Yesterday we began exploring how and why some Americans treat religion as politics or politics as religion. Today we'll explore that topic further, but in a more generalized way that may point toward some balance points between our individual and social need for Big Narratives - global, unifying lenses through which to construct events - and our need to address real problems and find real solutions for real people.
And it being Friday, your intrepid Kossologist peeked at the stars while Woofie the Younger did his dootie. There was a common scent to both....
Religion, Politics, and Big Narratives
Yesterday we began a discussion of how and why some Americans treat religion as politics and politics as religion. Both religious beliefs and political philosophies are what I call Big Narratives: global, unifying lenses through which to view the events in our lives.
They are global in that they offer explanations and guidance on any and every aspect of human experience: relationships, work, hobbies, even the clothes we wear and the foods we eat. We find that comforting because it gives us a coherent narrative for our lives, an overarching story with a common set of heroes, villains, victims, motivations, strategies, and some proposed resolution. Absent these narratives, events can seem so complex as to be inexplicable, so random as to be unpredictable. Because we need to explain in order to predict, and to predict in order to prepare, we seek global narratives to better adapt to events, to avoid dangers and seize opportunities.
These narratives are unifying in that they offer a bridge across the me-us gap. Our social nature is neither abstract nor arbitrary; indeed, it is biological. Large parts of our brains are hardwired to enable modes of cognition that make sense only for a social species: facial recognition, mirroring, language, and others. Yet our individual nature is equally biological, down to unique collections of genetic patterns that form each person's DNA. Unifying narratives allow us to construct experiences that are similar enough that we can share them, bond to one another around that sharing, and build an us-life that is more than just a collection of individual, unrelated me-lives.
Big Narratives inevitably collide.
The collisions between Big Narratives are usually less the product of a grand plan than simply that they offer guidance for the same set of problems. That's inevitable, because by definition any Big Narrative offers guidance for any and every aspect of human experience. There is an evangelical Protestant, or a Catholic, or a Jewish, or a Muslim, or a Unitarian, or a Buddhist, or a conservative, libertarian, fascist, progressive, socialist, or other-ist narrative of anything and everything humans can experience or imagine. Raise any issue before a large enough audience, and it's likely two or more Big Narratives will offer an explanation of why the problem exists, who the heroes, villains, victims, and their motivations are, what strategies each is or may try to adopt, and what resolution should be sought.
As we discussed yesterday, we meet difficulty when Big Narratives collide. When two people or groups are constructing experience through different narratives, it seems as if they inhabit different worlds. Each can easily think the other out of touch with reality, when the problem is that each is out of touch with the others' narrative. They've gone through life writing different stories, along different patterns, in part from events unique to their own experiences. Even where the stories are "based on" common events, they are different stories, each with its own heroes, villains, victims, motivations, strategies, and resolutions. And while each offers a sense of completeness, none is truly complete.
Big Narratives simplify events.
All narratives simplify events, because the nature of narrative is to select the characters, motivations, strategies, and other elements that tell a coherent story. Events rarely make sense on their own; their dots usually don't come with convenient lines of connection. Rather we make sense of them by means of narrative, selecting and connecting dots that provide a coherent story arc in much the same way and for the same reason that a statistician might draw a "best fit" curve:
Note that very few of the data points actually fall on that "best fit" curve. It describes a pattern to the data, but you can't predict the exact data at any point along the curve from the curve itself.
Big Narratives work much the same way. They simplify and offer a pattern to events, but that comes at a cost. In order to treat the narrative as "reality" you must ignore events that don't fall on its proposed "best fit" curve. Not surprisingly, the broader a narrative's scope - the more varied the events it claims to explain - the more likely it has to ignore events that don't fit its pattern, and the more events it has to ignore.
In policy-making, the simplicity of Big Narratives comes at a heavy cost, because those non-conforming events are real problems for real people. A policy based on a Big Narrative - any Big Narrative - is likely to leave a lot of real people's real problems without any real solutions. It may work brilliantly along the "best fit" curve of the narrative, but few of our lives fall exactly on that "best fit" curve.
If the objective is to preserve the Big Narrative, those whose lives don't fall on its "best fit" curve will be ignored. Indeed, most Big Narratives have built-in rationalizations for why policy-makers should ignore the non-conforming data. "They brought it on themselves." "The greater good for the greater number." "They're lying." "They're being selfish." Anything but "This solution doesn't work for them."
Small Narratives have their own problems.
It would seem that the better solution is to adopt smaller narratives, stories that encompass and thus better fit a smaller data set. And to some extent that's true. One Size Fits All policy solutions often do become All Must Fit One Size, and when that can't happen, One Size Fits None. We end up with policies that would be perfect, if only everyone's lives fell along some "best fit" curve. But they don't, and can't, and so the "perfect" policy ends up a nightmare of coercion or futility. In many cases, smaller, local solutions, though messier in terms of any Big Narrative, would have provided more real solutions to more real people.
Yet Small Narratives aren't a complete solution either. They don't offer as much unifying, me-us cultural utility as Big Narratives. And they can encourage an amoral narrative relativism that many of us find troubling and even reject as fundamentally unjust. Americans fought a Civil War because we could not abide local solutions to the issue of slavery. The pleasant maxim of "live and let live" - a call for Small Narratives - is of little value when confronted with genocide, soul-crushing poverty, or the unchecked virulence of preventable disease. A complete commitment to Small Narratives leaves the impression of having no guiding principles.
Indeed, a complete commitment to Small Narratives is itself a kind of Big Narrative, one that says we shouldn't look for "best fit" patterns at all for fear of ignoring the non-conforming data. Pick a problem, work at it in the most locally optimized manner, and hope the whole solution - if it can be seen as a singular whole at all - will be more than the sum of its parts.
You can make the argument that George Bush's weakness was too great a commitment to Big Narratives, grand ideas proposing "best fit" curves that blithely ignored any data that didn't fit the narrative. You can make the argument that Barack Obama's weakness is too great a commitment to Small Narratives, individuated policies narrowly tailored to specific problems, lacking any grounding in or fidelity to the greater vision of any Big Narrative.
In both cases, you could find evidence to support those arguments. In both cases, you'd have to ignore evidence that doesn't. That's because while our narratives can be "based on" actual events, the narratives are always simplifications. They may be useful, even necessary. But that doesn't make them "real."
Speaking of reality, there really were stars visible this morning while Woofie the Younger was doing his dootie. The rest ... is narrative:
Aries - It's been your month, so we're blaming you for tea bagging. And taxes. If that seems unfair, lie about your birthday.
Taurus - You are ruled by Venus, which has a crushingly heavy, hot, toxic atmosphere. Just sayin'....
Gemini - You like to explore a little bit of everything, and that's good. But please explore a little bit less of my dinner next time.
Cancer - It's unfair to call you a lunatic because you are ruled by the Moon. We'll find another reason.
Leo - Don't look for the ghost that isn't hiding under your bed. You might not find that it's not there.
Virgo - Not saying you're too organized, but the ghosts that aren't under your bed are in perfectly straight lines.
Libra - Your eternal quest for an easy, uncomplicated life will be messed up by someone, again.
Scorpio - The two-headed cow in your dreams is not a cue that you need a double-cheeseburger. With bacon.
Sagittarius - After months of random screw ups, you're due for some intentional screw ups.
Capricorn - Stop complaining about your love life, or we'll start explaining why.
Aquarius - You're ruled by Saturn and Uranus. Rings around Uranus. Doesn't that figure.
Pisces - Try to turn a fantasy into reality. With a Capricorn. At least they'll hush.