The greatest honor

This week, when I saw that the Nobel Peace Prize had been won by the World Food Program, I confess my first reaction was, “Huh. That’s not as interesting as when an individual wins it,” and I scrolled on to the next news story.  My mistake!  Last night on Facebook, I found my step-brother Steve’s post:

“This award, in effect, is honoring my dad’s work posthumously, who ran the World Food Program in Nepal for seven years and preceding that assignment was second in command in India for three years. Although he died 16 years ago, had he lived to experience this global recognition he would have found it both a surprising and spectacular acknowledgment of the United Nation’s World Food Program’s humanitarian efforts – and of humanity itself – in what is otherwise an often inhumane world. Very proud of you dad!”

Arnold Childs, my step-father, was raised with public service as his highest ideal.  As a young man, he’d studied under the social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, at Dartmouth, which made a huge impact on how he saw the world and his place in it.  After serving as an officer in World War II, Arnold earned advanced degrees in political science and economics.  Here he is at Harvard:


He then joined the State Department’s Office of Intelligence and Research, in Italy, then the U.S. Foreign Service, where he served in Italy and Pakistan.   I don’t think this was very gratifying work for him, though – he once joked that his biggest achievement was introducing carbon paper at the India-Pakistan border, which made it much easier for the clerks there to fill out their forms in triplicate. Up to that point, they’d just been writing everything down three times.

Then in 1970, the opportunity came for him to join the World Food Program.  This program had been started in 1961, after President Eisenhower urged the United Nations to do something meaningful about world hunger.  Finally, Arnold could put his ideals into action!  He served as the program’s number-two official in India, then became the Director of the program for Nepal.  Among his other achievements, he introduced a free breakfast program throughout the kindergartens of Nepal, which fed hungry children and gave the families there a good reason to send their kids to school.

When he retired, in 1982, he and his wife chose Eugene, Oregon, as their new home because it reminded them of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.  (From that, I can only guess that they visited our Saturday Market, which is very colorful, and we do have distant mountains…)  After his wife passed away, he married my mom, in 1988, and they had 16 years together, travelling many times to Europe, and supporting the arts and many social causes, before he passed away in 2004.


Arnold and my mom, early 2004

Like Steve, I can only imagine how awe-struck Arnold would have been that an organization he helped build has now been awarded our world’s highest honor.  If you dream big, and develop the skills that go with your dreams, you really can make the world a better place.  Congratulations to you, Arnold, and all of your many colleagues and successors at the World Food Program!

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The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives

I’m delighted to have my work appear in today’s Scientific American.  Please check it out!

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Our enduring debt to the 300 Spartans

Has it been 2,500 years already?

It was in August or September of 480 B.C. that King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 elite soldiers (with some allies) held off more than 100,000 Persian soldiers for three days at Thermopylae, a narrow mountain pass into the Greek peninsula. Their valiant sacrifice (they eventually fell to a shower of arrows) bought the rest of the Greeks enough time to rally and, supposedly, save Western civilization from disaster before it had even fully gotten started. Hollywood immortalized their story in the 1962 film The 300 Spartans and more recently in 300, a blockbuster with almost half a billion dollars in box office receipts.

Why should we care about Leonidas’ stand at Thermopylae?

Is it standing up for freedom? Surely that’s part of the appeal – the Spartans resisted the attempts of Xerxes, the Persian King of Kings, to add Greece to his vast empire. Yet if that were the case, we would be equally dismayed at Alexander’s conquest of Persia and its holdings, about 150 years later, the same empire-expansion story in reverse. In both cases, those of us in the English-speaking world have been taught to take the Greek point of view. It’s “our” side, even though the majority of us have no Greek ancestors at all. Our affinity for Leonidas is more partisan than principled.

King-Leonidas-300-movie-01-1024x662Is it the awe-inspiring Spartans? For some of 300’s fans, especially, this could be true. Its cinematic style certainly glorified the Spartan world – where, ironically, freedom was not valued. Ancient Sparta could serve as a prototype for militaristic fascism. Newborns not meeting government standards were killed, and those who survived weren’t allowed to live with their parents, nor could young married couples live together. Plutarch tells us that once a year, some of the men who had inherited Spartan citizenship were allowed to freely murder any of the vast majority who had not. Adolf Hitler praised Sparta for its eugenics program and bloodline purity, and Spartan training methods inspired the curricula of elite Nazi schools. Sparta is shocking – but of course, that sells movie tickets.

Is it the “saving of Western civilization”? Most likely. In several important ways, classical Athens is a foundation of our modern world. We are indebted to them for the first great philosophers, the roots of Western science, and a political worldview that values input from individuals.

