How We Can Inspire People to Care About Social Change & Feel Good About Themselves in the Process?

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice.

If the Wisconsin struggle between the unions and Governor Walker showed us anything, it was that the needs that animate people around progressive causes are not simply needs for money or financial security. The need for community and its accompanying feeling of belonging and the need to connect with something larger than the self, the need for meaning, were every bit as important in generating the special enthusiasm and emotional engagement seen for weeks in and around the state capitol in Madison.

This has been the experience of the Left for generations. Movements that engaged people at a deep level had the most staying power and the most impact. At this level, people are motivated by a range of needs other than those for economic security, including needs for meaning, connectedness, recognition, and agency.

Unfortunately, despite evidence that this is so, progressives are often blind to the importance of these needs.

People only become active in social change movements because these movements speak to deep longings that go far beyond those for economic justice. These needs interact, overlap and rise and fall in importance depending on the situation. The civil rights movement spoke to a hunger to be connected to something bigger than the self. But the institution that provided the base of this movement, the black church, thrived on its power to provide recognition in dozens of way to its members.

The women’s movement initially based itself on the relational power of small groups, arguing that personal needs and suffering can form the basis of a political agenda. The highest periods of member engagement in the life of a labor union occur when people feel a sense of agency in standing up to a boss or during the height of a campaign. As Cesar Chavez once observed, “When a man or woman, young or old, takes a place on a picket line for even a day or two, he will never be the same again.”

And, yet, this transparent reality is hidden from view in the work of organizers and leaders of progressive organizations who too often treat their staff, members and public audiences as if most of these needs are irrelevant. Instead, members and potential members are seen as motivated only by narrow economic self-interest with staff treated as one-dimensional means to fight for that end.

Corporations have understood the crucial motivational role of so-called “soft” — that is, non-economic — needs apart from the paycheck for decades. Almost every book on leadership published in the last 20 years emphasizes the importance of relationships and recognition. Huge studies have been done on companies that have succeeded and failed in an attempt to come up with the secret sauce of success, and invariably, the answer involves the ways in which the culture of a company engages employees at levels above and beyond compensation. In a recent article, Arianna Huffington reports on a similar emphasis in advertising today, with more and more corporations explicitly touting their social engagement and desire to speak to a higher purpose.

Too often, the Left discovers its campaigns for economic justice and various aspects of the social safety net fall on cynical or resigned ears, even among our system’s greatest victims. Conservative groups, on the other hand, often seem better able to connect with these same “victims,” even though the connection seems to progressives as patently opposed to these victims’ economic self-interest. The growth of mega-churches, the rise of the evangelical movement, and the recent popularity of the Tea Party all involve people drawn to communities that support a political and economic system inimical to their own needs for material security. The reasons have little to do with anyone’s economic bottom line. They do so because they appear to address multiple levels of suffering and multiple needs.

So, what do people need? Are we saying they don’t need material security and economic justice?

Of course not. Recognition doesn’t put food on the table, and a sense of meaning won’t stop the bank from foreclosing on your house. The American Dream, an ideal in which work offers retirement security and medical benefits, and generates enough income so our kids can go to college and on to a better life, is still and always should be, central to a progressive agenda. Structural unemployment, mal-distribution of income and wealth, and the economically debilitating effects of racism and sexism are blights to the human body and spirit. A movement for social change that doesn’t target this blight will be irrelevant to a huge sector of the population.

When people’s survival needs, defined in this way, are frustrated, they suffer enormously. They get sick. In extreme cases, research shows their brains actually atrophy as the result of deprivation. Further, they often internalize their “failure,” blame themselves, and get depressed. They feel inadequate and inferior. They suffer from the meritocratic myth that one’s economic and material status is an expression of how deserving one is. A movement that doesn’t speak directly to economic suffering and deprivation, whether absolute or relative, will not only be irrelevant to millions of people, but will take its place among other pie-in-the-sky movements, usually religious ones, that offer moral or spiritual bromides to the victims of material deprivation rather than directly seeking to end that deprivation.

However, because the facts of inequality are obvious and objectively measurable, progressives tend to believe that if we rationally present these facts to people, they will endorse our progressive agenda. The narrative goes: If we could only tell our story about class privilege, Wall Street and government corruption, and economic exploitation to working people, they would see reality more clearly. This narrative is naïve and patronizing, and it’s as old as it is wrong. It suggests that if only we had enough organizers (get enough people “on the doors”) who could explain to people how the banks are screwing them, they’d want to join our movement. The implication is that “the people” are lacking knowledge or are suffering from what Marxists used to call “false consciousness.” Our job as progressives is to help people “see the light.”

This assumption is empirically false and at odds with everything we know about psychology, learning and neurobiology. Feelings matter, not facts. As political scientist Drew Westen and linguist George Lakoff have argued, the facts about inequality and injustice don’t necessarily drive people to the Left unless they are embedded in a message that speaks to deep feelings and values. Values and non-economic needs matter, not rational descriptions of economic reality. People have a range of desires and needs other than simple physical ones and unless these desires and needs are understood and addressed, logic, facts, rationality, and education will all land on deaf ears.

