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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

(The following was originally written as a Facebook post in response to one of the typically overwrought, implacable demands for some sort of a purist rejection of our current Democratic leadership, due to its failure to satisfy the writer’s view of what they needed to be doing):

The most important principle in politics is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” or even of the least bad. Politics is the art of the possible, and the pursuit of the best attainable arrangements, all things considered. Every decision by every individual should be measured by its effect.

The reality we are dealing with includes not only what we each identify as what should be, but also what everyone else identifies as what should be, and what can be accomplished within the context of that distribution of values, beliefs, and opinions, including to what extent they can be moved and changed.

It’s also critical to remember that, in a complex and subtle world, designing the best policies and making the best decisions on pending legislation is an information intensive activity, necessitating not only a sophisticated understanding of the complex systems involved (the articulation of human social institutional, technological, and natural systems), but also of the details of what is happening on the ground. A great piece of legislation, for instance, often becomes a Trojan Horse for a horrible rider, and a smart legislator has to weigh the benefits of the great bill against the costs of the horrible rider. A lot of the armchair quarterbacking that goes on is oblivious to this  dimension of the challenge, and many such dimensions exist.

We accomplish the most, and progress the most robustly, when we gravitate toward a pragmatic realism, cultivating a calm belief that it is possible for human beings to govern themselves wisely, in service to human welfare, and keeping all involved (including the electorate) focused on how best to do so. We accomplish the least (and do the most to undermine any and all positive efforts that are being made) when we gravitate to conflicting poles, insisting that our own faction’s vision is the only acceptable one, and that nothing else will do. It fails both on pragmatic grounds (it paralyzes our ability to progress) and on realism grounds (there is more genius in the humility of the many than in the hubris of the few).

There are political goals more fundamental than advancing the policies of the moment. Those goals require cultivating, each in ourselves and all of us together, certain qualities that improve our collective ability to design and implement the best policies in any moment.

One such quality, as I’ve already suggested, is humility. We serve a truly progressive agenda best when we each strive to recognize that what we individually believe to be true may or may not be, that our own certainties may be mistaken, that our own conclusions may be incorrect. This breeds two positive behaviors: 1) It motivates us each to keep learning, to keep examining, to keep absorbing information and recognizing that we never know or understand enough; and 2) it improves our ability to work in productive concert with those who have sincere and legitimate disagreements with us. The second is most useful when the ultimate ends are less disputed than the means for achieving them, as is often (though not always) the case.

Aligning the ultimate ends is best served by striving to be people of goodwill, driven by empathy more than by mutual indifference. Not everyone is willing to agree that that is a laudable goal, but most are. Some will argue that it is a laudable goal, but not the proper purview of government, which is fine, because it provides a foundation of agreement about the ends within which to debate what the most effective means are, a foundation that works as long as we cultivate the other necessary qualities as well (humility and reason).

As I just said, the third quality is striving to be reasonable. Many believe that they are doing so, but few are. An important first step is to recognize how our minds really work, by thinking in frames and narratives which may or may not serve the cause of reason in any given instance. Being aware of this helps us to coopt the reality in service to the ideal, of guiding our frames and narratives in service to reason.

These three qualities (striving to be humble, striving to be empathetic, and striving to be reasonable), together, comprise a deeper political goal, that of creating the most robust and fertile cognitive and cultural context for social and political progress.

I think we serve ourselves best by prioritizing our commitment to this “deep structural political goal” above all of the other more ephemeral and superficial (though often critically important) goals which depend upon it. Doing so serves our long-term ability both to advance those immediate political goals most effectively, and to ensure that they are the right goals to advance before doing so.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards