Progressives are telling two different stories about the world we live in and the future we are trying to create. In important ways, they clash.
Human beings are story tellers. Stories help us make meaning of events around us and figure out what to care about. Not surprisingly, conservative and progressive Americans believe they are living very different stories. These differences go way back, but one unexpected and dismaying consequence of the information age has been to widen the chasm to a point that we often can’t see the humanity of people on the other side.
Now, a second fracture is cracking open—this one between people on the left half of the spectrum—and the dynamics are becoming disturbingly similar. Call-out culture, mobbing, shunning, shaming, censorship, family rifts . . . What’s going on? What, if anything, should we do about it? Obviously, there are lots of factors at work here—social media, demographic changes, foreign agents playing us—but from my vantage as a psychologist and storyteller, one factor is the content of our political narratives.
I call the two dominant left-leaning narratives the Social Liberal Story and the Structural Oppression Story. Both can be seen as reactions against a third narrative, the conservative Ancestral Story, which sanctifies traditional social hierarchies. In their opposition to these traditional hierarchies, the progressive narratives are aligned. But when it comes to strategy and goals, they can pull activists in different directions.
Diving in here requires a few qualifiers: First, stories oversimplify. This is a story about stories and it necessarily oversimplifies what it describes. Second, people can shift with surprising ease between narratives that, from the outside, seem incompatible. Third, the two progressive narratives have a lot of overlap. Fourth, we often internalize parts of different narratives without feeling the need for an integrated whole. Even so, looking at bare bones versions of these two stories may offer some insight into the growing tensions between people who think of themselves as liberal or progressive. (For those interested, I discuss the Ancestral Story here.)
The Social Liberal Story
Five years ago, a group of funders in Washington State set out to articulate a unified narrative for advocacy groups that were working to improve education, health, environmental sustainability, social justice and civil rights in the region. What is the golden thread that ties together our issues and efforts? As a part of that team, I spent months interviewing self-identified progressive thought leaders and activists across the country, asking about their core values and vision for the future. The project produced a communications guide called “The Hero’s Handbook” that was well received, but what fascinated me as a psychologist, even more than the collection of talking points we had gleaned, was the convergence in values and narrative among the folks we interviewed.
Dig deep enough into a liberal activist, down to what one might dare to call the spiritual level, and I often heard something along these lines: We’re all in it together. There’s no such thing as a self-made man. I actually am my sister’s keeper. Everybody needs a hand up sometimes. One local leader, Eric Liu, contrasted a rightwing icon, the cowboy, with the image of a barn-raising—rugged individualism in a world of gunslingers vs. collaborative construction in organized community. Many of those interviewed thought of their activism as giving back or paying forward what had been given to them.
Within this theme of interdependence emerged more specific images that defined, for the folks we interviewed, the proper role of government. On the international front, for example, government represented the interests of the collective as part of a broader global community. In the economic sphere, the capitalist exchange of goods and services relied on a shared platform of roads, infrastructure, and sometimes literal public markets like those at the center of Greek and Roman polities. What about all those pesky regulations that can restrict innovation and trade? Rule of law was a public good, part of the platform. The rules make the game, said one sports fan. Winning the greatest freedom and justice for the greatest number takes teamwork, a shared and level playing field, rules, and refs.
In contrast to the common rightwing metaphor of government as an authority figure, thought leaders on the left depicted government as a tool—one we use to create inclusive wellbeing and build shared assets that get handed down to future generations. More than one person paraphrased Abraham Lincoln’s statement*: Government is how we do things together that we can’t do alone. To borrow a tech analogy, government is a social technology that we, the people, use to build the operating system for our society. Individuals build apps on top of that OS.
The quest in this story is, approximately, that of the French Revolution, which sought to undermine the rigid hierarchies of the European class system, creating broader freedoms and equitable opportunity through collective action. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. As part of the same Enlightenment enterprise, America’s founding fathers had staked out a similarly bold claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
America’s Founding Ideals vs Founding Realities
When the founders of our country signed onto this vision, their rejection of hereditary aristocracy was radical and disruptive. In the decades and then centuries that followed, it would become world changing. But, limited by their own place and time, they meant quite literally that men were created equal—men of European descent.
