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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

As an intellectual child of “the rational actor model” (or “homo economicus”), who has at times argued that it makes most sense to conceptualize all individual actions (even apparently altruistic ones) in terms of self-interest, yesterday was one of those grand days that come with decreasing frequency, when some fundamental thread in my understanding of the world underwent a slight but significant modification.

“Homo economicus” wasn´t where I began, but rather, after exploring the universe of social theory, where I landed, retaining an interest in (and inclusion of) some elements that did not come with it (e.g., epistemology). And, though George Lakoff´s The Political Mind has just influenced me in a new way, I still do not quite so thoroughly renounce the rational actor model as Prof. Lakoff does. Rather, I see a subtler position that draws on fewer assumptions, harmonizes with a broader range of thought, better incorporates the findings of cognitive science, retains everything of value in “the rational actor model,” but supplies both a more useful and more accurate metaphor: “Thrive-interest” instead of “self-interest.”

Evolution is indeed driven by the challenge of thriving, reproducing, and ensuring that one´s offspring thrive. But the metaphor of competition that has dominated the representation of this process has been modified away from within (with non-zero-sum reasoning and acknowledgment of the emotions as mutual commitment mechanisms) and undermined from without (with cognitive scientists discovering a predisposition for empathy as perhaps the more basic cognitive fact than a predisposition for selfishness). Both the rational actor model itself, and cognitive science, have proven that cooperation is at least as salient as competition to the challenge of “thriving,” at least as “natural,” at least as basic.

Thriving involves competitive and cooperative aspects, both of which we are variously predisposed to engage in, depending on which best serves the goal of thriving. Neither is more primary than the other, except that, in nature, all thriving depends on cooperation, whereas not all thriving depends on competition, and species range from those hard-wired for cooperation (e.g., bees and ants), to those more flexibly imbued with the capacity for cooperation (e.g., mammals).

Thriving clearly implicates something very different from self-interest. As someone who had his first child at the age of 44, and lived a remarkably rich and adventurous life prior to that, I can attest to the fact that I have thrived far more deeply as a result of the huge burden on one´s narrow self-interest that is a child. But it is not just in the evolutionarily predictable context of profound and selfless love for one´s offspring, but in more general ways, that we can readily see that thriving is almost invariably served best by love and generosity. One can even, paradoxically, thrive better by net self-sacrifice than by net self-serving, even at times via the ultimate sacrifice, in which one ceases to exist as an individual organism, but thrives mightily as a member of society.

Scrooge was rich but not thriving prior to Marley’s and the three spirits’ intervention, and George Bailey was thriving far more robustly for having sacrificed his very attainable dreams of adventure and individual “success” in favor of altruism and extreme self-sacrifice to the welfare of others. Misers are miserable, egoists shrivel from within, misanthropes miss the boat, but generous souls thrive, even if childless and poor, even if in death.

Artists often suffer materially (and emotionally) for their commitment to a romantic or aesthetic vision, but occasionally thrive centuries after their death for having done so, a fate not unattractive to many such souls. Neither comfort, nor survival, nor procreation, nor even being remembered define thriving. Leaving an indelible positive mark on reality does. And that is a more inherently altruistic than egoistic goal to pursue.

“Thriving” is not an arbitrary concept, not a way of squinting and pretending that self-interest isn’t at the root of it (it isn’t), nor devoid of analytical power (it is equal to self-interest on that front, and retains all of the modeling produced by the rational actor assumption, since it still involves an individual actor making autonomous choices). It simultaneously incorporates individualism and collectivism as essential motivators, not necessarily privileging either, reorganizing both into a single coherent concept. It retains all the insight produced by economic and evolutionary reasoning and modelling, and all the value produced by both conceptualizing the world as comprised of robust competitors and demanding of people that they be robust competitors, by continuing to recognize and emphasize a fundamental motivating force at the individual level. But it avoids an unnecessary and counterproductive (and inaccurate) false dichotomy of, and false distinction between, “self-interest” and “altruism.” It is, in some profound way, simply “more true.”

(See A Proposal for a slightly revised version of this post, followed by an extensive elaboration of its various components)

To advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill, I propose a project, or movement, that is comprised of three parts: 1) a policy analysis component; 2) an information dissemination component; and 3) a community organizational network component. While I conceptualize each of these in somewhat novel ways, in the context of grass roots political activism, it is the third which is perhaps the most innovative and crucial component, and so it is with the third that I will begin.

Currently, grass roots activism by those who claim the mantel of advocacy of Reason and Goodwill is almost entirely focused on electoral politics and public policy as generated through governmental mechanisms. As such, it is very easy for the opponents of this movement to dismiss these activists as people who want to take the opponents’ money and give it to others. One aspect of this conceptualization is that government is not considered an agent of the people, but rather an external entity which imposes itself on people and deprives them of their liberty. The arguments for and against this conceptualization are irrelevant for my present purposes. There are clearly many people who do indeed adhere to this conceptualization, and that fact is what’s relevant.

George Lakoff in The Political Mind talked about the need to activate the frames and narratives in all of us that are empathy-based, if we want to be successful in implementing empathy-based public policies. There are few people of any ideological stripe who oppose community involvement, and most actively support it. Many conservatives are involved in their communities through churches, civic groups, and PTAs, for instance. Such involvement is where their empathy-based frames and narratives reside, along with, in many cases, a notion of “family values,” some aspects of which are also empathy based. By increasing the association of these activities with what is currently referred to as “the progressive agenda” (though avoidance of the word “progressive” might be crucial to the success of this project), we can increase the value of the (possibly renamed) brand, attracting more people to it, including some who never imagined that they might be attracted to it.

