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The essential power of personal stories of suffering as an essential beginning to the painful, complex process to reach the right.


Pick your poison: please peruse one of these personal stories before going on:

- Environmental degradation by big business

- Climate change (or, if you like, the flurry of overwhelming facts method to get across the same thing)

- Abusive capitalist tactics

- Creative progress on welfare

- The systematic tragedy of mandatory minimum sentences

There is powerful evidence of neurological, genetic difference between conservatives and liberals. We have evolved naturally for different ends, as I discuss here. There are also excellent, less subtle treatments of this fact cropping up all over the web nowadays. This powerful evidence should give us a clue to not trust our biases about conservatives as readily as we do. We are finally making inroads in understanding them better, because of data that falls naturally from this physical difference from how we are wired, how we think.

So- how do we reach the right, the great “conspiracy of evil”, those who live in a world “way over there”, so far from our reality? I don’t know all the answers, but I know one. You reach them the same way I’ve reached you here- with stories. Stories of people who, through little or no fault of their own, are suffering through tragic inattention and poor execution. Although conservatives tend to be more wedded to the past and the present than us, they are also concerned about issues of injustice and inequality. It is true that the conservative mind tends to be less sensitive to these things, but we tend to overemphasize that statistics-based truth. We get frustrated because we tend to respond much quicker to injustice. We overlook, as I’ve discussed elsewhere at length, that conservatives have a different, very big job to accomplish that’s taking the vast majority of their attention: they are focused on how America is crumbling through the decimation of the family, fiscal responsibility, and an inattention to our laws and traditions. They’re running a little scared about modern society’s existing problems. You’re asking them to focus on issues that, to them, are of much less import.

They also have a natural strength that is a weakness in some ways: they focus on their own. Studies show that all of us are much more charitable and helpful with each other within smaller social groupings: conservatives understand this and use that fact much more integrally than we do. “We are the world” is never their anthem: that’s ours. They are much more likely to resonate to “We are Louisianans”, or “We are the members of the St. Paul United Methodist Church”: there’s power in specificity that conservatives understand.

You can’t really emphasize caring for broad groups and, at the same, time, really focus on your own. We all ‘make a choice’ neurologically, it turns out, to emphasize one or the other. The only good way to begin to break through the natural myopia that is the back side of the strength to focus on their groups well-being is through personal story. Personal stories provide a catalytic combination of emotional content and facts. Our attraction to them is rooted in our tribal origins. As it becomes clear to us how terrible conditions are in, say, Memphis, it becomes harder and harder to separate ourselves from them, even with the aid of distance and racial disparity. This is less true for conservatives than liberals, but it is still true for them. We want to quit on them because they’re harder to reach, when the irony is that we mostly just have to try harder- be impacted enough by our truth to keep the issue at the forefront. Powerful, repetitive stories are our best way to begin that fight for attention.

Stories have an effect on anyone who stops long enough to hear them. None of the suffering in the above stories is debatable, though solutions and unavoidability are quite subject to interpretation. So what do we do when they won’t bother to stop and listen? We tell more stories, and we tell them better. We tell them until we ourselves hear them clearly, until their power, their repetition, their energy spills over to finally touch those outside of us, so busy on their other goals. In fact, it’s the repetition that is absolutely key with conservatives, who will often shrug when faced with, say, a terrible death in a hospital. Unlike many of us, conservatives recognize that “stuff happens”: they’ll assume, often correctly, that an isolated incident is just that. It is the job of the left to get across that some injustices are merely unseen, not isolated. Repetition of pertinent stories is the only way around that block.

We often default to a kind of management-by-whining on the left. I have witnessed at least as much exaggeration of fact on the left as I have on the right to enact change: in the end, that approach is stillborn with the right. They can sense duplicity very, very well, especially among liberals. We also tend to talk in abstract about real problems- the great majority of climate change and poverty discussion is a prime example, where the actual emotional content, so available to us on the left with abstract buzz words, lands with a thud for conservatives. Our biases teach us that abstract argument and explaining general problems are enough around our sacred values- openness and kindness. They are not- not by a long shot. When we stick wtih overall commentary, we are cheating the right and center out of getting the picture of, say, how to deal with joblessness in a way useful to them.

The common arguments on the left that the right ignores science and is uncaring are much more fiction than truth. They are often only impressed with a great preponderance of science, it is true, largely as an overreaction to our high enthusiasm for wrenching change, a battle in which we often try to wield science like a bludgeoning instrument, unwilling to reveal either uncertainties or the societal costs of the change we propose. The myth that they don’t care really irritates them, and it should, because they care for their own, however they define ‘their own’. They are very busy putting their money where their mouth is in their own communities, where they are, statistically, far more active in charity concerns, including non-religious ones, than those on the left.

Individual stories with high amounts of bias can be a very mixed success. Erin Brockavich and her battle with PG&E comes to mind, where through sheer bombast a large settlement was achieved on behalf of small town residents: the science abuses used, and the giant law firm bonuses afterwards, developed well-publicized, widespread resentment on the right. I find it difficult to blame them for the resentment.

Repeated, unvarnished stories- unrelenting in character, number, and clarity- are the key to reaching the right. Enough stories makes a situation real, and worth addressing alongside their other values. Well-told stories are also the key to energizing the supportive activism we need for action in our communities and political halls. And take comfort: we are not talking about trying to reach the far right: we are not capable of doing so. We are actually talking about finally reaching a widening center and the center-right, many of whom share a great deal of our interest in concerns outside of their own inner circles and communities. They stand in the middle, confused and alienated at all the mortar fire flying over their heads between the far wings of our parties. They’re waiting for us to tell our stories in an inspiring, clear, relentless way. If we do that well and often, we will find a way to the complex, challenging compromises we need to achieve, to an America we’re more proud of.

Please post any links you can to similar stories in the comments for us. I will always promulgate them elsewhere as I can.


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