Today, many today are skeptical about the value of Western civilization. However lofty our ideals, we have a poor track record in practice. Europe and the countries established by European colonists have economically exploited virtually all of the rest of the world, and in some cases even destroyed other civilizations in the name of our own cultural superiority. The headlines of America’s newspapers – Black Lives Matter, climate change – still echo the mistakes of the Western world.

socratesI would say that the main value of Thermopylae comes from the life of a man born about ten years later. Socrates, the philosopher later called a “gadfly” by his pupil Plato, taught people to question assumptions, think carefully about the implications of our beliefs, and seek Justice and a higher Good. Late in life, Socrates was arrested and imprisoned (freedom of speech not being a feature of Athenian democracy). He was charged with the crimes of teaching the young people of Athens to think critically about its beliefs and values, that is, “corrupting the minds of the youth” and “failure to acknowledge the gods of the state.” He refused an opportunity to escape and accepted his execution by drinking poison hemlock.

Had the Spartans not held back the Persians at Thermopylae, the entire course of Socrates’ life would have been different. Even if he’d had the same temperament and teachings, he would have found himself protesting the injustices of Persian occupiers, not his very own people. His lessons would have been far less radical.

On the occasion of this extraordinary anniversary, we can reflect that the Spartan victory gave us something we can truly treasure – the example of a man whose life’s work was to interrogate the beliefs of his own people and the actions of his own government. That, I would say, is the real merit of Western civilization, the idea that each and every one of us has the responsibility to question authority and to carefully consider our beliefs and values – even, and especially, when they’re at odds with the examples our leaders set for us.

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Oregon’s ex-fire marshal – too Good for the job?

Last week, when Oregon’s fire marshal abruptly quit his job in the middle of the biggest wildfire disaster in state history, many of us wondered what could have happened. Did he make some inappropriate political remark, maybe? Or gross incompetence? Apparently it was nothing of the sort.

Disclaimer: I’m not a journalist, and I know nothing about this story beyond what I read in yesterday’s local newspaper. The front page story says that on Thursday, an employee came to the fire marshal, Jim Walker, distraught because a relative was missing in Santiam Canyon, a zone where the fires had killed at least five people. Walker volunteered to help, and on Thursday evening he and a person who knew the area went looking for the missing relative and their family, eventually locating most of them. On Friday, Walker’s boss, the state police superintendent, said that Walker had overstepped his role and put him on leave. He then resigned.

Walker says he knew his employee was distracted by the situation, and that he’d cleared his search with someone he believed had the authority to do so. His motivation was to alleviate his employee’s concern, so that the employee could better “focus on the task at hand.”

I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite philosophers, Martin Buber. He once told a story of a deeply unhappy student who dropped by to talk with him, and Buber was too distracted to give the man his full attention. Here’s how he described it:

“I had a visit from an unknown young man, without being there in spirit. I certainly did not fail to let the meeting be friendly, I did not treat him more remissly than all his contemporaries who were in the habit of seeking me out about this time of day as an oracle that is ready to listen to reason. I conversed attentively and openly with him – only I omitted to guess the questions which he did not put. Later, not long after, I learned from one of his friends – he himself was no longer alive – the essential content of these questions; I learned that he had not come to me casually, but borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision. He had come to me, he had come in this hour. What do we expect when we are in despair and yet go to a man? Surely a presence by means of which we are told that nevertheless there is meaning.”

buberThe student had gone off to war (the first World War) and apparently put himself deliberately into harm’s way (the wartime equivalent of suicide-by-cop). Buber was horrified – the young man had come to him for help, and he hadn’t given it. He went on to devote his entire career to his belief that giving someone your full attention and commitment when they come to you in need is our highest obligation. (If you’re interested, I recommend his most famous book, I and Thou, but be warned – it’s a bit like reading poetry, but harder, and then harder still.)

Assuming the newspaper version of Walker’s story is correct, his story sounds a lot like Buber’s – and Walker made the choice Buber wished he’d made with his student. It’s unfortunate when doing the right thing costs you your job.


(Buber quotation source: Between Man and Man, p.13-14.)

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The Twelve Super-Stories

Let’s imagine you’ve been invited to speak to your entire country! You have to talk about current events (sorry, no sharing your hobbies or bragging about your kids), and the purpose of your talk is not just to educate, but to inspire the public. You want them to act.

As you plan your speech, there are two decisions you’ll need to make. First, pick a topic – any topic will do. It’s your second decision that I’m interested in, and it is: How do you want to make your listeners feel?

