity” than the narrative of “irrationality in service to inhumanity.”

I will begin working, at least from time to time, on composing and compiling a series of essays which systematically develops the component narratives of “reason in service to humanity.” Much of the corpus of work on this blog already, haphazardly, serves that purpose, and perhaps the project will include linking to previous posts in new ones that focus more specifically on this aspect of my project.

(There have been several great “meta-messagers” of history. Ben Franklin and Charles Dickens come to mind as two prominent examples of people who intentionally created and published parables and other literary works for this purpose, to move the zeitgeist, to cultivate a cognitive and emotional orientation. The power of their work is widely recognized, but it was the power of individuals working on their own, to make their own marginal contribution. Imagine the power of an organized effort focused on precisely this modality, producing, compiling, and disseminating messages in a coordinated way to cultivate a commitment to reason in service to humanity. It has been tried before, many times, but never, to my knowledge, with quite the same explicit political focus as I am recommending now.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

My current argument is not one about what the substance of our immigration policy should be (I’ve made such arguments in, e.g.,  A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Legality, Morality, and Reality Regarding U.S. Immigration Policy, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, The Nature of the SB 126 Colorado ASSET DebateGodwin’s Law, Revisited, and A Humane & Rational People), but rather about what the process for determining our immigration policy should be. As always, this argument is just one instance of the larger argument that we should commit ourselves to striving to apply reason to evidence in service to humanity, rather than engaging in careless habits that result in the application of irrationality to ignorance in service to inhumanity.

The focus of this essay is one clearly fallacious argument, that is, in fact, the principal argument used by those who take a stand unyieldingly hostile to millions of people, of a certain status, who currently reside in this country (and, by implication, millions more who would like to, but have no legal pathway toward doing so). Debunking this one argument does not, by itself, debunk their entire position, but rather merely forces the debate into a more appropriate framework, where any and all substantive arguments they may have can compete with any and all substantive counterarguments, in a process which best serves our better angels by giving our baser demons fewer shadows in which to hide.

The fallacious argument to which I refer is that the current widespread hostility toward undocumented immigrants and residents, in which these particular ideologues actively participate, is not only legally warranted but legally mandated. Their error is their failure to understand that the law, in the final analysis, is our servant, not our master. (Yes, in an intermediate sense the utility of the law is that it is binding and not optional, but it is designed to be a malleable and adaptable tool rather than, in its particulars, a fixed and permanent shackle.)

As an aside, the irony of this error is one thread of a larger hypocrisy: The people who make it are overwhelmingly the same people who insist that they are the most committed to “Liberty,” while in reality being the most committed to authoritarianism. But that is a topic for other essays (see, e.g., The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism).

The argument frequently invoked by this particular faction, that their hostility is not directed toward immigrants but rather only toward illegal immigrants, and that the word “illegal” conclusively supports their public policy positions on the issues of immigration and residency, reflects a fundamental misconception of the nature of law and the responsibilities of citizenship in a popular sovereignty. They mistakenly believe that a current legal status quo is the definitive refutation of both any public policy arguments that critique it, and any public policy arguments that defend other aspects of the current or proposed legal status quo that they erroneously consider somehow legally prohibited by some presumed inconsistency with the aspects they prefer. In other words, they presume that public policy arguments can’t challenge existing laws that they do like, and, at the same time, can’t defend existing or proposed laws that they don’t like, the latter based on some presumption of a legal prohibition against the existence of any laws which presuppose the violation of other laws. Both of these beliefs are easily debunked, and their mobilization in service to a blindly ideological position easily demonstrated.

Laws are something we make, implement, interpret, modify, and rescind according to processes that are themselves established by law (see The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government)). They do not define what the conclusion of public policy debates and legal processes should be, but rather what they thus far have been. They obligate, with varying degrees of flexibility, individual behavioral compliance, not collective ideological conformity, rigid administrative enforcement, or perpetual universal legal consistency. The fact that laws do not mandate the latter three is in large measure how they evolve and adapt to changing circumstances, values, and understandings.

The response to an argument that we should, within the constraints and according to the guidelines of our current legal framework, alter or reinterpret or modify our implementation of our legal framework, with the counterargument that we can’t because the current substantive legal status quo is different from what the modified legal status quo would be, is like arguing a century and a half ago that we can’t abolish slavery because the right to own slaves is protected by law (an argument which was, in fact, frequently and persistently made). And to argue that we can’t pass laws short of a comprehensive change of paradigm because it would be an affront to that dominant paradigm is analogous to having maintained that we couldn’t have made the morally laudible step of allowing escaped slaves to attain their freedom in non-slave states because to have done so would have simply encouraged more slaves to escape.

Let me be clear: I am not comparing current anti-undocumented immigrant ideology to slavery. Rather, I am comparing the defense of one set of laws that we recognize in retrospect to have been morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed with the defense of a current set of laws that some (including myself) argue is also morally repugnant and well worthy of being changed, in order to illustrate that the public policy debate should focus on the value of the law rather than on the fact of its existence. A debate can and should be had about whether the current set of immigration and immigration-related laws are ideal or morally repugnant or somewhere in between. The mere fact that that set is the current law is irrelevant to that debate.

