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.

*   *   *

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!

About Laura Akers, Ph.D.

I'm a research psychologist at Oregon Research Institute, and I'm writing a book about meta-narratives, the powerful collective stories we share about who we are and where we're headed. My interests include beliefs and worldviews, ethics, motivation, and relationships, both among humans and between humans and the natural world.
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