America’s founding ideals were beautiful, says liberal commentator Van Jones; America’s founding reality, not so much. The arc of our history has been a series of fights to bring reality into line with those ideals and to continue the Enlightenment’s revolutionary project of expanding who rights apply to—who counts fully as a person and a citizen. Generations have fought and won battles to expand the circle, bringing in religious minorities, the descendants of African slaves, laborers, women, American Indians, queer folk, children, and even—in a very limited way—members of other species.
The multi-generational fight for more inclusive personhood and associated rights is part of what makes the social liberal project “progressive.” The promised land in this story is one that we create together, where individual capacities and preferences trump lineage and biology. It is the one described by Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That was King’s ideal, but he, obviously, didn’t live to see the day. Nor have we yet, and—in the context of slow or stalled progress since the Civil Rights Movement, anguishing police brutality, mounting xenophobia and growing economic inequality—many young progressives have abandoned this dream. Some actively scorn it. For reasons that are very understandable, driven by emotions including compassion, frustration, and anger, a different narrative has moved to front and center. It is a story about oppression—one in which the quest, at least in the near term, is not inclusion but redress, restitution, and perhaps retribution.
The Structural Oppression Story
The story that has become the rallying point of many progressives in recent years is this:
All prosperous capitalist societies—including, especially, the European democracies and the U.S.—were built by oppressors on the backs of the oppressed. Modern America was built by stealing the land of American Indians, commandeering the sweat and blood of black slaves, keeping women in the kitchen, oppressing brown-skinned immigrants, and exploiting Europe’s former colonies. Virtually all societal ills derive from this one fact—structural oppression—and redressing this wrong will fix most others. “Everything flows from racism,” a young white activist commented on Facebook. Many of her peers agree.
The Structural Oppression Story isn’t simply a reaction against the social conservative worldview and the traditional power structures it sanctifies, it is also a reaction against the failings and slow progress of social liberalism.
There’s an old saying, In some ways I am like all other people. In some ways I am like some other people. In some ways I am like no other person. Where the Social Liberal Story focuses on the first and third of these, our shared humanity and unique individualism, the Structural Oppression Story (like the older Ancestral Story) focuses on the second, the ways in which we are like some other people, but not all. As Yale Professor and writer Amy Chua has said, “Sometimes this universalist rhetoric, ‘Oh, we’re all just one people,’ is a way of hiding a lot of inequality and smaller kinds of group oppression.”
She offers a cringe-worthy example:
Woodrow Wilson said in 1915 in a very famous speech, ‘There are no groups in America. America doesn’t consist of groups, and if you continue to think of yourself as belonging to a smaller group, you are not American.’ It’s astonishing that he could say this, in these universalist tones at a time when Native Americans were still largely denied citizenship, Mexican Americans were still being lynched, Asian Americans were barred from owning land, and African Americans were being subjected to violence and degradation virtually every day.”
(I have to add that women didn’t yet have the right to vote, and a married woman couldn’t own a bank account without her husband’s permission.)
In context, Wilson’s speech welcomed recently naturalized citizens and encouraged them to adopt an inclusive American identity on top of that which linked them to their kin and homelands. His words may have been aspirational; they were meant to challenge and inspire people whose circles needed expanding. But for other Americans, like those like Chua listed, they constitute a dizzying denial of the fact that some people’s lives have been defined by group identity whether they wanted it that way or not.
No wonder, then, that activism organized around the Oppression Story is raw and exasperated. It gives voice to people who are done making nice, done waiting politely to be invited to the table, and by others who are horrified at their own history.
Free speech has been exploited by bigots; shut it down. Education has failed to end inequality; name it a tool for maintaining the status quo. Capitalism is decimating our planetary life support system; throw it over.
If the Social Liberal and Structural Oppression stories sound different, that is because they are different, and not simply in degree or emphasis. They have different philosophical roots and are responses to different sets of social conditions. While the conservative Ancestral Story is anchored in ancient theologies like those in the Bible and Quran, and the Social Liberal Story is rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, the Structural Oppression Story is grounded in a neo-Marxist analysis of society known as Critical Theory, most often applied as Critical Race Theory or Critical Gender Theory.