(It’s worth noting, however, that there are some similarities: Slaves were considered not to be citizens, a perception codified in law by the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision. Abolishing slavery would have admitted this formerly excluded class into national membership. Allowing escaped slaves to attain freedom but not necessarily citizenship in non-slave states would have been analogous to allowing undocumented immigrants to enjoy some of the opportunities afforded citizens and legal residents without being automatically granted that status itself. The 14th Amendment’s establishment of jus soli, the doctrine that anyone born on American soil is an American citizen, was part of the long-unsuccessful attempt to demolish the legacy of slavery, root and branch, and still has implications relevant to immigration policy. Though the differences are greater than the similarities, the fact remains that exclusionary policies that tend to dehumanize those excluded inevitably resemble one another to some degree. See, e.g., Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding.)

It is our responsibility to determine what our laws should be, while also considering how best to implement and enforce the laws that currently are. Those with a zero-tolerance attitude toward undocumented residents, insisting that we are legally required both to in no way accommodate their presence here and to remove them all regardless of the costs (fiscal, economic, social, demographic, and moral), should also, for consistency, insist that every motorist who ever drifts even just one mph over the posted speed limit should be caught and fined regardless of the costs, and that laws which presuppose violations of the speed limit (e.g., prohibiting driving in the passing lane, even at or above the speed limit, on the basis that it obstructs other motorists who might want to pass) are somehow unacceptable (or themselves “illegal”).

Or, to pick a more illuminating example, even though it is illegal to jaywalk, a motorist is still legally obligated to yield to that law-breaker, who is thus protected from some of the negative consequences of his or her infraction by another law accommodating it. (After all, aren’t we just encouraging more people to jaywalk by requiring motorists not to run them over?)

Again, let me be clear: I am not comparing illegal immigration to speeding or jaywalking.  I am, rather, debunking the fallacy that no law can or should exist which presupposes, or even at times accommodates and implicitly “encourages,” the violation of another law. Our laws neither require nor benefit from that kind of rigid consistency: We can, and should, have laws which both prohibit certain activities, and that protect or accommodate those who violate them. Such laws are particularly well advised when the infraction is non-violent and non-predatory, the protection vital to that person’s safety or sustenance, or the accommodation ultimately in the public as well as private interest (such as by giving all residents of the country maximal opportunities to become productive members of society, rather than denying such opportunities and thus increasing the rate of socially, fiscally, and economically costly dependency and predation).

When people oppose, for instance, a law which would allow in-state undocumented high school graduates to attend state universities at in-state tuition rates, with the argument that the current law somehow prohibits the passage of such a law (“what part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?!”), they are inventing a legal doctrine that doesn’t exist (a requirement for perfect consistency among all laws), in order to insist on a particularly vindictive and counterproductive policy position.

Our national debate regarding immigration (as with all issues) needs to focus on what set of policies realized through what legal paradigm best serves our national interests and values. Citing the current legal status quo as an argument in that debate is, in reality, an attempt to insulate preferred elements of that status quo against criticism without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument, or address any rational and informed counterarguments, to do so. At the same time, citing one aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., the laws against entering and being in the country without legal authorization) as an argument against another aspect of the current legal status quo (e.g., administrative policies not to target for removal those who have not committed other crimes) is an attempt to argue in favor of a change in the legal status quo without having to mobilize any rational or informed argument in support of such a change.

These are not just irrational and, to put it politely, “information-disregarding” arguments in our national debate on immigration policy, but are also instances of a larger contest in American political discourse: The contest between, on the one hand, a commitment to reason applied to evidence in service to humanity, and, on the other, a commitment to irrationality applied to a disregard of the evidence in sevice to inhumanity. It is a contest which those of us who champion the former must win both issue-by-issue, and in more profound ways as well, transcending the individual issues, reaching into the heart of our collective consciousness, transforming with the spirits of reason and goodwill the memes and emes of our own persistent inhumanity.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

(The following post was a comment I made on a Facebook thread that began with the poster seriously suggesting that Obama was moving toward arbitrarily imprisoning people on the Right who disagree with him, as evidenced by his referring to some Republican candidates as “extremists,” combined with the unfortunate provision for indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” in the NDAA. My comment below was a direct response to someone asserting that if I thought Obama might be right in his characterization of those Republican candidates, then I don’t know Obama well enough, implying that Obama is by definition always wrong.)

It’s not enough just to say that those you disagree with are wrong. You have to make the case. And if you’re not making the case, you’re just making noise.