Every time we talk about the groups we’re in, like our country, our ethnic group, or even our species, we’re often making the case that things are getting better or worse. We may be worried about what immigrants, or climate change, or income inequality will do to our country. We may be setting some worthy goals that we should all work together to meet, like eliminating world hunger or sending astronauts to Mars. We may just want the world to know that our people are here to stay.

The special kinds of stories we’re telling are called “meta-narratives.” Leaders can use these stories to influence us to feel these emotions, and emotions lead to action. If we recognize what they’re doing, we can make up our own minds and be less susceptible to others’ persuasion.

When you’re planning your big speech, depending on the emotions you’re trying for, you’ll probably choose one of these twelve “super-stories,” the emotional genres for meta-narratives:

Stability. Things are always the same. You can rely on it, you can feel confident. Conversely, if you want something new and different, this story can make you feel stifled or demoralized. Things are always the same.

Rome, the Eternal City:


Recurring Saga. Things regularly get better, then worse, then better again, on and on, like a pendulum swinging back and forth, from “good” to “bad.” If you have a two-party system of government, that’s a familiar experience.

Usually, when you have an election, the party that’s out of office promises a Course Correction, which is just a piece of the same Recurring Saga. We feel a sense of security because it’s so predictable, and optimism, because things can always get “fixed” in our own direction again. Or, of course, frustration, if it seems we never get anywhere.

Recurring Crises. A repeating pattern can also be more dramatic. Anthropologist James Wertsch says this is how Russians experience their history: a long series of invasions that they have to repel, again and again. Things may never be good – they just regularly start and stop being bad. This storyline leads its people to feel anxiety, fear, and disorientation, punctuated by moments of relief and self-congratulation.

Progress. America’s story is very different. Our story is about Progress – more prosperity, more opportunities, always building and growing, solving problems like cancer and overcoming limitations like our finite supply of fossil fuels. Both the Left and the Right want progress, but they have different goals. The Republicans traditionally want their Progress to mean more prosperity and more safety and security. The Democrats traditionally want their version of progress to mean, yes, more prosperity, but also more fairness in how it’s distributed. Both visions of the future need their progress to be backed by Stability, because you need predictability to be able to make plans for the future, whether that’s building a business, getting an education, raising a family, or looking forward to retirement.

One variant of Progress is a Mission. Here the people set a goal and work hard to make it happen. This could be like Manifest Destiny, when the United States sought to conquer all the land across the continent, from sea to shining sea. It could be like Woodrow Wilson, telling us it’s our job to make the world safe for democracy. Or it could be to be the first country to put a human being on the moon. A Mission, and Progress more generally, lead their people to feel optimism and satisfaction.

Neil Armstrong arrives on the Moon:


Transformation. Another way to make changes is more abrupt. Here the idea is to sacrifice some of our stability to get somewhere in a hurry. With a Transformation, some people feel joy, while others feel disoriented with the loss of Stability. Some classic examples would be the French Revolution, or Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Bernie Sanders uses “revolution” language too, although he’s not advocating such an extreme transformation – he wants us to use our existing laws and processes to get America caught up with the rest of the world.

Miracle. The final type of improvement story is when a group reappears and begins to flourish after a disaster – it’s a tragedy with a happy ending. Some Native American writers describe their people’s story that way, like in a film I saw a few years ago, United by Water, where several Pacific Northwest tribes felt their nations had essentially died, until they worked together to reassert themselves. Many Jews felt like this about the forming of the modern nation of Israel. The feelings for a Miracle (or as J.R.R. Tolkien called it, a “eucatastrophe”) are joy and relief.

Prior Fall. We have negative storylines as well. One of the most familiar is the Prior Fall. In this storyline, things were very good for a group of people, but that was lost. We have Adam and Eve, exiled from Eden.

Expelled from Eden:

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Or we have prehistoric humans, living in harmony with nature, or pre-industrial humans, who had their own harmony with nature. This is an airbrushed look back into the past. It’s not that things were actually better for those early humans, but looking back from the present, those earlier times can feel better – more peaceful, less harmful to the environment.

Specific groups sometimes look back into their past and think things were much better for them then, too. Sometimes they were; at other times, again, they’ve idealized that past. When we compare an ideal past to the present, we may feel shame about the lesser status of our current group. We may feel guilt, if the fall was our fault, and we may feel anger if we think some other group was to blame.

