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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

Of the many ideological debates we have, what we do least often and least well is to dig beneath the surface of conflicting ideologies and clearly identify the underlying values and attitudes informing them. Even those who adhere to a particular ideology are often unaware of what is at its core when you peal back enough layers of the onion. And that is how the rise of vicious and inhumane ideologies is possible, how it circumvents the cognitive dissonance imposed by countervailing moralities. Those who participate in that rise are either convinced that they are participating in something just and right, or have simply managed not to measure their beliefs by any moral standard.

There is nothing historically exceptional about viciousness and inhumanity. It is not the occasional violation of a norm of rational goodwill dominating our lives, but rather at least as potent a force, erupting into orgies of mass violence at frequent intervals around the world, but also ever-present in every society, percolating below the surface, sometimes bubbling upward and gaining force. America today is in such a moment of its history, allowing a vicious and inhumane attitude to gain prominence, to dominate public discourse and public policy formation.

Nor is it only those “others” who are to blame. It is not the fault of just one ideology. There are few who have not contributed to it. Regrettably, I cannot name myself among those few, for my own defects as a human being have too often and too greatly led me to serve my own emotional gratification at the expense of this ideal of a more rational and humane society to which we all should strive.

I don’t admit that gratuitously, but rather to make two sets of  points: 1) One does not have to be perfect to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to encourage us all to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to identify the most robust ways in which we as a society are failing to strive to be better; and 2) we do not most successfully strive, as a society, to be better, to do better, by laying all blame on others and exonerating ourselves, but rather by recognizing that we ourselves are all implicated in our failings as a society, and that the ideology across the aisle we respectively blame for all public sins may have its own virtues and we our own vices.

Most importantly, like Batman and the Joker, we create each other, and if we perceive in “them” something hostile to humanity, then we also must perceive in ourselves what we do to produce and maintain that hostile force.

Having said that, and recognizing that the hostility and anger and blind ideological rage on the Left is a contributing force to our growing inhumanity (rather than, as those who engage in these follies desperately wish to believe, a bulwark against it), the inhumanity itself is funnelled through and given voice by their counterparts on the Right. While we all need to strive harder to exemplify and exude a sincere commitment to reason and compassion and universal goodwill (which is not synonymous with complete pacifism or non-confrontationalism, but which does temper the degree to which our emotional inclinations too readily embrace hostile expressions of our ideological convictions and various interests), we also all need to recognize the growing inhumanity of our nation’s most prominent and vocal contemporary ideological phenomenon.

It is not wise to reduce this to individual substantive policy positions because, to be honest, it is not automatically the case that such positions, that on the surface appear inhumane, actually are: There is sufficient nonlinearity in our social institutional ecology, and a sufficient number of counterintuitive truths, that such assumptions aren’t warranted. But beneath those policy positions, informing those policy positions, is an attitude in which this inhumanity can clearly be discerned, an attitude of extreme individualism, of indifference to the realities of social injustice and unnecessary human suffering, an attitude stripped of real compassion or concern for those less fortunate than the holder of that value, an attitude which blindly blames all those who have not fared well on the basis of an arbitrary and more-frequently-than-not erroneous assumption that people get what they deserve, that we live in a meritocracy and those who do not succeed do not succeed as a result of their own failings. It is within that attitude, rather than within any particular substantive policy positions, that our growing inhumanity as  a nation, as a people, resides.

I have written extensively on the irrationality of many of the substantive positions and ideological certainties that have grown in the soil of this essentially inhumane attitude (see, e.g., “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V)). And I have alluded to the parallel between the sense of personal well-being and joy associated with striving to be compassionate, socially responsible, generous human beings on the individual level, and the similar benefits to our health as a society when we strive to institutionalize those attitudes through our pre-eminent agent of collective will and action (see, e.g., A Political Christmas Carol). Certainly, I have not been bashful about identifying our current right-wing ideological movement as one which is analogous in too many ways to that which we revile most as one of history’s worst eruptions of inhumanity (see, e.g., The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy and Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding). But we need to be explicit and urgent about what it is we are talking about: The rise of an ideology of inhumanity.

It seems to me that there was a time, not long ago, when virtually no American would argue against the proposition that we have a shared social responsibility to reduce poverty to the best of our ability. Yet today we are in the throes of an ideological passion that says that poverty is not our shared responsibility, but rather a matter of individual choice (which, as those who have any knowledge of history or economics realize, means not addressing the issue to any significant degree at all, since it involves a collective action problem which is surrendered to by eliminating the notion that we have to address it through public institutions).

Despite the abundant statistical evidence that the legacies of historical injustice are reproduced in current distributions of wealth and opportunity, this ideology simply disregards any commitment to fairness, to trying to maximize equality of opportunity by facing the simple reality that it is not currently maximized, by insisting that any use of government is an act of violence against their individual liberties. It is an ideology informed by the obscenity that those who benefit most from our current political economy have no enforceable responsibility to those who benefit least, despite the fact that the disparity between the two is many times larger than it is in any other developed nation. It is a socially disintegrative, callous, and inhumane ideology. And it is has a significant and possibly still growing hold on us as a nation.

Those of us who recognize this, and recognize how imperative it is to confront it effectively, need to divert a little of our time and energy and resources away from arguing on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, and toward arguing on a fundamental, underlying moral basis. We need to make clear in every word and gesture and deed and effort that what we perceive as wrong is not, for instance, the suggestion that we may have to reduce our long-term accumulation of public debt through some combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but rather the underlying attitude that while we are doing so our commitment to those who are most vulnerable and who are benefiting least from our social institutional arrangements still merit our collective attention and our collective commitment. We need to argue not only that this or that specific immigration reform is right or wrong, but far more emphatically that vilifying other human beings who are merely migrating toward opportunity in the only way they can is wrong, period. We need to argue not only that this law or that regrading marriage is just and right, but that burdening people with any inferior status on the basis of their sexual orientation is just one more form of bigotry, just one more way in which some human beings justify hating other human beings, and that that’s not who and what we are or who and what we want to be.

We need to define our political battles as a fight for our humanity as a nation and as a people, because it is our humanity that is very much in jeopardy. Let us be committed to respecting the dignity and rights of all human beings. Let us form our identities more inclusively rather than more exclusively. Let us always strive to do better as individuals, recognizing that that is part of what it takes to do better as a nation and a people. And let us be humble about substantive policies on complex issues (e.g., economics, energy/environmental, foreign relations), admitting that it’s a complex and subtle world, many aspects of which require in-depth analyses to arrive at well-informed conclusions. But let us never let up in our insistence that those analyses, that that  humility, be directed toward the end of benefitting humanity, because to stand for anything less is an act of violence and a cause for eternal shame.