Thus, in our fight for economic justice, our narrow view of what people want and how they listen hoists us on our own petard. It systematically gets in the way of developing healthy organizations and strategies that have a chance of engaging people’s passions. And without engaging people’s passions, we will never create a movement that has real political power.

If we take our blinders off, we see or read about evidence of the foundational importance of non-economic needs and values every day. A terrorist commits suicide for the sake of Allah. A monk lights himself on fire to protest against a dictatorship. An Indian demonstrator at a salt mine walks directly into the violent batons of the British Army in non-violent resistance for the cause of independence. An African-American marcher sits down in front of Bull Connor’s dogs. A marine risks his life for his buddy; a parent does the same for a child. Babies who are fed but not held get sick and can even die.

People endure hardship all the time out of love for their families or partners. I’ve worked with investment bankers who have quit high-paying jobs for the benefits of working in environments that are more collegial, kinder and less fixated on the immediate bottom line. If given the choice between more money and more recognition and autonomy, most people give up the money. Many activists we’ve worked with in labor unions routinely give up higher paying jobs in the private sector to work for social change. The centrality of non-economic human needs and longings are hiding in plain sight.

To the extent that our “common sense” twists Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs to mean that we can’t gratify “higher” needs until we’ve addressed more “basic” survival needs, we’re misled and our organizations doomed to founder.

Such a bias not only ignores a mountain of psychological research, it also contradicts our own basic human experience. It’s not just they who have these five needs; it’s us. It’s not just workers who need more agency, or children who need more recognition, or members who need to have a greater sense of meaning; it’s us.

Too often, the organizers, activists, and leaders on the Left frame their work as being in the service of others. We’re trying to help other people, the less advantaged, the powerless, the victimized. In so doing, we routinely leave ourselves out. We deny that we have the same economic and non-economic needs of those we’re allegedly fighting for. We fight for their right to leisure time but deny it to ourselves. We try to help them feel efficacious and inspired, but work for organizations that provide neither.

These needs are what it means to be human. They are universal. They animate us to do good things and their unhealthy frustration can lead us to do bad things. The human locomotive of motivation carries these five needs, the existence or importance of which can no longer be debated. The only question for progressives is whether we get onboard.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is a co-founder of the Institute4Change, an interdisciplinary group aiming to provide help to progressive organizations around leadership development and organizational change. He has published extensively on issues at the intersection of psychology, politics, and culture (

Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative | Evolutionary logic of collective action pt.IV

Last week during a debate with Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at George Washington University, Governor Howard Dean offered a compelling narrative about immigration in the United States:

I don’t believe we ought to demonize people who are trying to do the best they can…  How many people in this hall have American Indian blood in you?  Raise your hand…  Everybody else is an immigrant!  The reason this country is such an extraordinary success is because we got those people who dared to leave their homes, who dared to do something different … who took some risks.  And their descendants are all here.  Every American family has a narrative about somebody who worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees – and their grandchildren and great grandchildren got to go to George Washington University [location of debate].  We gotta keep that alive!

…When the Irish got here, no Irish needed apply.  When the Jews got here, they couldn’t go to the Ivy League.  When the Italians got here, they had to labor on the tunnels underneath New York.  Everybody had to face this.  Isn’t it time we stopped and accepted people who want to make America great, and let them be citizens again?

Why does Howard Dean’s answer resonate?  Why is it a potent narrative?  What are the narrative components?  What emotions and cognitive frames does he prime and connect with?

And how has our evolution as a species-a process that has been happening in the context of humans living together in groups for hundreds of thousands of years-shaped whether and how different frames and messages resonate?

In this essay, I will examine rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive framing within the immigration struggle in the United States – through a framework that supposes that evolutionary theory may have something to offer (to our understanding of collective behavior and break down of political strategy).

In this series (Evolutionary logic of collective action) I have been looking at multilevel selection theory as a framework for understanding the evolution of cooperative behavior within human groups and competition between groups.  Where dominant evolutionary frameworks (in line with rational choice theory) often problematize cooperative and “altruistic” behavior, multilevel selection theory explains it.  In short, if evolutionary selection only occurred between individuals, then the most selfish and aggressive individuals would have the evolutionary advantage, and others-serving behavior would be evolutionarily disadvantageous (i.e. altruistic traits should breed themselves out, and selfishness should abound).  However, groups comprised of cooperative individuals should logically have an evolutionary advantage over groups comprised of selfish individuals; the former would work together for the collective good, while the latter would be self-destructive as a group.  So, to the extent that evolutionary selection happens between groups, cooperative and others-oriented behavior should be evolutionarily advantageous, and selfishness disadvantageous.  This, according to David Sloan Wilson and other multilevel selection theorists, helps explain how bee colonies evolved into highly cooperative “super-organisms”, and also how cooperation and compassion evolved in humans.