Tragedy. A tragedy is a loss that’s much more fresh. It’s recently happened, and it feels like it’s still ongoing and that nothing can be done. The same shame or guilt or anger still apply, but also frustration. Good examples include when one group takes land away from another, as the U.S. did to its native people, and as the founding of modern Israel did to the people who were already living in Palestine. If a group romanticizes what used to be and what might have been, they can invent their own Tragedy storyline 

Some think the Civil War outcome was a Tragedy:


Looming Catastrophe. And of course, there’s the negative storyline where the loss is in our future. Climate change is making our weather more extreme, with more hurricanes and wildfires (in fact, one has kept the people of my city indoors for a week now), and in the future it could be much worse. Alternatively, we might be concerned about unchecked immigration or other changes to our communities that could change our way of life. For those attuned to the Looming Catastrophe storyline, the emotions they feel include anxiety, fear, and urgency.

Those are the simple storylines. If we combine them we can get three more genres that are just slightly more complex, but they’re especially powerful.

Crossroads. A Looming Catastrophe implies a crossroads – either we figure out how to stay on our usual course, or everything goes south. But any major decision point is a Crossroads, like if we’re deciding whether to make a significant policy change, or have a revolution, or go to war. One branch takes us on one storyline, and the other takes us elsewhere. Emotions at a Crossroads include anticipation, anxiety, and whatever else may be associated with each of the two paths, as well as a sense that the time we live in is important and meaningful.

Restoration. If we combine a Prior Fall that takes us from an idealized past to a degraded present, with a Transformation that lifts us back to that ideal state again, then we have a Restoration. This storyline may be extra-powerful because it fits the conventional story prototype, in which things are okay, but then some problem arises, which has to be fixed to yield a resolution.

The Restoration storyline is the basis for Christianity – humanity lived in Eden, but they fell from grace, and now we live in a sinful world, but believers can hope to go to heaven. It’s also the basis for nationalism – a people have a wonderful mythic past, but they were conquered or dominated by others, and they want their sovereignty restored so they can achieve their rightful place in the world.

The Restoration storyline combines all the emotions of its underlying components, and it often also comes with an extra sense of drama, even melodrama, especially if you add in a Crossroads and danger, like conflict with another group or some other pending disaster.

Triumph. Finally, we have the storyline that comes from combining achievement, as in Progress or Transformation or Restoration, with permanent Stability thereafter, resulting in feelings of pride, security, and confidence. This storyline also uses basic narrative psychology, with a period of suspense that is resolved, just like when you read a book or watch a movie and at the end expect closure, our happily ever after. Or, as some might say, our “Final Solution” – the Holocaust was intended to fit this genre.

Once we’ve achieved a Triumph, we’re extra-motivated to keep its stability. A modern example comes from our own recent history – after the Cold War, the United States was quite satisfied to find itself the “lone superpower.” Its expectation that it now had everything under control was thoroughly dispelled by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which were extra shocking because the U.S. thought it had already reached closure on its role in the world.

So there we have it, twelve “super-stories” and a few variants – emotional genres for meta-narratives. This list is certainly not exhaustive; it just illustrates many we’re familiar with today. At other times and places, people might understand their group’s history very differently. For example, time doesn’t even necessarily move forward! Mircea Eliade, a famous scholar of religions, describes societies where religious practices allow people to experience mythic times from the distant past, an Eternal Return. With a meta-narrative like that, the world is experienced as endless cycles – very much like in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series. Others sometimes describe our progress, catastrophes, and so on as stages in much larger eras, beyond the scope of human lifetimes, but if we think in those terms we may tend to feel dwarfed by inevitabilities beyond our control. We might just give up.

The next time you hear a leader telling you about their vision for the future, see if you can recognize one or more of these stories. And then decide for yourself. Does it fit the facts? And is it fair, not just to the group telling the story, but to the other groups appearing in the story? If not, how would you tell the story differently? If you had the chance, what would you say to your fellow citizens?

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I’m writing a book on this topic, and I could use your help. An important part of the publishing process these days is for the author to be able to show the publishers that people are interested in their work. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it and share it on social media. If you’d like to read future posts, please “Follow” by entering your e-mail address at the top of the right-hand column. Both of those steps will help me show the publishing world that people are listening. Thank you!

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What if half the country’s in a cult (and doesn’t know it)?

How can you tell if you’ve accidentally signed up for a cult? One sign is that you’re so enthusiastically opposed to the U.S. presidential candidates besides the one you prefer that you’re no longer living up to the “reflective” ideal I described in my last post.

Of course, in a democracy, anyone is entitled to limit their point of view and ignore the rest the world has to offer. We can stay inside the “bubbles” or “echo chambers” our friends and media create for us, if we want – in the language of my earlier post, we can be “fully immersed.”

