I post this today because this week, over 100 years after scientists first described the carbon emissions greenhouse effect, the President of the United States changed the national narrative on climate change (Svante Arrhenius, 1896).
Source: Alexandrum79 via iStockPhoto.
Create the Narrative that Creates Our Future, by Eric Witchey
A person can be, at least for a little while, logical and rational. Most of us believe we are rational and logical.
Most of us are also wrong.
In fact, even among the well-educated, very few people receive the kind of training that improves actual logical, rational thought. People are trained to apply analytic skills to specific problems, but that’s not quite the same thing. Consider the flame wars that take place when two trained professionals have invested themselves in two separate solutions to the same set of problems. Each solution may solve the problems. Each may have been arrived at via skill and application of sound methodology. However, the battle of egos and emotion that takes place has nothing to do with rational, logical thought.
Human beings are physiologically built so that emotional responses have greater sway over decisions than conscious, executive function.
Certainly, cognitive training increases an individual’s ability to override that tendency. However, a system made up of many people, no matter how well organized, is always irrational. A crowd, a tribe, a company, a state, or a nation is always irrational. In order for a system of people to act effectively on a decision, the decision must fit with the dominant, emotionally satisfying narrative adopted by the individuals who make up that system.
In other words, we internalize stories and act on them as if they are true. Facts are quite irrelevant.
Why do you suppose salesmen and marketers are trained to evoke an emotional response rather than to present facts? Why do you suppose they round up and shoot the independent journalists during a military coup?
Only when facts embed themselves in the system’s foundational irrationality does a culture change for the better—be it a family, a tribe, a community, a county, a state, or a nation.
Cultural inertia is not the tendency of a culture to remain as it is unless acted upon by an outside force. Cultural inertia is the tendency of a culture to act according to an unquestioned narrative until the narrative changes from the inside.
Consider this popular narrative: “The only deterrent to violence is more prisons. If people know they will go to jail, they won’t do the crime.”
Ignoring the logical fallacy of over generalization, consider that it is possible that a potential criminal is so hungry, so afraid, so sick, so threatened by poverty and the absence of less destructive opportunity that the crime has great survival value because the potential gain translates into food and shelter. Even getting caught will at least provide food, shelter, and guaranteed medical support.
A system that acts on the deterrent narrative easily steps forward to embrace this addition: “The cost of prisons is too high for the taxpayer. Privatization can alleviate that cost.” If we believe the former statement, the latter statement is a fairly reasonable step toward the apparent betterment of the social system.
…Unless the private companies receive tax incentives and the judicial system is required to fulfill incarceration quotas in order to maintain profitability.
Here’s a statement that actions demonstrate people accept even if they don’t believe they accept it. “Water in a clear plastic bottle is more pure than tap water because utilities can’t be trusted and magic places exist in the world where water is perfect and we put that perfect, magic water in a bottle so you can buy it. And Convenience. And recycling. Good. Good. Good. Buy more.”
Of course, the more bottled water we buy, the less the local utility is financially viable and the more we complain about our water quality. In other words, we pay thousands of times more for water that came from a tap through a filter outside our town or city, and we thereby undermine the low-cost system that provides our water. And, for spending a lot more, we get the added bonus of loss of public infrastructure and additional layers of environmental damage in production, distribution, and post-consumption.
The facts are known. The facts are even known to most people on the street. The decision to buy that bottle of water is either unconsidered or justified in the moment.
We have serious science that speaks to crime rates, to gun deaths, to global warming, to water losses, to contamination factors, to floating oceanic continents of plastic waste, to the destructive economic effects of corporate feudalism, and to the endless repetition of domestic violence and crime as a result of failed social support and underfunded education.
The facts are available.
However, fact does not have enough social mass to create systemic change.
Factual knowledge has to become part of the tribal folklore that is repeated in ignorance as truth.
Huge campaigns to create the viral narratives that said that seatbelts are good, littering is bad, and cigarettes kill had to be undertaken in order to make the tribal truth a part of the unconsidered oral tradition of the many anthropological tribal systems that, combined, make up our nation. Only when the new narratives took root as fact in hearts and minds did the new narratives replace the old, profit-driven narratives.
Then, cultural change took place.
Interestingly, each of the above changes to national, internalized narrative came about because of the costs to the nation as a whole. Seatbelts translated into lost profits for insurance companies and to lost working person years in the national economy. The same for cigarettes. Littering? Well, that one may have grown out of the zeitgeist of a time when environmental consciousness was first gaining its legs and the power of a public service announcement hadn’t been fully understood by corporate interests. Frankly, I don’t know. I suspect that today the public service ads might be about caution while driving near the crews that our privatized prisons provide in order to keep our national byways scenic.