In David Sloan Wilson’s words [2004: The New Fable of Bees]:

…our ancestors participated in family groups, gathering groups, hunting groups, raiding groups, and so on.  Almost everything was done in a social context; to be alone was to be in grave danger. …opportunities existed to increase the fitness of oneself relative to others in the same group, or to increase the fitness of one’s group relative to other groups.  We evolved the behavioral propensities to capitalize on both options.  We also evolved the propensity to limit the self-serving behaviors of our social partners, thereby concentrating natural selection at the between-group level…

The theory is not an entirely rosy-eyed view of humanity, as it also suggests an evolved capacity for aggression toward threats to the group (external and internal), as I discussed in War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection.  This faculty for collective aggression could be activated by perceived threats, as well.  And this may be the primal foundation of xenophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry.  My hope here is to explore what triggers this kind of reaction, and, more importantly, what can activate empathetic behavior instead.

If our species evolved to be highly group-oriented over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, then our group-oriented behavior should logically be at least as instinctive as it is conscious; it should be embedded in our DNA and into the structure and processes of our pre-conscious brains.  In Humans: not just selfish, I suggested that humans’ evolved group-oriented instincts should have profound implications for what kinds of messages will tend to resonate on a preconscious (or primal) level:

Consider, for example, how the public messaging of social justice campaigns might benefit from applying multilevel selection theory at the cognitive level. Understanding how central group identity is to human motivation, we may want to focus our message framing on defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of “the group”; claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group; positively projecting ourselves and our allies as protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and inoculating against our opposition (e.g. painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group). There you have a basic framework for campaign messaging that is informed by a theory of social evolution…

…which I will now apply to rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive frames in the immigration struggle; first to an example of a conservative immigration narrative, then to Howard Dean’s example of a progressive narrative.

Anatomy of a fear narrative

While conservatives make fear-based appeals on most political issues, these appeals tend to be interspersed with appeals to other emotions as well.  Conservative rhetoric that supports laissez-faire economic policies, for example, encourages fear of so-called “big government” repressing individual freedom, but it also appeals strongly to emotionally positive values and concepts of freedom.  In the dominant conservative narrative about immigration though, fear is hardly mitigated by other appeals.  Fear is the cornerstone.  Every argument is at best once removed from fear – fear of foreigners, fear of terrorism, fear of freeloaders, fear of losing one’s job, fear of losing one’s cultural identity, fear of losing privileges, etc.

The power of these fear messages is less about their appeal to individuals and more about how they trigger an aggressive primal group reaction.

Rather than examining the most brash and unabashedly bigoted conservative rhetoric within the current immigration struggle-which, sadly, there is no short supply of-I will analyze a more intellectually developed and nuanced conservative argument; that of Samuel P. Huntington in the introduction to his article, The Hispanic Challenge:

The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and linguistic enclaves-from Los Angeles to Miami-and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril. (Huntington 2004)

Working through the progression I outlined in Humans: not just selfish (quoted above), I will now examine first how Huntington’s message framing defines the parameters, interests, and narrative of ‘”the group”; then how it claims and contests symbols that are meaningful to the group; then how it positively projects protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group; and finally how it paints a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group.

“Defining the parameters, interests, and narrative of ‘the group'”

In this narrative, the nation is “the group” onto which we are to project our identity and our group-oriented instincts.  The borders of the United States serve as the physical parameters that define the group.  Characteristics of the dominant culture (“mainstream U.S. culture”) serve as another kind of parameter.  The display of “Anglo-Protestant values” is a signifier of one’s rightful place in the group.  Conversely, failure to adequately display these dominant values casts doubt on the transgressing individual’s rightful place.  The interest of the group, thus defined, is of course to maintain its coherency and self-conception, as well as privileges it has hitherto taken for granted (e.g. being able to converse in one’s own language all day every day).

Interestingly, “past immigrant groups” are claimed as part of “the group”.  This preempts (and inoculates against) the progressive argument that America is a nation of immigrants, by distinguishing between “past immigrant groups” who are now included as part of the group, and “Mexicans and other Latinos” who are framed as external to the group.

“Claiming and contesting symbols that are meaningful to the group”

The “American dream” is the symbol explicitly named in the example.  This meme carries a whole dominant story of America; of hard work ultimately paying off, etc.  The mention of the American dream brings to mind images of the American flag as well.  The American dream belongs to “the group.”  We are to think of it as ours; its mention functions as a device that reinforces the parameters, interests, and narrative of our group.

“Positively projecting protagonists who are acting benevolently and heroically in the service and interests of the group”

The protagonists are hard-working Americans, plain and simple.  That may seem self-congratulatory, but the protagonists in most good stories tend to be just that for the intended audience.  Again, the mention of “Anglo-Protestant values” and “the American dream” in the same sentence carries a familiar story of hard work, dedication, commitment, and even righteousness (“Protestant values”).

“Painting a picture of a malevolent opponent who seeks to destroy, undermine, subvert, or take advantage of the good will of, the group”

The paragraph under discussion does not paint anyone as intentionally malevolent.  Rather it induces anxiety in far more sophisticated fashion than overt demonization.  First, and perhaps most obvious, is the use of two explicitly anxiety-related words (bolded): “The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens…” and “The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.”

But what are they threatening?

“…to divide the United States.”

Dividing the United States would certainly entail undermining the group.