But it’s a slippery slope. It means we trust the authority figures in our “bubble” to do the right thing. And if they know they have that trust, and they’re not actually worthy of that trust, they can get away with murder. So no matter how much we love our candidate, we still need to think for ourselves. Right?

Here’s a quiz! Let’s think about three people who were candidates for president this year: Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders.

Positives: Can you list some sincere good sides of each candidate? Here are some examples. Can you think of more?
“Trump hasn’t gotten us into any wars.”
“Biden is a very good listener.”
“Sanders has done the country a service by raising important issues that we need to address.”

Criticism: How do you feel about critiquing your preferred candidate? Is it important to critique them, or does it feel disloyal?

Perspectives: When you see media for another perspective, do you always brush it off in horror or disdain, or do you sometimes find yourself thinking, “They may have a point”? If so, would you admit to that in public?

Values: Do your own values stay the same no matter who’s in office? For example, if you believe family values are important and you’re otherwise a Trump fan, do you find yourself saying, “I admire Obama’s commitment to marriage and family, and it bothers me that Trump’s personal life has a poor track record in that regard”?

Loyalty: What do you think is more important, loyalty to your candidate or loyalty to values that would lead you to reject your candidate if they cross a line?

Methods: What do you think is more important, for your candidate to pursue their goals using whatever methods they think will be best or most effective, or for your candidate to respect the Constitution?

Anxiety: Do you see your candidate as someone who would save us from a terrible fate… other than whatever terrible fates might befall us as a result of electing one of the other candidates?

Variety: Do you think it would be better for the country to always have the same political party in power?

Term Limits: If your candidate were elected president, would you favor removing the term limits so they could stay in power longer than the Constitution currently allows?

Accountability: If your candidate were elected president, who should they be accountable to – the American people, or only their own conscience?

If you favor Biden or Sanders, list three positive things you sincerely admire about George W. Bush – things Republicans would generally agree with you about.
If you favor Trump, list three positive things you sincerely admire about Barack Obama – things Democrats would generally agree with you about.

The other side: When thinking about the Americans you disagree with, which would be better – to understand their needs so your own party can better meet them, or for them to just shut up or leave the country?

Excitement: Are you only willing to vote for president if a candidate who excites you is on the ballot?

Heroism: Have you ever described your favored candidate as a hero?

Higher powers: Have you ever described your favored candidate as divinely chosen or favored by God?

I’m not going to score your answers. For one thing, that would imply I’d spent months doing surveys and analyses to find out where each of these questions lies on the spectrum of “thinking for ourselves” versus “being in a cult.” That’s not the point here; this is not scientific research. My point is to encourage each one of us to do some soul searching.

What do you think? What would you add to my quiz?

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I’m writing a book, and I could use your help. An important part of the publishing process these days is for the author to be able to show the publishers that people are interested in their work. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it and share it on social media. If you’d like to read future posts, please “Follow” by entering your e-mail address at the top of the right-hand column. Both of those steps will help me show the publishing world that people are listening. Thank you!

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Three relationships with our collective stories: Authority, democracy, and the big yawn

Last week, I showed that giving people the facts not only won’t make them listen, it all too often makes them double-down and get even more entrenched in their beliefs. Understandably, this is frustrating! This week I’m going to share the heart of the book I’m writing – a new way to think about this situation that points to some options we might have for addressing it.

What I’m talking about is the relationship we have with a given story-about-us, especially the “master narratives” that everyone in our society generally accepts.

Let’s start with an analogy. According to retired University of Toronto psychology professor (and novelist) Keith Oatley, there are three ways to read a book. If it’s really exciting or compelling, we can find ourselves so deeply engrossed in the reading that we lose all awareness of the outside world – we don’t notice if we’re hungry, or what someone’s doing in the next room, or how time is passing. We’re “fully immersed” in the book. The same thing can happen when we’re watching an exciting movie or sporting event, or playing a fast-paced game. Alternatively, if we’re reading something more slowly, over a period of days, and thinking about it when we’re not reading, and making connections between what’s happening in the story and our own memories and the circumstances of our own lives, we’re more “reflectively immersed” in the book. Or maybe it’s a terribly boring book that we’re being forced to read as an assignment, and it doesn’t feel real to us at all, and we’re resisting it every step of the way, then we’re “cynically detached” from the book, holding it at a distance mentally.

Similarly, with “stories about us” (meta-narratives) we can be the same way – fully immersed, reflectively immersed, or cynically detached. It’s not a perfect analogy, because of course people deeply engrossed in one worldview can still be aware (at least on an intellectual level) that others exist. On the other hand, our background “immersion” in a story of our people can be even more powerful because it doesn’t just start with sitting down to read or watch a movie and end when you get up again. Instead, your worldview and its stories (the collective progress we’re making, or the impending collapse of civilization from climate change, or the need to restore America’s greatness, or whatever) are there in the background of your life all the time, ready to surface whenever someone mentions something related.

