Controlling the Narrative: Part 2

I just posted about a discussion I’m involved with. In the post, I shared some of my comments from the discussion and explained some introductory thoughts about controlling the narrative.

Controlling the Narrative: Part 1

I had no clear intentions when I first posted in that discussion, but once I was engaged I wanted to follow it to the end. I don’t easily give up on a discussion or a topic when something catches my curiosity, when something gets caught in my craw.

The discussion thread is interesting for a number of reasons. It’s a textbook example of how to deal with different kinds of commenters. I’ve been in online discussions for years now and I know how to play any game anyone wants to play. I know how to handle the trolls, the ideologues, the apologists, the ranters, the nitpickers, the name-callers or what ever else. I’m not above anything. If I deem it necessary (or if I’m just irritated), I’ll call names and be rude, I’ll ridicule and cajole. But I’ll also provide data and make extensive arguments, be objective or share personal anecdotes. It’s important to always be ready to shift gears and meet any person on their terms or else force them to meet you on your terms.

  • One of my strengths is that I have stamina. Few people can outlast me in a discussion, few will do more research than I will. That isn’t a boast. It’s a fact.
  • Another important ability is to be clever (if only to keep the discussion lively and entertaining). I almost always can turn around any personal attack or intellectual argument. No mercy! Take nothing personal.
  • Last but not least, try to gain control of the rules of the game, try to enforce your own narrative. Don’t necessarily hijack a thread, but don’t be afraid of hijacking a thread if it serves some purpose.

The rules are very much different if you have regular discussions with the same people (assuming you want to remain friends), but dealing with random strangers on the internet demands guerilla warfare. I’m not in that discussion to make friends. I fully realized the people in that discussion were a mix. Some more smart, some less so. Some willing to play fair, some not. I was mostly just attacked and called names. My arguments were mostly just dismissed. But I did finally force a couple of people to take my view seriously once they realized I couldn’t be scared away or ridiculed into silence.

I had my ducks in a row and not even those arguing against me could deny that. I usually begin a discussion with by listening respectfully and gaging the atmosphere. I then present my view fairly and hopefully I get a fair response. If that fails…

I pull out the big guns and I bludgeon my opponent. I will offer fact after fact, source after source, argument after argument. As long as I’m dealing with someone above the level of idiot, I will persist. And if they start treating me fairly…

I’m more than happy respond in kind. Depending on my mood, I might even apologize. If I read negative intentions that weren’t there or that they claim weren’t there, then I’ll let it go and try to seek civil discussion. I’d always rather look for common ground just as long as the other person is willing to cooperate in this endeavor.

The problem with the discussion in question is that apparently no one wanted to seek common ground with me. I entered the disucssion in the middle of it. Another commenter had linked my blog and so I went to check it out, but already my views were being attacked. So, I immediately felt on the defensive. It didn’t seem that anyone actually wanted to have a rational debate of ideas and facts. Instead, it was an ideological attack-fest with most of the people on the opposite side of my own view.

Since I couldn’t force anyone to take my view seriously, the main thing I decided to do was to seek control of the narrative and so shift the power imbalance.  I pointed out this issue of narrative in my post about the movie Avatar (Avatar: Imagination & Culture). Conservatives have in the past been very good at controlling the narrative. Even now, Fox News has dominated political discourse by various means (Fox News Channel controversies). They don’t just report the news but actively create it. They promoted the Tea Party movement by (besides Beck’s 9/12) having Fox employees cheer on crowds as they filmed or even by using footage from entirely different events to make the crowd look larger. They’ve also been so devious as to alter pictures of Democrats and liberals by, for example, yellowing teeth or broadening the nose (to make the person look like a minority).

Fox News best strategy is latching onto a story and repeating it relentlessly until the rest of the media picks it up. For example, ACORN was given the Fox News treatment and by doing so they destroyed ACORN. Later on, it was investigated and it turned out to have been a fake scandal made up out of thin air, but ACORN was still destroyed and so mission accomplished. Even now, if you ask many people, they still think the ACORN scandal was real because innocence doesn’t make for as exciting of news as does scandal.

It’s all about controlling the story. I personally prefer truth, but I respect the power of story. Truth is great and story is powerful. Combined, they can lead to new visions of society.

This is where liberals come in. Conservatives are starting to lose control of the narrative. The culture wars have lost clarity and momentum. The faux patriotism from the Bush years has soured. This is why there has been a mass exodus from the Republican party. This past year Republicans have become the party of No and nothing else. Obama’s relentless preaching of bipartisanship (even if fruitless on the practical level) led to his controlling the narrative.

