Is John Sununu lying when he says President Obama eliminated the work requirement from welfare? Is Michael Moore lying when he blames capitalists for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What about James Inhoffe, when he denies any legitimacy to climate science? Or Todd Akin, when he questions the nature and consequences of rape?
I’m less concerned with whether these are purely lies, than with how they originate, and how we can stop the destructive effects they have.
Bill Shireman on the power of the false narrative.
I deal with conflicts between the right and left every day. I see how false realities emerge, and how interest groups use them to manipulate true believers on both the right and left to advance status quo agendas, as if they were their own.
It begins with what political strategists call a “narrative” – a way of looking at reality that resonates with the ideological group whose support they are seeking.
Conservatives and liberals have already programmed themselves to believe these narratives, so it isn’t hard to get them to apply them to new circumstances. Once they do, they stick to them. Facts do little to shift their thinking.
Let’s try it out.
Conservatives believe people are intrinsically selfish, and need to be disciplined to behave themselves. Liberals believe people are intrinsically selfless, so a big outside force is always to blame when they behave in selfish ways.
Conservatives believe the nation is always at risk from selfish external enemies. They see the risks and faults of outsiders, and want to keep them out. Liberals believe the nation is always a threat to selfless external friends. They find wisdom and virtue in outsiders, and want to bring them in.
Conservatives believe big government is on the verge of vanquishing their freedoms. They want to limit government, of not eradicate it. Liberals believe the same about big corporations. They want them controlled, if not destroyed.
Conservatives ally themselves with corporations, to protect them from government overreach. Liberals ally themselves with government and unions, to protect them from corporate control. Each sleeps with the interest groups the other fears most.
Conservatives distrust bureaucrats and believe regulations are often an abuse of government power. Liberals distrust corporations, and believe regulations are essential to keep corporations from abusing us.
Conservatives hate taxes – it’s a capitulation to the illegitimate power of government. Liberals hate profits – it’s a capitulation to the unearned power of corporations.
Conservatives deny science, when it is used to give government more power. Liberals deny economics, when it is used to give corporations more power.
Every one of these statements is an exaggeration – a narrative that has a lot of truth, but isn’t the whole story. It’s an exaggeration to say all conservatives and liberals think this way, though some do. The beliefs themselves are also exaggerations, though they are also partly true. Put those two factors together, and we are all all vulnerable to being spun by forces that simplify reality into bite sized pieces, suited to our tastes, to serve their own selfish ends.
It’s hard to trace exactly where each narrative comes from.
Sometimes, it comes from reporters, who simplify their work by fitting each day’s news into a time-tested story line. Corporations are solely profit-driven. Union workers are lazy and overpaid. Bureaucrats are inept. Politicians are corrupt. Fox News is fair and balanced.
Sometimes, it comes from political strategists, who create a core narrative that lionizes their candidate or, more often, demonizes the other one. Then they actively spin every development to reinforce the narrative. Climate change is a power grab by Al Gore Democrats to control the economy. School choice is a corporate plot to take over the educational system.
Sometimes, it originates in the minds of citizens – all of us have these pre-existing mental frames, and tend to fit facts into them, to provide a sense of order in a complex world. Corporations inhuman machines run by executives who maximize profits regardless of the cost. Gun restrictions are the first step toward totalitarian government. The right to bear arms is a fiction created by gun makers.
Sometimes it comes from a writer like me, who wants to convey a complex idea, using terms that are as simple as possible. While I may contradict the simplifications I express here, it is easier to remember my simplifications than my explanation of them.
The formula is simple, and happens thousands of times a day, mostly in small and seemingly innocent ways.
Someone creates a narrative – a story of reality that resonates as true, because often, it is, at least in part.
They take any new situation, then filter out the facts that contradict the narrative, leaving only those that support it.
Then, if there are facts missing, they make them up, at least a little, staying within a stone’s throw of reality whenever possible, so the narrative is complete and plausible.
The narrative makes so much sense, especially to people predisposed to believe it, that the target audience simply can’t doubt it.
How can you destroy the power of the false narrative?
It doesn’t happen easily. It takes real work, and can be undone in an instant.
The first step is to reverse the process of demonization that underlies the narrative: that a certain ethnic, religious, racial, national, business, or governmental entity is wholly devoid of human qualities – that it is naturally threatening and hostile.
You undermine this belief by humanizing the object of distrust or hatred. You talk to them, in person, outside the context of a conflict, and with no lawyers or reporters around. (We all know how they are.)
The second step is to present the truth without ideological baggage or spin, but in terms that speak to the purposes the listener cares most about. If climate change is real, if school choice is desirable, if spending is out of control, how does that fact threaten what is most important to the conservative or liberal you are speaking with? How can you approach it differently, so that it supports the deeper objectives of the other side? Even better, speak to the conservative inside every liberal, and the liberal inside every conservative. They are in there, and they want to express themselves.
The third is to engage the various sides together, in a process that demonizes not people or groups, but the systemic roots of problems. That gives people the opportunity to work together toward systemic solutions.
If people feel no human connection to you, it doesn’t matter whether or not your argument is well founded – they will fear and oppose you. But if people know that you care, they will care what you know.
That is one reason Future 500 is joining with CR Magazine to present the 2012 Right Left UnConvention: A Conversation on Innovation between the Right and Left. The event will be held on October 2-3, 2012 at the Cipriani Wall Street Convention Center on Wall Street in New York City. and is part of the annual COMMIT!Forum, hosted by CR Magazine.
I will describe the methods for doing this, and stories of how it works, in future articles and a forthcoming book.