Anti-Oppression in Action
Where the Social Liberal narrative undermines traditional hierarchies through repeated cycles of expanded inclusion, the Structural Oppression narrative takes a different approach. Since society is structured as tribes of oppressors and oppressed, people get classified based on the tribes they belong to: Are they brown or white? Female or male? Queer or straight? Members of a religious minority or Christian? Poor or rich? Immigrant or citizen?
If a person is not oppressed, they are by definition an oppressor because biases like racism and sexism get built into the structure of society, and each of us either benefits or suffers from them whether we know it or not. Hence the mantra, Check your privilege or the expanding definition of white supremacy.
Some people call this whole narrative “intersectionality.” Conceptually, the term intersectionality refers to the fact that it is harder, for example, to be both black and female than one or the other because the intersection of the two can create an added layer of challenges. Pile on enough and those challenges become insurmountable.
In practice, intersecting membership in traditionally oppressed tribes often gets used to define a stack-rank of oppression that subverts the traditional power hierarchy by inverting it—brown queer immigrant females on top and straight white males at the bottom. Otherwise it operates like all power hierarchies do: Those at the bottom shouldn’t really question those at the top; they should listen and assent, and play the roles they are allowed or assigned. Since members of all tribes inherit the sins of our ancestors, people can be expected to feel either guilty or done-to depending on which tribes they belong to, regardless of their individual life experience. Those from done-to tribes merit restitution or at least penance, and those from guilty tribes should be willing to pay it.
In this story, the quest is to upend the old social hierarchy, perhaps to create equality or perhaps to replace it with a new one, as suggested by phrases like the future is female, or brown is the new white. Either way, the promised land is a world free of patriarchy and white supremacy, and we get there by flipping power dynamics in a social-spiritual form of affirmative action. The goal is to give power to those long denied it and give voice to those long suppressed. To the degree that the individual lives raised up by anti-oppression advocacy reflect the tribal norm of hardship, it does that pretty well.
When Anti-Oppression Becomes Anti-Liberal
I believe that the Structural Oppression story offers a needed cultural corrective, calling attention to important realities that the Social Liberal Story doesn’t address: the reality that injustice is built into the very structure of social institutions and organizations, including those that are well intentioned, including on the left; the reality that group identity and intergroup power dynamics profoundly shape human experience.
I also think that when the Structural Oppression Story is treated as the true story of human history it replaces one set of incomplete truths with another and pulls thinking and behavior in directions that are strikingly regressive. When the Structural Oppression Story becomes religion, like the Ancestral Story was for so long and still is to many cultural conservatives, it poses a threat to liberalism overall and undermines the very goals of social justice advocates.
Righteous tribalism is the stuff human history is made of. Since the social conservative worldview is what expresses (and sanctifies) that history, tribalism pushes adherents of the Oppression Story toward thinking that can mirror that of right-wing ideologues they despise.
One core similarity, as I said, is that the conservative Ancestral Story and the Structural Oppression Story both focus on people as representatives of groups or kinds rather than as individuals or representatives of the human species. Both, likewise, seek to elevate only some tribes.
I should emphasize again that both the Social Liberal and Structural Oppression stories can be seen as reactions against a script that across millennia has created stability and wellbeing for some at the expense of others. This means that motivations leading the left and right to embrace tribalism are very different. Social conservatives seek to secure power and wellbeing for those who have traditionally held it; anti-oppression activists for those who have not.
At their best, these activists concentrate on lifting up marginalized tribes because this is where suffering is most concentrated and intransigent wrongs can be righted—while still holding to the idea that all people matter. At their worst, though, anti-oppression activists dehumanize those they see as privileged oppressors and have little interest in solving problems or reducing suffering that flow from causes other than structural oppression or (dare I say it?) from our attempts to correct structural oppression.
Is someone despairing or addicted because the automotive plant laid them off or the coal company bankrupted their pension? If he is a white male, he started out with unfair advantage and he’s probably a Trump voter anyways.
