Dear Progressives, it’s Time to Break Up with Rationality

Why populists are rising up, and what you can do about it

I have on my living room wall a framed copy of an infographic by David McCandless and Stefanie Posavec that depicts the two traditional sides of the political spectrum as a set of scales.

On each side, the values and virtues that the left and the right hold dear are balanced with opposing ones that are equally valid and dearly held by those on the other side, across a number of different societal issues. Where the left votes for egalitarianism, the right votes based on meritocracy. Where the foundation of healthy, thriving communities on the left might be grounded in ethics, the right may see it better grounded in morals. Left leaning parents might seek to raise empathetic, curious children, while those who lean right may wish to instil a sense of self discipline and moral strength in their children.

Each of these values and virtues holds merit. The capacity for empathy and a curious mind are useful, as are self-reliance and discipline. Ethics and morals are both important. Applied to some hypothetical society existing somewhere in a magical vacuum without fear, inequality, prejudice, and politicking, meritocracy is a fine thing.

To every one of us, our deeply ingrained values act as a set of guiding lights that direct our thoughts and behaviours, and each of us believe that our way of thinking is right, just, and good.

A good friend asked on Facebook last week how to interact with Trump supporters without getting angry. I wrote a lengthy reply, which forms the basis of this article.

At the heart of it is this:

Progressives need to get better at telling stories which meet people where they are at, and paint a picture of the world we want to live in that is grounded in our values.

I have this infographic on my wall to remind me daily that while I may not agree with people on the opposite side of the political spectrum to myself, I can at least understand on some level how they got there. It frames things in terms of what it is that they care about and what their fundamental drivers of behaviour are, rather than hearing the rhetoric in my social media feed about what they stand against. I can see that the views that I might be tempted to label as hateful, ignorant, or backwards are rooted in a set of guiding values and moral principles that are different from my own. It might be hard for me to understand and to feel deeply, but at least on a rational level it’s possible for me to understand in a general sense why they are like they are and why they behave as they do.

Of course we don’t live in a vacuum, and the makeup of people’s values and perspectives are far more diverse and context-dependent than can be plotted along a left versus right political spectrum. Our stance on individual issues may fall anywhere along the simplistic progressive-conservative continuum.

We each hold literally hundreds of values, which we place varying different levels of importance upon, and many of which may seemingly be in direct contradiction to one another. Values are the individual foundations upon which we build our identity, yet they do not necessarily equal beliefs. The relationship there is much more nuanced. Our beliefs are very much moulded by our personal experiences and the framing of the messages we hear, which activate certain underlying values. Our values and life experiences influence the ways that we both tell and receive stories.

George Lakoff made waves in 2004 when he published “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, in which he suggests that the reason that Republicans in the United States do so well at winning over voters who often stand to do worse, not better, under their policies, is because they ground their communications in core values. Put simply, they tell a better story, while the left is busy rationalising, banging people over the head with facts and figures, naming and shaming, and voicing criticism.

Alex Evans takes this premise a step further more recently in his book “The Myth Gap”, suggesting that what is missing in so many progressive cause movements is a cohesive story or overarching myth that informs our vision of the future we want to see. Using the examples of the election of Trump, the leave vote of Brexit, and the complete failure of our global society to meaningfully address the threat of climate change, Evans points out how the left places undue value on rationality and reductionist scientific reason above other ways of knowing, as if that’s the only way to win an argument and change behaviour. We forget how crucial a role story, narrative and myth play in our lives and our psyches. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump alike crafted a mighty compelling myth. Just think of the slogan, Make American Great Again. Taken at face value, what American wouldn’t want that?

Too long have the left tried to intellectualise with people and guilt them into action, hoping that rational arguments will win them over. But that’s simply not how human minds are built.

The truth is that it is not rationality and reason that wins hearts and votes. It is a compelling story that gives people something to believe in.

The progressive campaigning movement has come a long way since the publishing of Lakoff’s book, with many organisations now extremely well versed in the fundamentals of social psychology and behaviour change. The Common Cause Foundation has produced some excellent work exploring how values-driven messaging can change social and environmental views and behaviours, grounded in the recognition that to convince people to change their views, we need to activate their intrinsic values. (In New Zealand, The Workshop offer fantastic training sessions to understand the basics of values-based messaging.)

Intrinsic values and motivators are those core values that most people hold close to their heart — values of love, affiliation, kindness, and community. Extrinsic values and motivators are those that deep down, most of us know don’t actually matter so much — values of image, popularity, social status, and the modern day, career-conventional understanding of success (Read: Rich. Revered. Well connected. Powerful). In his groundbreaking book “Lost Connections” about the root causes of the alarming prevalence of mental illness in many western cultures, author Johann Hari calls these “junk values” — in the same way that eating an excess of nutrient-poor, processed and sugar-laden foods can be detrimental to our physical health, consuming an excess of junk values is detrimental to mental health.

Yet from the moment we are old enough to understand language, we in the Western world receive messages day and night that cue us to prioritise extrinsic motivations. It is important to win at all costs. Beating that competitor to market is of the utmost importance. Becoming an influencer on Instagram is the key to fame and fortune. From advertising and the media, to our formal education system progressing into workplace culture, we are bombarded with narrow messages on how to be happy and successful. This reinforces a harmful narrative of what constitutes happiness and success. These extrinsic values and motivators are tied up in our economic system and modern day version of capitalism, rooted in the notion of scarcity and competition.