Perhaps an even more potent message though is that they (“Mexicans and other Latinos”) are explicitly “rejecting” our “values.”  Notice that their “linguistic enclaves” are “from Los Angeles to Miami.”  Why reference Los Angeles and Miami?  Why are they not instead “from rural Iowa to upstate Maine”?  The intent to conjure negative fear-based stereotypes of specific urban areas should be obvious.  Mentioning rural Iowa or upstate Maine might break the reader out of the realm of stereotype.  The reader might then ask, “Why are Mexicans and Latinos emigrating to rural Iowa and upstate Maine?”  And he or she might answer the question, “They must be going there to find work.”  They might wonder about the kind of work available in these areas, and they might wonder if it includes farm work.  Farm work is certainly hard work in the story of America.  For that matter, farms are an iconic symbol of America.  Associating “Mexicans and other Latinos” with rural America, farming, and hard work could undermine the whole conservative frame.  The negative and false stereotype of lazy and freeloading Mexicans-intentionally evoked with the assertion that they are “rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream”-loses its power.

Every rhetorical appeal in the example is fear-based: fear of a group divided; fear of people who do not work as hard as the rest of us and thereby take advantage of the good will of the group; fear of urban violence and stereotypes; fear of losing our country, our language, our coherent and familiar group identity.  Key to the potency of each appeal is that the nation-the United States and “mainstream U.S. culture”-is “the group” onto which we are to project our identity and our group-oriented instincts.  Then, within this cognitive frame of national identity, immigrants are negatively cast as both external threat and internal parasite in relation to “the group”.  If we evolved in tribal groups in which individual survival depended almost entirely upon the success of the group, then these two things-external threat and internal subversion-are precisely what we should have evolved to fear, despise, and act forcefully and collectively against.  This lens can explain why conservatives do not need to mitigate fear-based appeals (with appeals to other values and emotions) when discussing immigration, and why immigrants have been such an easy and popular political target in many countries and contexts throughout recorded history.

Anatomy of a progressive narrative

A progressive challenge to the dominant conservative immigration frame requires an asymmetrical narrative battle.  The conservative arsenal may only contain one weapon-fear-but it is a highly potent weapon.  Progressives need to use other narrative and framing tools, and to inoculate against fear.

While progressives should take care to not feed into conservative frames (a theme I will return to), still a progressive immigration narrative cannot entirely disregard the national framework (nation as “group” that one identifies with).  We live in a nation, after all, whose symbols surround us – symbols that mean a lot to most people in our society.  Indeed, the national frame (nation as group) is activated every time one sees an American flag.  Immigrants must positively recast themselves-and must be positively recast by their progressive allies-within that national identity framework.

Howard Dean’s immigration narrative offered a compelling appeal that accomplished such a recasting.  Here’s that quote again:

I don’t believe we ought to demonize people who are trying to do the best they can…  How many people in this hall have American Indian blood in you?  Raise your hand…  Everybody else is an immigrant!  The reason this country is such an extraordinary success is because we got those people who dared to leave their homes, who dared to do something different … who took some risks.  And their descendants are all here.  Every American family has a narrative about somebody who worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees – and their grandchildren and great grandchildren got to go to George Washington University [location of debate].  We gotta keep that alive!

…When the Irish got here, no Irish needed apply.  When the Jews got here, they couldn’t go to the Ivy League.  When the Italians got here, they had to labor on the tunnels underneath New York.  Everybody had to face this.  Isn’t it time we stopped and accepted people who want to make America great, and let them be citizens again?

In Dean’s national frame, the parameters of the group are far more permeable than in the conservative narrative.  Immigrants are not only included in the group; they are welcomed and embraced.  The group is, after all-with the important exception of American Indians-comprised entirely of immigrants.  Immigrants themselves become the protagonists with which we identify.  Today’s immigrants are like our grandparents and great grandparents who “worked hard, came up from the bottom, scrubbed floors on their knees,” so that we can enjoy the opportunities that we have partially inherited from their hard work.

This story effectively counters the conservative narrative that frames immigrants as both external threat and internal parasite.  How can someone be an external threat if he is welcomed into the group, included as an integral part of its self-conception and identity?  And how can someone be a freeloader (internal parasite) when she is working hard and scrubbing floors on her knees.

Dean also inoculates against the opposition’s fear-based frame.  He doesn’t name Mexican and Latino immigrants by name, but instead invokes Irish, Italian, and Jewish people – in effect saying that demonization against a particular group of people is as arbitrary and cruel today as it was a hundred years ago (when such discrimination was aimed at people who are now considered “part of the group,” even by conservatives).  The villain in Dean’s narrative is not named explicitly, but inferred: anyone who would “demonize people who are trying to do the best they can,” and anyone who refuses to accept “people who want to make America great.”  Here the immigrant is cast as the patriot who wants to make America great.  The people who are anti-immigrant are the ones who stand in the way of America’s greatness.  Immigrants are the heroes of the narrative, and we see our best selves in them.

As far as symbols go, the American flag can just as well be claimed by progressives and by immigrants themselves, as was abundantly clear in the massive pro-immigrant rallies and marches that exploded across the United States in 2006.  Waving the flag essentially says, “This flag is ours too, and we will contest your misuse of it for hatred and bigotry.  The story of America is a story of immigrants.”

