Monday, January 07, 2008

Do we need a new narrative?

Maybe I am trying to hard and so finding connections that are not really there. This is one of those times where the book I read seems to connect to the blogs I read.

The book, in this case, is Bryan Caplan's The Myth of the Rational Voter. (short, early? version here). I have been doing some reading in Green Economics and Caplan's discussion of voting behavior in economic terms seemed to fit. His conclusions were that voting behavior is rationally unrational. In other word, it can better be explained after we stop expecting it to be rational as we vote against our self interest time and time again in very predictable ways. Just consider the way that illegal immigration will emerge as having a far greater role in the upcoming presidential election than it deserves.

Caplan uses the term preferences over beliefs to describe the fact that often we prefer to believe one thing about the way that the world works than the opposite, even when the facts say that we are wrong. The easiest example, in fact the one that he uses to describe how much this influences voting behavior, is that of the amount of foreign aid given by the US Government. Most people think that this is a huge problem when, in fact, it is less than 1% of government spending. Clearly, we should not give much credence to a Rush Limbaugh rant against foreign aide.

Having just finished this, I stumbled across Stephen Smoliar at The Rehearsal Studio where he comments on the media and the stories it tells: Hate Makes the World Go Round.
...the social system itself keeps going with the persistence of that pink bunny that commercialism has now embedded in our consciousness. I suspect the reason it prevails is that, while those who make it are always making messes, our culture seems to have been endowed with a talent for compensating for those messes. In other words, if we have any common goal at all, it is to apply our lives and fortunes to get out of a mess once we wake up to the fact that the mess is biting our collective asses.
I wonder if this talent is recognized by all and leads back to Caplan's problem. According to Caplan, the reason that we do not make wise choices is because the "cost" to an individual of a bad choice is very small, often orders of magnitude less than the "cost" to make a more informed decision. The personal cost to drive a gas guzzling SUV might be minimal but the social cost when a 1 million do is very high. So, the individual does not react "rationally" and prefers to believe that global warming is not real for any number of reasons.
All this, of course, is anathema to not just [journalist Bob} Franken but the whole culture of the mainstream media; and the problem has nothing to do with whether or not those media are being run by a handful of conglomerates more concerned with quarterly reports than with the concept of a "public trust." Rather, the problem is a narratological one: the need to deliver a "story" that not only addresses the classic 5WH formula of journalism (who, where, when, what, why, how) but brings the ingredients of that formula to some form of closure. Closure requires that any mess be "cleaned up" and delivered in a "neater package," under the assumption that readers do not want to be left feeling that the mess is still there.
If we indeed want to bring a larger electorate to a Green understanding, we may not be able to accomplish this only with facts and doomsday scenarios. We need a new narrative, one of challenge and triumph. It does not lead to utopia, but gives us a fighting chance to go on and meet new challenges. In any case, there are those who consider Utopia's boring.

1 comment:

Orval Osborne said...

Absolutely right, we need a narrative. Reading the book "Greening of America" by Charles Reich changed my life by giving me the narrative of "Consciousness 3." 1 and 2 sort of correspond to the Republicans and Democratic Party narratives.

George Lakoff is another saying the narrative is where its at. "Facts bounce off if they don't fit into the narrative," as he says in "Don't Think of an Elephant."

Utopias are narratives. One of my favorites is the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. The society that develops on Mars is the Green Party utopia.