Has a questionable accusation of sexual harassment cost a man his job or reputation? Remember how many others got away with it.
When each of us is seen as representative of a group of people, restitution and retribution don’t necessarily have to accrue to the actual victims or oppressors. Ideally, yes. But when that is not possible, another member of their tribe may do. Like conservative Christians, adherents of oppression narrative sometimes believe—or act as if—one man can atone for the sins of another.
Chua discusses the retribution impulse in her new book about global affairs and group dynamics, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Following conditions of inequality and oppressive minority rule, she says,
If you then introduce democracy, suddenly, majority rule, you’re not going to get peace and prosperity like Americans often expect democracy to bring. Instead, you are often going to get payback time, where the long resentful and suppressed majority will use their new political power to come after that dominant minority.
America, Chua says, is not exempt from the dynamics that plague other countries as they struggle toward equity and inclusion.
In the quest for group power, anti-oppression activists mirror conservative activists in another way—by undermining shared epistemologies, meaning methods for determining what is real. Both mistrust the Enlightenment way of knowing, which relies heavily on reason and empiricism, including the process of data aggregation and hypothesis testing that we call science. Admittedly, when it comes to figuring out what’s real, reason and research are far from flawless. They rely heavily on self-correction over time and can be—have been—misused. But that is not the primary issue for either group.
In the conservative framework, reason and research threaten the authority of received traditions and powerful institutions. In the oppression framework they threaten the authority of phenomenology or lived experience. Reason and research both benefit from education, which is not equally available to all and this, to some, makes them tools of the privileged oppressor. Unquestionable truth is to be found in the personal experience, anecdotes, intuitions, and emotions of representatives from oppressed tribes.
Neither religious faith nor subjective experience is accountable. Both are untouchable from the standpoint of the scientific method, which means falsehoods and biases are difficult and sometimes impossible to correct. Because humans are so prone to confirmatory thinking—the scientific method has been called “what we know about how not to fool ourselves.” In the absence of a shared agreement about epistemology—how we decide what’s real—we have no means of converging on a shared set of facts.
If progressives are united in wanting freedom and justice for all, or broad sustainable wellbeing—or even simply an end to structural oppression—the Structural Oppression Story may accelerate progress, but alone it doesn’t get us there, and the gains come at a price. As I said, righteous tribalism is the stuff of human history. David Brooks, in a surprisingly even-handed article about student mobs, concluded nonetheless with a dire warning:
If I could talk to the students . . . I’d just ask them to take two courses. The first would be in revolutions — the French, Russian, Chinese and all the other ones that unleashed the passion of the mob in an effort to overthrow oppression — and the way they ALL wound up waist deep in blood.
Having visited Cambodia’s killing fields, I feel his words in my gut.
At a more rational level, the one where I deal with concerns about the probable rather than the possible, I worry that Structural Oppression progressives risk replacing one set of incomplete truths with another set that lead us back into a familiar pattern rather than moving us forward. I worry that tribalism on the left elicits tribalism on the right. And I worry that chronic conflict will interfere with us being able to solve huge pressing problems: climate chaos, disruptive economic change, and more.
The reality is that each of these two progressive narratives contains important truths and neglects others (and so do many conservative stories if we take the time to really listen).
- Our shared humanity and unique individualism are precious, and we must never forget that they have been denied or suppressed for most of human history along tribal boundaries.
- The deep wounds suffered by only some groups or disproportionately some groups at the hands of others need to be recognized and redressed if they are to heal. This is not just old history.
Can these two narratives be integrated? Only if we recognize each story as one part of the elephant.
Social liberals face some tough questions:
How do we deal with the fact that group identity is a fundamental part of human nature? How do we address the fact that many of our liberal institutions still run conservative code? How do we deal with historical injustices that have multi-generational consequences? Are there conditions where our theory of change doesn’t work?