Let’s look at these three possible relationships to our collective stories more closely.

If you’re fully immersed in a story-of-us, you believe the way you see the world is true and that other ways of seeing the world are misguided or wrong. The social institutions you’re a part of and your media choices fully support it, which means you may live in a “bubble” or “echo chamber” that always reflects this worldview back to you. If you’re aware of other options, you feel loyalty to your own. You’ve probably even been taught to defer to the authorities behind this worldview – leaders, institutions, and sometimes holy texts.

If you’re reflectively immersed in a story-of-us, you believe the way you see the world is one of several valid stories, and that it’s your responsibility to evaluate these stories for accuracy and ethical impact and then choose one or more to live with. It’s a conscious choice. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about how he had done just that. I’m not endorsing the position he ended up with; it’s his choice to make, and we can trust that he picked one that matches his temperament and values. It’s his process that matters here.

Note: Reflective does not mean liberal! There are many thoughtful conservatives out there who understand the appeal of liberal and progressive worldviews but prefer caution and stability. There are also many on the Left who can find other worldviews appealing for relatively superficial reasons, without necessarily reflecting on their consequences (and of course, there are liberals and progressives who don’t see other perspectives as valid).

On the other hand, if you’re cynically detached, you probably see yourself as powerless to participate meaningfully in any of the stories-of-us, or you don’t like the options available and would rather not even bother thinking about it any further. Maybe you’re even buying into a story about detachment, like the Deep State argument that there’s some great conspiracy pulling all the strings, leaving you no real options. Unfortunately, that’s just an illusion of power over your worldview that doesn’t compare with doing the harder work of finding a way to contribute; you’re still basically at the mercy of your people’s “master narrative.”

Sometimes, you really are powerless to make a difference. Ideally, if that’s the case, instead of identifying with the broader community that’s shutting you out, you’ll focus on a different one where you do have the ability to make a difference, and immerse yourself in that one instead. A good example is modern China – the government really doesn’t want its people to think critically about its policies, and if you try, you could end up in trouble, like the dissident poet Liu Xiaobo. But you’re welcome to immerse yourself in the story of your own family – sometimes there are huge family reunions for, say, all the descendants of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), and other extended families do that too.

Reunion of descendants of Confucius:

confucius descendants

We have different relationships with different meta-narratives. Richard Dawkins, a famous British scientist who is also a well-known atheist, presumably is fully or reflectively “immersed” in a storyline of scientific progress and “detached” from any storyline promoting religion.

For our society’s master narratives, full immersion is probably the default – we grow up learning how the world works and having expectations based on that. We may also learn how to think critically and question that understanding, but that comes later, and it’s optional. Sometimes we stick with what we know until we find something better. Sometimes young people will try out a series of worldviews until they find one that fits, at which point they’re able to be reflective about them. Sometimes a worldview feels so right that we decide to fully immerse ourselves in it and think everyone else should do the same. (And sometimes our government decides that for us – compare today’s authoritarian China with China during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where – like in Stalin’s Soviet Union or today’s North Korea – every citizen was expected to devote their lives to their people’s story. If you’re reading this, you have choices.)

However! The very foundation of democracy is that reflective stance. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the very first of the Federalist Papers, when he and others were trying to persuade the colonists to accept the newly drafted U.S. Constitution, democracy is about “reflection and choice.” Our Bill of Rights ensures that we have freedoms of speech, religion, and so on – in other words, that we can choose our worldviews and collective stories.

How do we make that choice? There are many sources of information that can give us what we need for informed decision-making about the stories we want to guide our lives together. Education and open-minded travel are obvious candidates. Responsible journalism is absolutely vital and, frankly, probably one of the noblest professions of our time. Learning about science is important, too, as the entire point of science is to challenge existing understandings and determine how confident we should be in what we think we know. And exercising our imagination is essential: An excellent way to learn about other worldviews is by reading fiction where you take the point of view of people unlike yourself.

As Americans, democracy is our birthright. No matter how much loyalty you may feel towards any leader or political party – and some of them do seem to be demanding loyalty these days – our highest obligation as citizens should always be to the reflective process that underlies democracy and the freedoms of self-expression that make it possible.

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I’m writing a book on this topic, and I could use your help. An important part of the publishing process these days is for the author to be able to show the publishers that people are interested in their work. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it and share it on social media. If you’d like to read future posts, please “Follow” by entering your e-mail address at the top of the right-hand column. Both of those steps will help me show the publishing world that people are listening. Thank you!