The ways in which our family upbringing is projected onto our views of political life is core to Lakoff’s research and theories of political change. Our family units are the first social group we become familiar with as young children, and for most of us, they are the people we spend the most time with growing up. The values that guide how we handle things and manage affairs in our families — conflicts, celebrations, rituals, etc — will naturally become part of how we handle things out there in the world as we encounter larger social groups.

Lakoff’s research draws on the Strict Father vs Nurturant Parent models of morality. In the Strict Father model of raising children and instilling a sense of morality, the father’s role is to act as the head of the household, protect the other members of the family, dole out discipline as a form of tough love, and to be respected as the ultimate authority. Reward and punishment are the mechanisms by which children learn what is wrong and right. Hard work, resourcefulness, discipline, and personal responsibility are held up as important values. It is no accident that this model of parenting is more commonly associated with families who have strong religious foundations. The same model can be applied to most major religions — an overwhelming trust in and deference to a firm yet loving God, who protects his flock, rewards obedience, and states clearly through interpretations of his word what is wrong and what is right.

The Nurturant Parent model, the parent’s job is to act as a good role model for the child, offering guidance rather than implicit instruction, and encouraging them to reach their own conclusions. It is a model that seeks to develop a sense of curiosity and confidence in the child, by offering support and nurturance rather than tough love. The gender neutral terminology of this model is expressly chosen to convey that both male and female parents, and indeed parents with more nuanced gender identities, all have an equal role to play in raising children. There is no patriarchal head of the family, and gender roles tend to be more balanced.

Of course, this is all terribly simplified and metaphorical, and as with our values most parents don’t necessarily inhibit one model or the other. Similarly, there are many other models of parenting that don’t align neatly with either of these.

But it is not a far stretch to begin to understand how someone who has experienced a Strict Father model of parenting or something akin to it, and who may hold a similar model of fundamental or evangelical faith, may be naturally drawn towards political leaders who display the same traits of authoritarian rule, apply tough love principles, and who deliver rhetoric about protecting “their people”. After all, these leaders are simply speaking to the level of morality that was instilled in them as children. Those leaders are picking their words very carefully to sow seeds of fear, distrust and anxiety. They know that in the face of a threat, whether real or imagined (and they are very good at inventing a diverse array of bogeymen), that people will respond to moral authority figures.

The left don’t talk much about morals. Progressives argue about numbers, facts and figures, reason and rationality.

So what are progressive morals and values?

Off the top of my head:

  • Equality — the idea that each person should be given an equal chance to achieve their dreams, goals and aspirations, regardless of race, class, ethnicity, social status, religion, level of physical or mental ability, place of birth, or other limiting factors.
  • Unity with nature — the idea that humans do not have the right to dominate and exploit nature, but we are rather an intrinsic part of it; we are simply one small part of a complex, living system.
  • Community, cooperation and collectivism — just as we are an inherent part of nature, no person is an island. We need and depend on each other to build happy, thriving societies, and our fates are intricately bound up with each other’s.
  • Diversity — Again, just as nature thrives in diversity, our human communities derive joy, richness of life and balance through diverse communities, rather than population monocultures.
  • Responsibility — to ourselves, to others, to the planet we call home, and to the other life that inhabits it.

These values are all closely linked with the intrinsic values mentioned earlier, which are key to holding hard conversations such as the ones that my friend asked about, in how to talk to Trump supporters. These are the conversations we need to be having. These are the values that must be embedded within the stories we tell, if we are to have a chance at mending the broken systems that we have inherited and perpetuated.

As a final thought, recall Aesop’s fable of the North Wind and the Sun:

The sun and the North wind were having an argument over which one of them was stronger. Upon seeing a traveler passing along the road beneath them wearing a heavy cloak, the sun suggested that to find out who was stronger, they should see which of them could strip the traveler of his cloak. The wind agreed and began to blow upon the road below. The traveler wrapped his cloak around him as the wind began to pick up. The harder the wind blew, growing angrier and more fierce, the tighter the traveler would wrap his cloak around his body. No matter how hard the wind blew, it could not make the traveler remove his cloak.

Then the sun began to shine warmly upon the traveler. At first its beams were gentle, but as its rays grew warmer and warmer, the traveler eventually was overcome by heat and mopping his sweaty brow, removed his cloak.

The moral of the story is of course that kindness and gentle persuasion can overcome where force and bluster cannot.

To prevent runaway climate change, bridge the increasing inequality divide, and overcome populist uprisings that only serve to further divide us, we need to stop focusing solely on trying to win people over with reason, science and intellectual argument, and get better at telling the stories about why we care so much in the first place.

We need to tell stories that shine a spotlight on our values and paint vivid pictures of our visions for the future, even when those stories may sound mythological in the context of our current world.

Progressives, it’s time to break up with rationality. By telling simple stories grounded in intrinsic values rather than overwhelming heads with facts, we have a better chance of helping conservatives and swing voters to recognise that many Progressive arguments and political priorities are motivated by the same values that they too hold themselves.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the story, feel free to clap — remember you can clap up to 50 times!

Most of my writing, I currently do for free. If you’d like to support my efforts in writing about storytelling for impact, narrative change, and systems change, you can do so through Patreon. Or alternatively, if you’d like to follow my musings, sign up for my free monthly newsletter here.

Storytelling | Narrative | Systems Change | Spoken Word | Currently writing a book on storytelling, narrative & systems change |

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