So do anti-oppression activists:
If MLK’s dream is laughably naïve, what is the alternative? How do we support Enlightenment freedoms like free speech and inquiry for those whose ideas makes some of us uncomfortable, like ex-Muslims? What about for non-Western people living under traditional authoritarianism? How do we pivot from flipping the pecking order to ending the pecking—or is that no longer the goal? Do we want liberty and justice for all? If so, as we move toward our promised land, how do bring along those who are being told they have no place in our aspirational future because their ancestors had it too good?
We can move forward together only by understanding the limitations of the stories we tell ourselves and by acknowledging the basic humanity and usually good intentions of those who differ. Reality is more complicated than any story, and humanity’s lazy devotion to partial truths as if they were whole truths, even more than willful falsehood, puts us at risk of decline, or conflict, or even collapse. This, I think, is the most fundamental thing that true believers lose sight of.
We can do better.
*”The legitimate object of government is ‘to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves’.” The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, “Fragment on Government” (July 1, 1854?), p. 221.
This article is the second in a series on political narrative. The first one, “This Simple Idea is the Reactor at the Heart of the Conservative Death Star” can be found here.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
wow you sure hit the nail on the head
This has been very helpful. It explains why many progressives are at odds with each other and why, for many of us, it’s difficult to join causes where some practices in support of the cause are reflexive and thoughtless (such as using social media for mobbing).
Very well thought out, Valarie, as usual! Way to much to comment upon so I pick just one aspect: “Virtually all societal ills derive from this one fact—structural oppression—and redressing this wrong will fix most others. “Everything flows from racism,” a young white activist commented on Facebook.”
I understand how young people can equate oppression with racism but that is just the extreme end of a range of oppression. Oppressing females cannot be racist per se. Oppressing poor people, ditto. Our big problem is that civilization, every damned bit of it is built upon oppression. The elites in every society coerce, through secular or religious means, the masses to labor on the behalf of the interests of the elites. This began with the advent of agriculture and the ability to store surplus food. Agriculture is way more labor intensive that hunting and gathering, so the labor had to be coerced. This lead to large scale slavery where it had been sporadic at most before. Civilization has resulted in more than half of all human beings being in effect slaves (serfs, etc.) since its inception. Only recently have the benefits of civilization begun to trickle down to the masses.
In this country racism is such a hot-button topic, it is hard to include it in any discussion because it distorts everything around it. Racism is real and pernicious, but the oppression is on-going. Consider college students. During the Viet Nam war, college students were in the streets protesting. Now … not a peep. Why? Well, the costs of college have been escalated enormously (and not due to market forces, but overt actions), and the ability to discharge student loans in bankruptcy (again due to overt acts) have left college students in very precarious financial situations, situations in which they cannot afford to lose a job or not get one. Another successful act of oppression of a segment of our society.
Poor people are oppressed and not just based upon race. I could go on but I think you get the picture.
The problem we have is capitalism. Capitalism is built upon economic growth and disproportionately favors the wealthy. Because all biological organisms expand to the limits of their food supply, the burgeoning population of the planet demands growth and more growth, which is of course impossible in a world with finite resources. We are, as they say, riding the tiger, and desperately need to find a way to get off and not get eaten. Unfortunately, we have allowed the wealthy/greedy class have the reins on this ride and they are benefiting greatly from it. They are slowly feeding the rest of us to the tiger to avoid getting eaten themselves.
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How about we ditch hierarchy for direct democracy cooperatives?
The problem is capitalism, yes, but that is like saying the problem is natural selection, because capitalism at its root is simply natural selection operating on economic entities. There is no more way to get rid of natural selection in economics–either the variation piece or the differential survival piece–than there is a way to get rid of natural selection in biology. As in biology, we do need understand how very much it can be at odds with our shared values and broad wellbeing.
When we recognize capitalism’s limitations instead of glorifying it, then we can channel it, constrain it, temper it and manipulate it to better serve our values and flourishing. That, I think, is what hybrid economies do to promote wellbeing. I worry of late that a growing number of legitimately frustrated but naïve people who do not understand natural selection think that we can somehow get rid of it. When that has been tried in the past, however thoughtfully or forcefully, the purges have failed, causing horrific suffering in the process.
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Natural selection as in Social Darwinism? Hobbes? Please clarify.