All of the above poses a critically important contesting of conservative hegemony within the national identity framework.  However, a national identity frame (nation as group we are to identify with) should not be the only progressive narrative strategy, and perhaps not even the primary one.  An effective progressive immigration narrative must also appeal to other kinds of group identities and must prime other cognitive frames.  Enlisting group identities that transcend national, racial and cultural boundaries are critical for this task.

Class identity (one’s economic class as the “group” one identifies with), for example, has historically been key to forging class-based solidarity between immigrant and (supposedly) “non-immigrant” workers.  Dean subtly evokes this frame by repeated references to hard work and labor.

Similarly, the “one human family” story that is central to so many religious narratives likely accounts (at least in part) for the high participation of many religious bodies in immigration solidarity and reform efforts. In both class identity and “human family” identity, “the group” extends beyond the borders of nations.  Thus the very concept of “immigrant” is rendered impotent as a pejorative in the conservative frame.  We are all workers, human beings, children of God – doing the best we can, which sometimes understandably requires moving from one place to another.

When the concept of nation loses primacy as the thing we project our concept of group onto-at least in relation to the issue of immigration-then the arbitrary borders of nations cannot effectively draw the boundaries of identity.  The “circle of compassion” is thereby expanded, and the so-called “immigrant” cannot easily be cast as an outsider, foreigner, or external threat.  For something to qualify as an external threat, it must first be perceived as being external – not the case in a narrative that frames a class-based, religious-based, or humanity-based group identity.

The power of the conservative narrative on immigration relies heavily on its ability to demonize and other-ize immigrants in order to make people fear them.  It is difficult, however, to conjure fear of the foreign if the foreign becomes familiar and the “outsider” becomes integrated into the definition of the group.  It is difficult to elicit fear of a stereotype if that stereotype is shattered.  It is therefore critically important that Americans see immigrants and hear their personal stories as much as possible.  The cause of progressive immigration reform needs established leaders like Howard Dean as allies who boldly frame the national debate, but, probably more than anything else, Americans need to hear the unmitigated stories directly from immigrants themselves.  This should be a central principle in a narrative strategy for progressive immigration reform.

Not feeding hostile cognitive frames

In George Lakoff’s groundbreaking book Don’t Think of an Elephant, the title itself makes the central point of the book: telling someone to not think of an elephant is an ineffective strategy for trying to get them to not think of an elephant!  The book critiques how the Democratic Party’s messaging had been defensive for many years, unwittingly carrying conservative cognitive frames.  Republicans characteristically accused Democratic politicians of being for “big government,” “taxing and spending,” being “weak on national security,” and many other negative-sounding things.  And Democrats’ characteristic reply essentially amounted to “No, we’re not!  We’re not for ‘big government!’  Just watch – we’ll cut social programs too!  We’re not weak on national security!  Just watch, we’ll keep military spending right where it is.”

This kind of response only feeds the overarching hegemonic conservative narrative and frame.  Conservative values gain legitimacy when the supposed “opposition party” (the Democrats) parrots their words, phrases and frames.

It is important for progressive change agents who are working to shift immigration policy to not fall into this trap.  The most obvious thing progressives should stop doing is referring to people as “illegal” or “illegals.”  Regardless of the technical legality of individual cases, the label of “illegal” cognitively associates immigrants with criminality.  This label is so pervasive in the national dialogue that progressives often repeat it unconsciously without any malintent.  (Check out the Colorlines campaign to Drop the “I-Word”.)  Regardless of intentions, cognitively associating immigrants with criminality pegs them, (within a group identity framework) as internal threat/parasite, and the primal emotions we feel (as groups) toward criminality and internal subversion become our emotional reaction at the mention of immigrants.

In another example, the slogan “Immigrants are not terrorists!” unwittingly carries the negative frame of terrorism, cognitively associating immigrants with terrorism.  Right there they are, together in the same sentence!  This reinforces the idea of immigrants as external threat, and evokes the corresponding emotions.

There is a potent narrative about immigration that is available to progressives; we should stick with it and not be reactive.


In this essay I applied the ideas developed in the previous three parts of this series to the contemporary immigration struggle in the United States, examining rhetoric, narratives, and cognitive frames.  My approach may be a complementary departure from cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s theoretical framework of family-based moral systems.  Where Lakoff emphasizes the nuclear family as the conceptual unit that individuals metaphorically project onto the state-which tends to determine essential political morality, based predominantly on childhood experience of a strict father or nurturant parent model of the family-here the more generic concept of “the group” is emphasized as a determinant of political morality.  To project one’s concept of “the group” onto something larger than what is immediately proximate (i.e. the state, the nation, one’s class, or even the whole of humanity becomes the group with which one identifies) is to project not only familial conditioning but also attitudes and behaviors (in relation to “the group”) that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of multilevel selection and are therefore almost certainly hardwired into our brains.