What is clear is that when a corporate, profit-driven narrative no longer generates profit, the failed story is abandoned. The corporation seeks new products, new markets, and new narratives.
Once a fact-based narrative takes emotional hold, it is much harder to supplant because action based on that narrative creates demonstrable long-term benefit.
People like benefits.
Case-in-point, ACA (Obamacare). Most people have already forgotten that Obama’s original plan was a single-payer solution that has been demonstrated to work in many developed countries. The Republican/Democrat compromise position was the ACA, which is actually based on programs that have failed in other countries.
The compromise came to be because for one side it got us closer to a working plan for the common people. The compromise worked for the other side because history had shown that the ACA would fail very publicly and result in a moment in which existing insurance companies would step up, “compete” across state boundaries, and save the day. The rhetoric was that the new competitive marketplace would result in fewer court cases, lower premiums, etc. None of these benefits of competition are supported by objective study and fact. In fact, the opposite is true (The exception is the court cases because people who buy insurance from a company in another state would have to go to that state to sue. Consequently, it would be harder to sue, so there would be fewer cases).
So, the planned failure was labelled Obamacare in spite of the fact that Obama’s plan was very different. Fortunately for millions of Americans, myself included, the anxiety over medical costs and affordable care was so great that a compromise position intended to fail ended up succeeding in spite of precedent.
The rhetorical association of the ACA with the current administration began immediately. “Obamacare” succeeded as a national narrative. Both advocates and opponents used the term freely. One side used it with pride. The other side used it as a pejorative.
The legal attacks on Obamacare became very serious when numbers started to show that the program might actually work because American healthcare is so screwed up that a system that failed in other countries actually improved the U.S. healthcare system.
By the time the more serious attacks began, it was too late. A new, non-factual narrative was nearly impossible to present to a nation that was clearly seeing immediate benefits.
ACA isn’t perfect. Neither is the single-payer system. The point here is that the ACA narrative’s success is based in the consumer’s emotional need and actual, subsequent benefit.
Facts can support cultural change for the better, but culture only changes when the facts become an emotionally compelling story that can be repeated by people who have no direct knowledge of the science that verified those facts. The change is sustainable when benefits reinforce the tribe’s emotional attachment to the narrative.
Corporate marketing people know the power of story. Ask one.
Politicians know it. They won’t tell you, but even an untrained observer can examine their rhetoric and point to carefully crafted narrative. A trained observer can tell you how and why the rhetoric was designed the way it was.
I know this firsthand because I have been hired to create narratives to present politically volatile concepts as positive change. I also know it because I am a story teller.
Story tellers have always known the power of an emotionally compelling narrative.
The Shaman was the story maker and teller—the conscience and consciousness of the tribe.
Consider that stories told by Sumerian shamanic leaders many thousands of years ago still influence beliefs and behaviors. ISIS justifies beheadings, destruction of property, and slavery based on the modified, interpreted, handed-down narratives from Sumerian stories. Evangelical Christians justify narrative modification of historical fact and science by citing handed-down, interpreted, modifications of the very same Sumerian tales. Both Israelis and Palestinians justify violent action against one another based on differing narrative modifications and interpretations of the same handed-down Sumerian tales.
Are you a little uncomfortable—maybe even angry?
If you are, you are proving the point of this little essay.
Stay with me. Take a breath. Check the facts later. The point of this essay doesn’t change because you are uncomfortable. It doesn’t change if the things I have said are true or untrue. Notice that the only thing actually cited in this essay is the first presentation of greenhouse effects by a scientist. That is a fact.
Right now, consider your emotional response in contrast to a rational response to available historical data. Factual data has no emotional content. Facts just are. If my little narrative above is wrong, it’s just wrong. If it’s right, it’s just right.
Where does the emotional reaction come from?
Regardless, the emotional response to a narrative that doesn’t agree with your own is real. No matter what the facts are, the emotion drives the desire to take action. Why do we live in a world of “trigger warnings?” When do we form those deeply held narratives that affect our emotional responses to everything in life?
We form them in early childhood.
Before we were five years old, we internalized most of the emotional connections to the narratives that cause our reactions in life. How old were you when you went to your first Sunday school class, heard your parents’ first atheist attack on organized religion, attended Hebrew school, went to temple, mosque, church, or synagogue? At what point in the development of your brain did the narrative that caused your reactions form?
The currently available linguistic and cognitive science suggests that a strong emotional response to material like the above is actually a survival response left over from the child who first learned the narrative. In the environment in which the child learned the narrative, acceptance, and by extension food and shelter, were connected to demonstrated belief in the adult-presented narrative.
We are not thinking creatures. We only think we are.
We are feeling creatures.
The facts are only good if they appear in narrative that supports emotional responses.
Little-by-little, linguists, cognitive scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and storytellers are making the knowledge of this phenomenon part of cultural awareness. I’m doing it right now.