No. As in straight up natural selection in the economic sphere among competing businesses, products, and business practices.
You are applying a biological metaphor to economic interactions which are social constructs and assuming that humans are predisposed to competition as opposed to cooperation? Apples and oranges? Nature or nurture? “…naive people who do not understand natural selection …? As in French Revolution? Robespierre like purges? So I’m thinking you are coming from the “Enlightenment” Social Liberal Story? Honestly I’m not trying to be difficult. I am excited at how the title and ensuing article described so clearly the place so many of us find ourselves in. I just don’t want to assume you’re making assumptions.
As I understand it, natural selection acts on all kinds of entities characterized by variability and differential survival/replication. Memes, for example, or in this case economic entities.
Yes. An important aspect of capitalism is that it has been competing against other economic systems for 400 years. It is resilient, but it can be tempered, constrained, and better directed to serve public needs. Part of the problem that we’re having now is that the current global finance capitalism has transcended nations, and we’ve had a large part of our country under the spell of a “government can do nothing right” ideology that pursues minimal regulations as an end. Part of the economic success of America in the middle 20th Century was due to the restraints and controls we placed on capitalism and the taxes payed by those that benefited. We can do that again. Another part of America’s success then was that we were the sole economy still standing after WWII. That we can’t replicate.
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Thoughtful and good points. If you haven’t already, take a look at Jordan Peterson’s analysis of post-modern and Neo-Marxist views on economics and social justice. I would say that your points have a great deal in common with his.
That said, having come out of the higher education world in recent years, the self-righteous extremism of Left “social warriors” seems to me anyway to be the perfect mirror of their opponents on the extreme Right. Both are hell-bent on imposing their views on the rest of us.
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Thank you Valerie – for your well-written perspectives. This one reminded me of a book – I believe it is out of print : The Whisperings Within” by David Barash. It is a good and easy read and covers many of those issues that you’ve raised in this article.
Thanks again…I do enjoy and gain valuable insights from your writings.
Thank you. It sounds like something i should check out.
Thank you. This was very insightful.
Have you also noted any generational differences? One of the struggles and divides that we are experiencing among the Left in Austin is between Baby Boomers and Millenials. Part of this flows from different life experiences – the affluence that the Boomers experienced in their youth versus the harsh realities faced by the Millenials. This divide often manifests in conflicts between Boomer idealism and Millenial pragmatism. From readings and conversations, I gather that our local experience is part of a national trend, particularly relating to urban housing and affordability.
I definitely notice generational differences between Boomers and Millennials. Among folks I’m around, though, I might say that Millennials have are dealing with their disillusionment not by becoming more pragmatic but by doubling down on idealism–and by adopting the Structural Oppression narrative to the exclusion of more traditional social liberal aspirations. Here is an excerpt from one millennial leader about this article:
“As you note, young people / anti-oppression people are angry. Older, more traditional liberals are appropriately concerned that the righteousness of this anger is becoming undermined by indiscriminate application. And I agree that rage on this level is not sustainable or constructive, that it is ultimately destructive. My response is that for better or worse, the prevailing opinion amongst young radicals is that all of these systems—from capitalism to the gender binary—are irreparably damaged. So while I agree with you that this is a destructive path, I’d say that consciously and unconsciously, that is the point. We aren’t trying to fix these systems; we’re trying to burn them to the ground. Things have passed a tipping point and we are all in a sloppy discursive freefall and I don’t think we can do any real constructive work until we are done falling.
“Take the current conversation around gender, whether we are talking about trans issues or Me Too stuff. As you suggest in your piece, these conversations are both feeling…impossible to navigate, even for reasonable people with good hearts. I totally agree that it’s morally indefensible to have well meaning people be shamed or punished for innocent transgressions. I also think that part of the reasons that these conversations are being made impossible to navigate is because consciously and unconsciously, people want these systems of thought to become completely outmoded.
“Also, this is kinda neither here nor there but I feel like the most important emerging distinction between the two groups that you’re describing (which could sort of be reduced to leftists and liberals, young radicals versus boomers) is that one group feels like meaningful change can happen within the context of capitalism and one does not. The first group wants constructive change within the existing system, the second wants to wreck this one so that we can build something new. Bratty, I know!