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A farewell to facts

A childhood friend, who is now a retired journalist and journalism professor, posted this cartoon on Facebook recently:


(Original source)

A few hours earlier, another childhood friend had posted something to Facebook – something political – with so many factual errors that I was venting to my partner about it. He thought I should respond; I thought not.

At least a dozen of my Facebook friends are people I knew when I was a kid. My parents divorced when I was 12, and after my mom relocated us to another town, I thought I’d never get to know what happened to all the kids I’d been growing up with. I was thrilled when Facebook gave me the opportunity to reconnect. I love them! It’s fascinating to learn about the adults they’ve become.

It’s also, as I’ve found, an opportunity to see for myself what people outside my day-to-day life are thinking. The challenge is, whether and how to respond when their facts are… iffy.

The comic above illustrates what we social scientists call the “information deficit” model. The idea is, people are lacking in facts, so if you give them the facts, they’ll understand and behave “rationally.”

That model might work if we went around thinking that there are topics we don’t know anything about but should, and then we had the time and inclination to take in the information when it’s offered. But usually people don’t work like that. Either we figure we know enough about the topic to have an opinion, or we find someone who’s supposed to know about these things and then trust them to do their job.

It’s more realistic to go with a “motivated reasoning” model, like I described in my recent post on how stories-about-us work. We figure out how we feel or who we trust, and we use that information as a shortcut to decide what we think about things. Once we’ve made up our mind, we’ll go to more mental effort to defend our position, if need be.  We’ll use the evidence that supports our position, and ignore the evidence that doesn’t. Research by Dan Kahan and others has shown that this motivated reasoning is equally common for conservatives and liberals, and the more educated you are, the more likely you’ll use the facts to bolster what you already believe, rather than starting from scratch.

In the real world, this leads to some strange things. We saw it with the COVID virus, where a few individuals who had been vocal early on about the need for caution later changed their minds entirely. For some, this is surely “COVID fatigue,” feeling like it’s been “enough already.” They want or need the closure that comes from having it all behind us. For others, though, it seems that we can see the power of political party identities in action – when the virus was treated by both parties as a common threat, they strongly favored protective measures, but when Republican leaders decided to treat the virus as a partisan thing, they quickly fell in line and started saying the opposite of what they’d said two months before.

I’m also reminded of a story a family member told me about how firmly someone he knew was promoting some supposedly conservative policy position, but he had it backwards – the position he was espousing was actually the liberal position. Awkward!

Motivated reasoning includes selectively choosing facts to make one’s case, but what about “facts” that are outright wrong?

I’ll admit, I’ll sometimes chime in, when I know my experience has given me better access to the information than the person posting could be expected to have. Sometimes they’re actually interested in the information, which is cool, but if they aren’t, that’s fine too. It’s not about “fixing them.” Rather, it’s about me being responsible.

Most of the time, though, I think there’s a better way to look at it. It’s basically how we should think about other people’s religions. If you have religious beliefs, you may consider them literally true, but even if you don’t, you probably consider them metaphorically true, and the rest of us should consider them metaphorically true as well. What do I mean by that? It’s like the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” letter – regardless of whether Santa is physically there at the North Pole right now, supervising the elves building toys for delivery in four and a half months, there is also the living idea of Santa Claus that brings value and magic to children and their adults alike. Or, say, Robin Hood – whether or not some medieval Englishman actually forcibly redistributed the wealth in 1452771009-movies-robin-hood-disney_smNottingham, he’s a part of our cultural heritage who still inspires us today. So if your friends are Christian and you aren’t, you could get hung up on whether certain teachings in Christianity are literally true (the Virgin Birth, for example), or you could honor the feelings behind those teachings (respecting Jesus as an extraordinary person whose life could have important lessons for us). We can look beyond the literal words to see what deeper meaning is there.

So when we’re evaluating someone’s social media post, the important thing is not always whether the facts, suppositions, and suspicions are correct; it’s whether they feel right to the person saying them. The post may be expressing a deeper truth, and if so, that’s what we should respond to.

However! How we go about responding to these “deeper truths” is important! If we think, “They said X but they really mean Y,” that’s reductive and not respectful. They probably mean both X and Y, and they might mean Z instead of Y, who knows? If we say, “You said X, did you really mean Y?” that’s reductive, disrespectful, and patronizing, too.

On the other hand, if you want to start an actual dialogue, you could say, “When you said X, it also seems to me that you’re saying Y, am I understanding?” If they’re also up for dialogue, you might go on to say that you don’t share their X-thoughts, but Y makes sense to you. Common ground!