There’s harmless noise, and there’s harmful noise. If you believe, for instance, that Amon-Ra requires you to hop on one foot at sunrise and sing Egyptian incantations to an arthropod, knock yourself out. No harm done. But if you were to believe, conversely, that all human beings who do not belong to your cult are possessed by demons which must be exorcised by those possessed being doused with gasoline and set on fire, and were part of a significant group of people believing this and reinforcing the belief among one another, well, that would be a lot more worrisome, because someone might start to act on that belief, and that would be a serious breach of the rights of those having their demons exorcised.

All human discursive noise falls on a continuum defined by these examples, from the most benign and harmless to the most violent and destructive. The noise your not-so-little cult makes is a lot closer to the end of that continuum defined by the latter example than the one defined by the former. In fact, the biggest act of domestic terrorism in American history was committed by a member of your cult, striking a blow against the federal government and its perceived incursions on liberty by blowing up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing hundreds of innocent people, including dozens of children in the day care center housed in that building.

Granted, such an atrocity could have been committed by any fanatic of any stripe, and, as we say in statistics, an N of one is meaningless. But, in this case, we don’t just have the N of one to inform us, but also a considerable quantity of confirming evidence: A huge rise in armed citizen militias running around with grease painted faces and semi-automatic rifles, training to save this country from the dictatorship in your imaginations. Rhetoric that informs a potentially violent and consistently destructive zealotry, such as the motto “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” The problem, of course, is that extremism has a life of its own, regardless of what it claims to be in defense of, and that motto is precisely the motto that would have been echoing in Timothy McVeigh’s mind, rationalizing for him the irrational and horribly destructive.

That’s not to say that there aren’t kernels of truth in some of your positions. The history of the United States has been characterized by a consistent, punctuated growth in executive power. The concentration and exercise of both governmental and corporate power in America involves several troubling tendencies, such as the indefinite detention of people labelled as enemy combatants, and the influence of corporate money in determining electoral and legislative outcomes. There are real issues to be understood and addressed as wisely and effectively and functionally as possible. But the rule of law is first and foremost a commitment to a process, to a set of procedures that are consistent with our fundamental law, and have developed in service to it. People who don’t get that are the biggest real threat to the Constitution that this country faces, because they want to replace our actual rule of law with their particular ideological presumptions of what the law should be, claiming that there is no ambiguity or possibility of disputing their positions, when very clearly there is, as all people who actually study and implement the Constitution realize.

And that brings us to the freedom of speech. Members of my fictional cult who believed in burning the demons out of those who disagree with them are on the boundary between protected speech and criminal incitement of violence. Were they to merely assert that all who disagree with them are possessed by demons and must be opposed, then they would have clearly fallen on the side of protected speech. Were they to encourage and advise followers to actually douse people with gasoline and set them on fire, inciting them to commit imminent acts of violence, then they would clearly fall on the side of criminal incitement of violence.

Your little cult clearly falls on the side of protected speech. It’s not even a close call, and no one I know of has ever suggested that it is a close call. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t destructive and potentially dangerous, it just means that part of our legal framework, a very fundamental and important part, is that we recognize that we have to allow and protect all speech that isn’t imminently inciting violence or in other limited ways crossing a line that had to be drawn (e.g., libel, maliciously igniting a panic “in a crowded theater,” etc.), because that is a real and necessary bulwark of liberty. We all get that, even us demons who, metaphorically speaking, need to be doused with gasoline and set on fire.

I agree that the speech of the KKK and of American Nazis, as well as of American Communists and Socialists (groups to which exceedingly few on the Left in America belong, despite the crazed rhetoric to the contrary) and Evangelicals, all has to be protected, regardless of whether I or anyone else finds it odious, destructive, and disgusting, as long as it doesn’t cross the line to the incitement of imminent violence. I certainly agree that your speech, which, for the most part (though not always, nor by all adherents), is less odious than that of the KKK and American Nazis, is protected speech. I have no interest or desire to see force used to silence you. I prefer to see reason and goodwill used to debunk you.

We live in a country facing many real challenges, as has been the case throughout our history, and will be the case throughout all time in all places. We have established an excellent though imperfect system for addressing those challenges, which we can continue to refine, which is still firmly based on our Constitution, which has evolved around that Constitution by necessity and by design, and which real patriotism demands a complete commitment to. It is more procedural than substantive, more focused on how we arrive at our conclusions than on what those conclusions must be. That is what the rule of law really is. That is what our Constitution really stands for. And you folks, for all of your claims to be the defenders of the Constitution, are in reality it’s most fervent opponents in America today, because you claim that your particular ideological substantive conclusions should take precedence over our evolved rule of law and the procedures by which we maintain and implement it. Such people are the kind of people most likely to blow up buildings and kill innocent people, because, as you say, “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” But extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill most certainly is a vice, because extremism in defense of anything other than reason and goodwill is too open to interpretation, too susceptible to the errors of blind ideological passions.

The value of liberty is that it serves humanity well. Those who become warriors of liberty divorced from a commitment to humanity are not serving either liberty or that which liberty itself serves, but are rather serving their own blind fanaticisms, at everyone else’s expense.

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