“This is a fatalistic perspective, for sure. That’s just sort of the way my brain works and I can’t help it! And I don’t even necessarily believe that the “burn it all down” approach is the right one, but it does feel like the inevitable one to me at this point.”
Ouch. One of the real things that we failed to do after the fall of the Berlin Wall was to come up with a new critique of capitalism. I get the appeal of “burn it all down nihilism,” but that’s not going to win many of the allies that are needed to actually remodel the structures that they are critiquing.
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A very interesting article. I have said, many times (and sadly, I think I will have many opportunities to say it again), clinging to past grievances — no matter how valid they are — is not the way to make a better future. At some point, you *must* put the past behind you, if you want to move beyond it. We need to focus on making tomorrow better than today. Not perfect: perfection is not an option, and we will never make any progress if we insist on that. Just make tomorrow better than today.
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As an aside, this also provides me with an insight into some of my more conservative friends. I see them making comments (often defensive comments, as though they’ve been attacked) about “liberals”, but those comments seem to come out of nowhere. It’s because those defensive comments aren’t aimed at me — they are aimed at what this article calls the Structural Oppression group.
I look forward to the day when one’s skin colour, facial features, and sex are as easily changed as hair length and hair colour are now — and are finally treated as the superficial traits they are.
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Yes! On a strictly individual level, I’ve been told numerous times that focusing on bad things in my past is not going to make my present better. If this is true for my individual life, I think this extends to bad things that have happened to “my people” in the past. Forgive me for quoting extensively from one of my favorite pieces on this subject, by Don Jose Ruiz:
“Humans carry our past, our history, around with us, and it’s just like we’re carrying a heavy corpse. For some it’s not that heavy, but for the majority of people that corpse is very heavy. And it’s not just heavy; it smells very bad. What many of us do is keep our corpse to share with the ones we love.
“With the powerful memory we have, we bring it to life in the present moment and relive our experiences again, and again, and again. Every time we remember, we punish ourselves again, and again, and again.
“Humans are the only animals on earth who punish themselves a thousand times or more for the same mistake, and who punish everybody else a thousand times or more for the same mistake.
“How can we talk about injustice in the rest of the world when there is no justice in the world inside our own head?”
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Are you familiar with Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory? You have put into words accurate observations yet they are processed dualistically in a binary by way of the human brain’s natural propensity of compare and contrast. Those three narratives you have identified are a part of a whole that is evolving. You can not have the Structural Oppression Story until the Social Liberal Story is told and in turn the Social Liberal Story can not be told until the Ancestral Story originates. Please advise.
I agree. And yes. Thank you.
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Great argument. Lots of food for thought.
An excellent, succinct way of understanding much of the conflict gripping our political and social lives today. It explains so much that has seemed so contradictory to me for so long!
Valerie, I have a permanent bookmark on this post and have gone back to read it a number of times. There is so much wisdom here, starting with the the framework of the human proclivity for telling stories and the fact that stories inevitably simplify reality. You demonstrate beautifully how the three narratives differ but also overlap, sometimes in surprising ways. The overlap between the two liberal narratives is expected, given their holders’ desire to reduce the historical disproportional privilege of conservatives. But what a great insight that the Social Liberal Story focuses on the first and third parts of the Murray-Kluckhohn observation of persons, whereas the Structural Oppression Story an Ancestor Story both focus on the second observation, our group memberships.
The post demonstrates compassion for and understanding of those who follow the Structural Oppression Story. At the same time, I think that this post makes clear the dangers inherent in focusing on group identity. Revolution? As a mentor of mine used to say, “After the revolution, the only thing that changes is the foot on your neck.” Disregarding science in favor of personal experience? Knowledge by description is infinitely more powerful than knowledge by acquaintance. Science might be a narrative, but it has a track record for improving the quality of life like no other narrative.
Thank you for such an insightful piece of writing, including the well-chosen linked material, which I also spent much time reading. Reason might not win the day every time, but I think it is our best chance for bettering the human condition.