I wrote this series with the hope that an understanding of ourselves as a species-how we think and behave; how we think and behave in groups; how we have evolved over time to think and behave in the ways we do-might provide some insights into collective action and political strategy.  In this essay, I have taken a first clumsy step toward translating some of those insights into practical narrative strategy tools that grassroots organizations might use to self-consciously craft potent organizing and campaign narratives.  In the coming months, I’ll be further developing and testing some of these ideas and incorporating them into workshop curriculum for the grassroots progressive organizations Beyond the Choir partners with.  Stay tuned…

Stephen Colbert is physically altering your brain

originally published on October 28, 2010

Stephen Colbert’s much-publicized March to Keep Fear Alive tomorrow-and his whole schtick really-may be making a far greater political impact than you consciously realize.  I’m no neuroscientist, but I might even argue that the faux right-wing pundit is physically altering the very structure of your brain.

Such an outlandish allegation requires a little set-up. Ready for an adventure into the political brain?

Let’s start with rats.

In a brilliant Radiolab episode called Memory and Forgetting (I highly recommend listening to the first 21 minutes here), hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss a memory experiment with rats.  They play an audio tone for a rat, just before giving it a slight electrical shock. Predictably, the next time the tone is played, the rat reacts. Here’s Jad:

The moment it hears the tone and then feels the shock, inside its head a bunch of neurons start to build a connection… Memory is a structure that connects one brain cell to another.  So the next time that the rat hears that damn tone, since inside its brain tone brain cells are physically connected to shock brain cells, it’s gonna know that after this [tone sound plays] comes this [shock sound effect plays].  Instead of just listening passively, it’s gonna freeze, bracing itself for what is about to happen.

Ok, duh, but here’s a little more about how it happens physically inside the brain.  Memory is “a physical thing,” explains regular Radiolab contributor Jonah Leher (author of the book How We Decide), “It’s not simply an idea. It’s a physical trace left in your brain. [A trace made largely of] proteins. Proteins are the building blocks of memory.”

Neuroscientists figured this out through experiments with the drug anisomycin, which inhibits the formation of new proteins.  They found that without new proteins there can be no new memory.  So when they repeated the experiment but this time gave the rats anisomycin as they played the tone (right before the shock), these rats did not react to the tone afterward.  They could not learn a correlation between tone and shock, because they could not form proteins to make this experience into a memory.

And then it got a little weird.

Karim Nader, a doctoral student at the time, came up with an unconventional idea.  Here’s Jad paraphrasing Nader:

What do you think would happen if instead of giving the drug while the rat was making the memory, what if, way after the fact, we gave it the drug while it was remembering the memory?  Could we mess with the memory then? …Could we zap a memory that was already there?  Could we go in and erase old memories?

The idea was dismissed as absurd, but Nader went ahead and tested it anyway. He did the same experiment as before, playing a tone followed by an electrical charge.  Then he waited 60 days.  (Rats that are conditioned this way have the reaction to the tone for the rest of their lives.)  Nader then played the tone, and while the rats were remembering the memory of the shock, he gave them the drug.

And it turned out that Nader’s crazy idea was right.  The rats that got the drugs behaved from that moment forward as if they hadn’t been shocked in the first place.  They no longer had a Pavolvian response to the tone.  Here’s Lehrer:

That was the shocking result of the Nader experiment.  The rat is already terrified of the shock.  But if you inject the chemical as the rat is remembering what the sound means, the memory disappears.  It’s as if the memory had never been there in the first place.

Then they did it with people! They did a similar experiment with people suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  And it worked.  As the patients recalled traumatic memories, they were given the drug.  The next time they remembered those memories, they weren’t as painful.

Here’s Jad arriving at some troubling conclusions:

There really isn’t anything like a real memory.  I mean, think about it… If you can erase a memory while it’s being created… and now we learned you can erase a memory while it’s being remembered-using the same drug-what that really means is that every time you’re remembering something, you’re actually recreating it.  That’s the only reason the drug works.  And so if you’re recreating it each time, then each time you’re remembering something it’s a brand new memory.

Alright, that’s amazing and somewhat disturbing, but what does it have to do with Stephen Colbert? Well, stay with me for one more pit-stop… braking for a different sort of rat…

Bush as Neural Networker

The attacks on September 11, 2001 can be described in many horrific ways.  In the language of psychology though, 9/11 was above all else deeply traumatic.  The dramatic images of passenger airlines disappearing on impact into horrifically spectacular explosions; of people like us forced to jump to their deaths; of marvelously tall buildings collapsing into a lowly pile of rubble; of the symbols of the power, prestige and invincibility of our nation made vulnerable – all running as a repeating loop on our television screens – arguably made for the most synchronistically traumatizing moment in the history of our country.

You may remember talking to a lot of people in the days and weeks following September 11th.  When something happens that shakes our sense of safety and our picture of the world, we typically become eager to process and understand what happened.  In these moments, we tend to engage in a lot more conversations – sometimes widening the circle of folks we talk with, even to include total strangers.  I remember several such conversations initiated by strangers on the DC Metro.

We do this in order to narrate and assimilate the unfamiliar and the traumatic into something we can explain and feel some control over; into our worldview.  This is part of the process of recovering from the trauma.  As we remember together, we “recreate” the traumatic events into a form that we can cope with.