It’s hard to resist the immediate temptation to correct the facts. I can say from talking with many inveterate fact-correctors that they feel like they’re respecting the other person’s intellect. I don’t think it feels like that on the receiving end, though – it often feels like condescension.

We could even say that the left/right split in the United States is only one facet of our polarization. Another facet is the deep split between those who want us to be able to move past the toxic aspects of polarization and those who relish it. Ironically, and unfortunately, the very act of pointing out that someone has, however innocently, been manipulated by extreme partisans is an act that reinforces that toxic divide.

I think the answers involve respect and trust. And probably patience, though I’m not so good at patience myself. If someone acts like a decent human being in all the other spheres of life but seems to go off the deep end where politics are concerned, we should probably focus on the “decent human being” side and not on what can feel like the “unfortunately manipulated” side. The rest of it may take time.

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A species caught up in stories

Science fiction novelist Becky Chambers described my book topic very well, in her most recent Wayfarers novel, Record of a Spaceborn Few. The characters are humans, many generations after a greatly damaged Earth had been left behind. Here, an archivist of the great Exodus Fleet is explaining her life’s work to a young man:

“Our species doesn’t operate by reality. It operates by stories. Cities are a story. Money is a story. Space was a story, once. A king tells us a story about who we are and why we’re great, and that story is enough to make us go kill people who tell a different story. Or maybe the people kill the king because they don’t like his story and have begun to tell themselves a different one. When our planet started dying, our species was so caught up in stories. We had thousands of stories about ourselves – that’s still true, don’t forget that for a minute – but not enough of us were looking at the reality of things. Once reality caught up with us and we started changing our stories to acknowledge it, it was too late.” (p.315)

That’s what I’m writing about – the psychology of these stories, which have a life of their own, and which can easily lose touch with reality. Thanks, #beckychambers!

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In a League of her own

A few weeks ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced a “small quarantine accomplishment”: She’s made it to rank Silver III in League of Legends. Predictably, the lively congresswoman’s tweet met with a scornful backlash – she should give back her salary or resign because she’s playing games while Americans are getting sick and dying.

I don’t play League myself – at my age, I wouldn’t have the necessary reflexes. My younger son is on our university’s varsity League of Legends team, though, so I’m familiar with the intense focus it requires.

League of Legends is a multiplayer online arena game from Riot Games. It’s a team sport played with five players on (usually) ad hoc teams. Each player takes on one of five strictly defined roles using one of a vast range of possible characters, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and special abilities.

Players can enjoy the game casually or work to earn a rank. The ranking system begins at Iron IV, with skilled players advancing to Iron III, Iron II, and Iron I, then moving from Iron to Bronze, and later to Silver, Gold, and Platinum, and finally to Diamond. AOC’s rank of Silver III puts her in the top 60% of several million ranked players – it’s a fine achievement, but hardly evidence that she’s devoting too much free time to the game.

Meanwhile, many of the retorts to the angry tweets hold up Trump’s expensive golf hobby as equally problematic. They’re both wrong. League and golf each provide excellent mental health benefits. Any immersive activity that takes your attention away from work and other stressful responsibilities provides a restorative mini-vacation – League being more analogous to Obama’s basketball playing than either president’s golfing. It requires a complete mental and physical focus sustained for up to an hour at a time; the mind can hardly wander elsewhere, let alone ruminate on problems back at the office. It’s an excellent strategy for switching gears and ensuring we have the mental resources to respond to new challenges.

Another value of recreational games was described by psychologist Daniel Berlyne back in the 1960s. When we sit down to play a game (or watch a movie or sporting event, or read fiction), our feelings of anticipation and excitement provide an “arousal boost” that is later relieved abruptly, in an “arousal jag” that releases tension. It’s the same mechanism that lets us unwind when we’re watching fast-paced or suspenseful films (or reading the latest Murderbot novel, my own preferred downtime activity). Yet games are better than more passive forms of recreation because they also let us use recreation to help meet our psychological need for developing competence – and to see evidence that we’re doing so through a rank system that compares us with our peers.

Complaints that Ocasio-Cortez isn’t doing her job just reveal that the commenters see her one-dimensionally. It’s the kind of mild dehumanizing that comes naturally to those not versed in perspective-taking, as if she ought to be a legislation-making machine that switches on at daybreak and powers down 16 hours or so later.

The constituents in New York’s 14th congressional district can be reassured. League of Legends is probably an excellent quarantine activity for its congresswoman. But keep watching – if she tells us she’s made Diamond II, maybe Congress should get back to work.

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