History is replete with examples of the persuasive power of those who “walk the walk.” Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two examples of “progressives” in their day, fighting to advance particular causes (Indian Independence and African American Civil Rights, respectively), whose examples were so compelling that few today would denounce what either of them stood for. They were “political entrepreneurs,” mobilizing “charismatic authority” in service to humanity. We can’t all be such giants, and we aren’t all willing to make the sacrifices it requires, but we can all make more modest sacrifices and rise to more modest heights, demonstrating the sincerity of our convictions and, by doing so, making the power of our message that much more irresistible.

There are already many who invest a great deal of time, energy, money, and personal commitment into advancing the progressive agenda. If some significant fraction can be persuaded to invest some increased portion of that time, energy, money, and personal commitment into increased, non-partisan community involvement, they will contribute greatly to increasing the association of the policies they advocate with the spirit of goodwill in service to mutual benefit. And by being direct agents of reason and goodwill in their communities, the public policies such activists favor are given a human face; rather than being easily conceptualized as the impositions of a remote overlord, such policies can be plainly seen to be the sincere preference of some good neighbors and community members who believe that the spirit of community can be expressed not just directly, but also through our government acting as an agent of our collective will.

I describe this component at greater length in several posts on my blog, Colorado Confluence. The post with the most concise and focused treatment is “The Power of ‘Walking the Walk'”:

This community-strengthening component isn’t only a laudable end in itself, but it also serves the second component I mentioned: Messaging. The cause of Reason and Goodwill is a powerful one, one which few would explicitly claim opposition to. The most pronounced failure of those who are its political advocates is the failure to connect the political expression of Reason and Goodwill to the widespread individual aspirations to be reasonable people of goodwill. One aspect of addressing that failure involves modeling what it means to be reasonable people of goodwill, and cultivating the commitment to it that might eventually translate into increased popular support for public policies that are expressions of reason and goodwill.

More generally, the messaging has to rely less on academic or legalistic argumentation, and more on resonating with the frames and narratives that form people’s minds. We need to reach people where they live, finding their own empathetic frames and narratives, and connecting the set of well-reasoned public policies which are empathy-based to those frames and narratives. Therefore, the second component of the project I am proposing is the continuing and focused development of a cognitively sophisticated system of disseminating not just “progressive” ideas, but doing so in ways which resonate with non-progressive mindsets.

This project, therefore, involves not only increasing popular positive associations with progressive policies by modeling a progressive spirit of mutual goodwill, and forming increased positive social connections with people who do not self-identify as “progressives,” but also involves communicating that same message in ways that are precisely tailored to most effectively resonate with those who are currently perhaps only marginally inclined to be attracted by it. The community involvement becomes the most important conduit for the message, communicated with increased credibility, and couched in increasingly effective ways.

Finally, the first component of this project involves reducing the arbitrariness and exclusiveness of what is assumed to be those policies which advance the cause of Reason and Goodwill. Rather than a traditional policy think tank with an ideological bias, this component of the project would have to strive to map out the entire range of public policy ideas and options, guided only by a commitment to reason in service to the public interest, acknowledging legitimate debates and ranges of uncertainty (such as, for example, between Keynesian and Chicago School Economics, and the associated policies of economic stimulus through public spending v. “fiscal conservativism”).

I envision this component as a very ambitious social institutional analogue to “the human genome project,” in which the social institutional landscape is mapped out using available analytical tools (e.g., microeconomic analysis, network analysis, legal analysis, meme theory, etc.), comprising a coherent complex dynamical systems paradigm, and then, within this context, all competing ideologies, policy ideas, proposals, and analyses are cataloged and evaluated, controlling as much as possible for ideological bias, simply subjecting the universe of human social and political thought to the crucible of methodologically rigorous reason.

Two important dimensions of this project need to be highlighted: 1) These three components are not mutually segregated, but are rather integral aspects of a single coherent effort, reinforcing one another, and creating a powerful synergy of progressive thought, communication, and action; and 2) An enormous amount of work has been done in all three areas, under a variety of organizational umbrellas; utilization and integration of the product of those efforts, and of the existing social institutional material that has been generated from all quarters, is a large part of what this project would be about. The community involvement component would actively seek out partnerships with churches and other religious organizations, civic organizations, PTAs, park districts, non-profits, local businesses, and all others who have already developed a community infrastructure to work with and through.

We would, through this synthesis of focused analysis, focused communication, and focused action, weave the spirit of reason and goodwill into the social fabric as it currently exists, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of that social fabric in ways more conducive to the cause of Reason and Goodwill.

I believe that this project would have to avoid direct political advocacy of any kind (a function already addressed by other organizations) in order to preserve its legitimacy, and to reduce the obstacles that explicit partisanship creates. Its purpose would be to explore the social institutional landscape with as little bias as possible (but with an explicit commitment to advancing the public interest through the advocacy of reason in service to mutual goodwill), and through a combination of direct involvement in our communities and well-designed (cognitively targeted) messaging, disseminating that understanding as widely and deeply as possible. This would “soften the ground” for traditional political advocacy, and would also increase the quality of what we are advocating for (by decreasing ideological presumption and increasing openness to all ideas).

I am currently looking for any and all feedback, assistance, direction, and referrals to others who might offer the same. I can envision this as either being a directly funded project that I oversee (or merely participate in), or as a project that finds a home in an existing organizational context. I am completely amenable to these, and any other, possible paths of implementation. Please email me at