They weren’t discussing September 11th on Radiolab, but some of their assertions about memory certainly apply.  Here’s Jonah Lehrer:

“The act of remembering, on a literal level is an act of creation.  Every memory is rebuilt anew every time you remember it…

One of the ironies of this research is that the more you remember something, in a sense, the less accurate it becomes; the more it becomes about you and the less it becomes about what actually happened.

This is the neurological basis of cognitive therapy methods like Prolonged Exposure Therapy and

Narrative Therapy.  Therapists support patients as they focus conscious attention on traumatic events – re-imagining, re-narrating and re-membering those events.  Patients actually physically change their own brains, creating new neuropathways that connect traumatic and anxiety-producing memories with more positive and empowered feelings. Then when the traumatic memories are triggered in the future, the brain activates those positive feelings and associations too, diminishing the power of the negative feelings.

Bush and the neocons didn’t appear interested in healing or therapy after 9/11, but that doesn’t mean they lacked a sophisticated neurological analysis of our collective trauma.  Whether consciously or just intuitively, they re-narrated the events of 9/11 to channel collective trauma and fear into widespread acceptance of an authoritarian mindset that enabled them to consolidate power and carry out an aggressive agenda.  With each retelling of 9/11, Bush became a stronger and stricter father figure, who would protect and deliver us from evil and punish the evil-doers.  They imbued the images of falling towers with specific meanings and emotions, neurologically fusing these memories with concepts of punishment, revenge, and blind submission to authority.

While the Administration clearly understood the effect of their messaging, it’s important to recognize that it also came naturally for them.  They were re-narrating 9/11 to fit and further their existing worldview, values, and agenda.  They were as caught up in it as anyone, and they felt more empowered with each retelling.

They had hit their stride.  They were in their zone.  They held the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC, and it looked like a 9/11-themed party.  Rudy Giuliani seemed incapable of uttering a sentence that didn’t reference September 11th and terrorism.

Today Glenn Beck (and the base he appeals to) is so nostalgic for 9/11 that he started the “9-12 Movement” – which purports to be “designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001.”  Who on God’s green earth would want us to be back in the place we were after such a horrible attack?  People who felt empowered by the retelling, re-membering, and neurological rewiring of the events of 9/11.  That’s who.

Colbert Recasts the Authoritarian Character

Colbert’s brilliantly performed caricature of the authoritarian fear-mongering personality activates the places in our brains that actually house authoritarian fear-mongering thoughts and associations.  He triggers the very same neural networks that Bush, Rove, Beck, Gingerich and company have characteristically activated.  But Colbert’s satire fuses these networks with very different feelings than the anxiety and fear that actual authoritarians intend for us to feel.  This may seem far-fetched, but it’s not entirely unlike the cognitive therapy methods discussed above.  Colbert strips fear-based, anxiety-producing thought patterns of their potency.  We can revisit and remember something as horrible as September 11th, and move from paralysis to an empowered and grounded response.

Political psychologist and neuroscientist Drew Westen explains in The Political Brain how inoculation works:

Psychologists discovered years ago that a . . . technique for reducing the power of a negative appeal from the other side is inoculation.  Inoculation means building up “resistance” to an appeal by forewarning against it or presenting (and answering) weak arguments in favor of it before the other side can offer a stronger version.  Much as a vaccine builds the body’s defenses through exposure to small, inert amounts of a virus, weak and easily assailable arguments supporting the other point of view prompt people to accept or spontaneously generate counterarguments that serve as emotional “antibodies.”

Unlike Westen’s description though, Colbert isn’t inoculating preemptively.  In fact, Colbert came to prominence after the Bush Administration had already shot its wad on Iraq.  The Administration’s colossal failures are the main reason why more people in society built up immunity to some of their tactics.  Colbert is riding that wave more than he is creating it.

Nonetheless, what he’s doing – especially what he’s doing tomorrow – is making waves.  The framing, “March to Keep Fear Alive” provides the perfect antidote to the so-called Tea Party on the eve of the mid-term elections.  Conservative leaders are kind of one-trick ponies when it comes to fear.  It’s always been their main game.  So when someone like Colbert can call out all their moves – in a way that makes them a laughing stock – he’s taking some of the wind out of their sails.

Colbert is recasting the authoritarian personality as greedy, self-interested, delusional, pathetic, and marginal. Meanwhile Jon Stewart’s “counter-rally” (they’re actually the same event) effectively brands our side as the mainstream. This is no small framing feat considering that a staple strategy of conservatives for the past four decades has been to brand progressives as, in the words of Newt Gingerich, “the enemy of normal Americans.”

Of course, negatively branding the conservative narrative isn’t exactly the same thing as projecting a salient progressive narrative.  And – to point out one important problem with tomorrow’s events – a “Million Moderate March” isn’t the kind of frame that will produce the level of passion and commitment that is absolutely vital to building movements strong enough to challenge the entrenched interests that stand in the way of progressive change.  Colbert can spar with the worst of our opponents – and I hope we can learn from some of his moves.  But what will really rewire our neural networks on the scale we need – what will create popular positive associations with progressive social change – is the telling and constant retelling of a salient, values-based, social justice narrative.  We need to figure out how to tell that better and more consistently – not just at a well-timed, well-framed, comedian-called rally before the mid-term elections, and not just during a dynamic and rare presidential campaign – until it becomes the conventional wisdom that shapes how a majority of Americans make sense of the world.