Liberals have an opening here. There are many narratives that can be chosen. In the discussion I’m involved with, I was using the narrative of shifting demographics and of generational cycles. Strauss and Howe are the guys who first told this story which they’ve titled The Fourth Turning and it has gained a fair amount of traction in the media and culture. Another narrative I like to use is that of Spiral Dynamics which presents an evolutionary view of human culture and it’s a very potent vision of what society can become (Bill Clinton was familiar with it).  George Lakoff has spent a lot of time putting forth his ideas about framing and politics which are insightful, but I don’t know that they’re ultimately compelling. Michael Moore has been one of the greatest proponents of the story about working class progressivism which has struck a major blow to the self-identity of the conservative movement.

Another area of liberal narrative is the New Age (which has incorporated many narratives into its own meta-narrative). I was raised in New Thought Christianity (which was a precursor of the New Age) and I’ve been delighted to see how New Thought theology has slipped into both evangelical Christianity and even into the mainstream culture in general by way of the New Age. Oprah has been a great proponent of the New Age vision (and I suppose she can be seen as a manifestation of the feminist narrative). A bit earlier than Oprah, Joseph Campbell helped introduce a new vision of religion and culture (his Hero’s Journey having inspired Star Wars).

Avatar is, of course, a great narrative and goes along with liberal narrative of many other movies (Star Wars, The Matrix, etc). In this time of burgeoning technology (3-d, internet, etc), movies are becoming more powerful and more widespread. Some other liberal narratives come from the comic book tradition (which was oppressed by the rightwing comic books code for decades). Some notable examples are X-Men and Watchmen. The greatest narrative of any entertainment might very well be Star Trek: The Next Generation which portrayed a future liberal utopian society.

Liberals have an opening here. The conservative narrative has been slowly waning and the liberal narrative has been slowly waxing. With Obama’s message of hope and change and his vision of bipartisanship (which the Millennials resonate with), liberals finally have the upper hand. The story that gets heard now will be the story that dominates for the next few decades (as the culture war narrative dominate the last few decades). I base that prediction on the narrative of The Fourth Turning. In a 1997 interview (Strauss’ Prophetic Words), Strauss forecast that:

“What could happen right at the start of the Fourth Turning is whichever dominant cultural view is in power when the emergency strikes that group could be out of power for a whole generation.”

3 thoughts on “Controlling the Narrative: Part 2

  1. Hi Ben, as an avid Trekkie who rather shudders at TOS and TNG I would say that the latter three series were much better at opening up thoughts, but still of course very much limited by the culture of origin, which is not very liberal but more centrist or slightly left of centre, as you rightly point out in one of your blogs.

    These two blogs at controlling the narrative are very well done. I admire your persistence and lack of defensive out there in hostile territory. I went to look at the forum you mentioned and don’t think I could do what you did.

    • I like most of the Star Trek shows, but TNG happened to be on tv at a time when my mind was young and impressionable. It made me think.

      It’s an odd show. Very American. There is the ideals of Democracy and a utopian vision of some kind of socialism (which is never clarified in the show as far as I remember), but the emphasis of the show is the portrayal of the Federation as a militaristic soft imperialism.

      It has the internal contradiction of all American culture. This entire country and it’s constitution is one of the most progressive experiments ever attempted on such a largescale. However, the first immigrants were religious zealots, wealthy landowners, indentured servants and slaves. Wealthy landowners oppressing the poor and powerless generally isn’t a recipe for progressivism, but many of these early immigrants also included law-breakers, trouble-makers, freedom-seekers, & generally any rebellious type of person. England at the time was getting rid of all it’s unwanted and sending them mostly to places such as America and Australia.

      So, ever since, the US has been a potent mix of progressivism and tradition, a conflict between the powerful and oppressed. That is the narrative of “America”.

      I’m glad my controlling the narrative meets the high standards of your approval. 😉 One thing I definitely have is persistance… at least about certain things when I’m in certain moods. You probably couldn’t do what I did because you’re too nice, friendly and easygoing. lol

      I’m not always nice when it comes to a discussion like that, but I did manage to not take it personally. I understood that it had nothing to do with me since the conflict in that discussion started before me and obviously it’s a conflict that has a national context.

      I plan on writing one more blog in the series. I wanted to consider the moral component. I touched upon it when I wrote about the connection between truth and story. I too often think that people attempt to control the narrative for reasons that are less than worthy. It’s easy to justify that the ends justify the means. Yes, politics is ruthless, but I’m not a politician. I don’t think the truth should be sacrificed for narrative. If the truth contradicts your favored narratie, then revise and improve your narrative.

      I just came across an article that discusses this in different terms:

      http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_high_cost_of_conservative_intellectual_bankruptcy

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