Consider the development of the science behind our cultural understanding of climate change. The first presentation of the concept of greenhouse carbon emissions impact on the future environment was presented late in the 19th century—over 100 years ago. Not quite that long ago, I wrote bad poetry about climate change when I was in high school. Back then, the Carter administration worked hard to address the known issues of fossil fuel dependence and emissions outputs. Do you remember when coal-fired power plants were first required to install re-burners and scrubbers? Do you remember when catalytic converters were first required on automobiles? Thank you Jimmy Carter for all you have done for the individuals that make up our nation and for the planet as a whole. May you beat your cancer and live long. We need your personal interpretation of the handed-down stories of the Sumerians. I think you got it right.
Do you remember that before Reagan was governor of California, California residents could go to state universities for free? After Reaganomics installed the narrative that higher education is a personal privilege rather than a national investment in the future, no such luck.
Nationally, Reaganomics put an end to the liberal nonsense of the Carter administration.
The very successful electric car experiment disappeared without trace. New, horribly incorrect narratives about emission controls pushed deadlines out into the future. Education funding was cut. Private colleges were encouraged. Banking restrictions were cut. Some of us remember the first time we saw a credit card that offered a deferred 20% or more interest rate. Before Reaganomics, interest rates like that were illegal and, quite literally, only offered by loan sharks. Mining in federal lands became easier. Regulatory agencies became run by people from the industries they were intended to regulate. Okay, that last one was a lie. That wasn’t really new. It just got worse. Prison and schooling for profit gained support.
Am I making a partisan attack?
No. I’m registered an Independent. I’m pushing buttons to get people to test their personal narratives. Most of the above is verifiable public record. The sad part is that the bits people agree with, they won’t check. The bits they disagree with, they won’t check. In other words, as long as we are comfortable in our beliefs, we don’t bother with facts.
People who actually want to test their personal narratives, and this narrative, can simply go to the federal government sites (.gov–not .com, .bus, .edu, .org, or any other dot) that track and present law making, modification, and federal spending numbers. Go to several. Each agency is presenting its own narrative.
Legislation is in the works to make it illegal for citizens to access raw data.
The government changes that move toward controlling the narrative are already visible. Actual raw data spreadsheets showing military and education spending were available in three clicks as recently as five years ago. Now, the raw data is buried. At the surface level, it is interpreted for us in graphs and charts. We have to dig for the raw data. In some cases, we have to submit a formal request via the Freedom of Information Act channels and hope to get a useful result someday.
118 years after a scientist presented the greenhouse gas problem, only very expensive disasters, clearly rising sea levels, public outcry, and some creative rhetoric has made the popular oral narrative of climate change shift from “Don’t be silly” to “Oh, shit. We better pay attention to this.”
Think about Al Gore on his world tour and receiving the Nobel Prize. Piggy-backed on his rhetoric of “Oh, shit” is a message about how we got to this moment by letting profit-based corporate story via political rhetoric override objective science.
It is no coincidence that at the same time this message is finally taking hold in our tribal consciousness, background attacks on funding to university research, attacks on NASA funding, and attempts to mandate “pragmatic usefulness” of federally funded research are underway.
So it goes.
The fight for the human ability to survive and thrive on this planet is about money and who tells which story to the tribes.
We fiction writers are storytellers. Whether we work with scripts, shorts, poetry, or novels, we reach deeply into the consciousness of the people who make up the tribes. We are often the first to reach into the consciousness of the tribes because we touch the youngest minds and hearts before they develop into consumers of political and corporate narrative. Because we are the shamans, the people who create the magic that forms conscience and the illusion of rational consciousness, we have a responsibility to look deeply and carefully at possible narratives that will become part of the emotional decision making that creates a future in which the planet is a place where human beings can survive and thrive.
The Sumerian shamanic leaders created the best narratives they could for their people. Their world was small and constantly threatened by famine, disease, flood, storm, and violent foreigners.
We need to do better. We can no longer afford simple, authoritarian, insular, prescriptive narratives. We can no longer afford us/them narratives. We most certainly can’t afford the profit as success narrative. It is quite literally killing us.
Our narrative about four simple variables will determine the fate of the human race. 1) We live on Earth, a closed system. 2) We currently rely on finite resources. 3) We have created competing, growth-based economies. 4) We allow unchecked population growth.
Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one of more of these four variables is tacit support for self-inflicted human genocide.
Humanity, created by god, gods, or random interactions in a chaotic system, is only an experiment in this vast universe. In modified, handed-down Sumerian terms, our god or gods loved us so much that he, she, it, or they gave us opportunity and free will. How we treat our world and, directly or indirectly, each other is entirely on us.
Tell a good story—a story that creates hope, tolerance, and survival.