The Centrality of Fear in Right-wing Hegemony

originally published on September 11, 2010

Paul Rosenberg nailed it yesterday in his article on Taxes & Terrorism (Open Left):

…the basis of conservative politics is fear.  The basis of liberal politics is reason.  The conservative try to flood the zone with fear, so that people can’t think straight . . . If the GOP can turn anything into a flashpoint of fear, then they can keep on repeating it, and all thought shuts down–perhaps not for everyone, but for enough. But for them to be really secure, they need the Democrats to buy into their logic as well.  Once the Democrats are gripped with fear, and unwilling to talk about a given issue, then that issue belongs to the GOP.  Their position on it doesn’t have to make any sense.  Making sense is beside the point.  The point is scaring people.  The point is, in a word, terrorism.

As today is September 11, it’s fitting to address the subject of fear – especially considering the chorus of stupid that’s been ringing from Gainsville to Manhattan.

Paul’s spot-on analysis reminded me of a few related articles on the subject. The first is something I wrote in 2007 on fear-based narrative strategies. This is from Beyond the Choir’s Building a Successful Antiwar Movement (PDF):

9/11 jostled Americans’ anxieties like a rock on a hornets’ nest. Many people struggled to make sense of the attacks, working through feelings of anger, fear and sadness. The Bush Administration quickly wove together a story to explain the attacks in ways that would channel people’s emotions and draw lessons favorable to the neo-cons’ ambitious agenda. Their story was first and foremost about why we must go to war. They used classic narrative devices; America was the victim, al Queda the clear villain. The story started on what would have been a pleasant Tuesday morning in September, with America waking up to a new day, only to be savagely surprise-attacked by a villain so evil that his only rationale was a rabid hatred of freedom itself. He might have destroyed freedom and “our way of life” entirely, unless…

In stepped our hero, George W. Bush, already resolute while most Americans were still reeling. He knew who did it, and he knew what he was going to do to them. The only thing America could do in this story was to fight back, to not be a victim. These colors don’t run! The story demanded that we go to war. It precluded any other options.

I discuss how “coining and parroting phrases like War on Terror, Homeland Security, Axis of Evil, and so on” was a narrative strategy to “preclude alternatives or dissent.”

False dichotomies are a hallmark of fear-based control narratives… “You’re with either with us or you’re with the terrorists.” In the thick of the political climate of fear that followed 9/11, to argue with this statement was to be relegated to the latter of the two options.

But there’s an important psychological component that I didn’t discuss in this essay. It reads as if the Bush Administration operated as a 100% cold and calculating Machiavellian control machine. I mean, that’s mostly true – operatives on the right understand the playbook for stoking and manipulating fear. But what this misses is that fear-mongering comes so very naturally for most of them. It’s not only their strategy. It’s also their psychological disposition – and their morality.

Progressives like to view far right-wingers as either crazy or evil or both. It’s challenging to think of someone who wants to burn a Koran – or someone who wants to invade and occupy another country – as moral. But if we want to get anywhere in understanding the foundations of what we’re up against, we need to look through the lens of morality. I use the word morality very neutrally here.  I’m certainly not saying that Newt Gingrich and company are acting on my moral code when they try to stop an Islamic community center in Manhattan.  But they are acting on their morals. They are operating under a different moral system, in which authority is more important than nurturance – so fear becomes a primary tool.

Linguist George Lakoff has done amazing work in mapping the two primary moral systems most people operate under (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think is a good Lakoff book to start with).  He calls these systems Strict Father Morality and Nurturant Parent Morality. Choose your label. They actually contain many of the same components, but in a different order. Strict Father Moralists, for example, also value nurturance (who knew?) – but it’s further down the checklist.  These contrasting sets of values are based on our conceptions of the family and how to raise children – which we project onto government’s relationship to society. So a person who believes that fathers should show love by first and foremost instilling discipline and obedience in their children, and a person who believes parents should first and foremost nurture their children, will tend to make very different moral judgments on most every political issue.

One of Lakoff’s key assertions is that “conservatives understand the moral dimension of our politics better than liberals do,” and have therefore been able to “use politics in the service of a much larger moral and cultural agenda for America,” while “liberals have been helpless to stop them . . . because they don’t understand the conservative worldview and the role of moral idealism…”

Progressives need to understand both the calculated game of fear-mongering and the underlying moral system and psychology that enables the Gingrichs and Roves to win that game. Paul’s breakdown that “the basis of conservative politics is fear” and “of liberal politics is reason” makes me picture a bully and a nerd in a school playground. It’s not a winning equation for the nerd and all his smart reasoning skills. The bully commands fear. We feel the need to respond to him and accommodate him because when he doesn’t get his way he’ll hit us and kick us and bite us and pinch us (yes, he fights dirty) or call us a terrorist-lover or a Muslim or a communist.

We need a better story than the story of the bully and the nerd.