Or how to tell a different story to build the world you want
Important point – if you’re interested in the strategies for making the world a better place, skip down to Article one and read from there.
Part one of this pair of essays was essentially the groundwork – laying out my thinking on memetic defences (and I swear that’s the last time I’ll use that phrase). I wanted to explore some of what we think we mean when we talk about open societies vs. closed and whether open societies are really as weak to malign influences as we can sometimes assume. The short answer is that we’re not and the virulent policing done by closed societies is really just a sign of how weak they are compared to open societies. It’s the difference between consent driven policing and marshal law.
This second part is concerned with taking our thinking forward and asking (and partially answering) one big question – how do we actively defend the features of open societies we are generally fond of? Not least, the openness, the honesty and the reflection I discussed in part 1?
I would like to say it’s all story – and if you know me in meatspace you’ve probably heard me say this a few times. Except I want to step away from that because I no longer believe it’s entirely true.
There are two enemies of the open society – the internal and the external. For example, we can easily identify Russia as an external existential threat to the European/Anglo-Saxon project of open societies. They have been busy poisoning and murdering their enemies in our territories and funding misinformation, lies and political operators driven only by their own benefit. And it works because the internal enemies of the open society are those who i) wish to make themselves invulnerable to the accountability built into open societies while ii) reaping their benefits. We can and should also identify other specific external national voices as opponents (rather than enemies) of the open society and they are inter alia China and certain theocracies in the Middle East. China is not an opponent in the same sense as Russia because their opposition comes from their own view of how the world should be constituted – which is deeply nationalistic and centred on the benefits of a close society – which is, by definition, against the promotion of open societies. Could they become antagonistic rather than expansionary? Of course, but we’re little different and hence I don’t see that as the same problem right now as I do the internal enemies of open societies we have here in the UK and the USA.
Our real enemies here are internal. I’d love it to be otherwise but I can’t see anyone really being as threatening to the idea of equality, openness, honesty and reflection as those who oppose from within the remit of the societies we live within.
What is my reasoning for this? We start with a government who is aping the populist, truth independent and deeply corrupt practices of self enrichment at the cost of all else we have seen promoted by the republican administration in the US. The Goodlaw Project’s identification of the misuse of public funds during COVID has been exhaustive and thorough and has revealed with startling clarity that a certain class of already very rich white publicly educated upper class English people has simply used a national crisis as an opportunity to make out like bandits and rob their constituents without even bothering to deny their actions. Furthermore we have literally seen (with the Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings fiascos) bald statements from senior government officials that the law only applies to others and exceptions should be made for them. This isn’t just an attack on truth, openness and reflection by stymieing its operation, it is a stab to its heart by simply ignoring it as something important.
Now, the point of this post was to talk about ways forward, not to lay out the crimes of dipshits who care nothing for their constituents but only for the people they serve.
So what do we do about this?
Well, it does start with story but it doesn’t end there. Everything is about the stories we tell ourselves. The stories we tell one another. A fantastic example is from Mark Carney’s Reith lectures this year where he reiterates research done by Michael Sandel and others around the effectiveness of penalties on bad behaviour. What they showed was what penalties act for some, particularly those with resources, not as a social stigma but as a form of permission to act badly. The most famous of these studies was one where a nursery found parents were coming late to pick up their children. They instituted a fine system but found MORE parents were coming late rather than fewer. It turned out the fines let parents feel ok about coming late because it acted not as a penalty but as a fee. Poor parents were penalised, rich parents felt they were getting an additional service.
It was better when people were told off and asked not to do it, when people were encouraged when they did the right thing and, most importantly, when other parents told latecomers they were in the wrong. I have seen this first hand and it guides certain small activities I always engage in. For instance, I always says thank you to people who are serving me in a shop. I always ask how they are and I have taken every opportunity to intervene when I see them being mistreated.
I always say thank you to people who stop for me as a pedestrian at a pelican crossing because I have seen enough instances of people not stopping to mean I want those who do stop to know it’s a good thing they’ve done (even if they’re just obeying the law).
I try, in my normal life, to normalise praise and encouragement for people who do what they should do (even if doing it is mandatory). Why? Because I want them to have the story that doing the right thing is praiseworthy.
Article one: we do not praise people enough. And we certainly don’t praise people enough for doing what they should be doing anyway. I have little evidence to say it works except, for instance, this: I run a lot. I say hello to everyone I meet. And now, people I pass on my regular runs say hello to me first. It’s a change of atmosphere. It is the same with walking the dog – my wife always says hello and we have discovered some lonely people who now stop to talk to us every time. This is simple community building but it’s much deeper than that. So. Normalise praising one another and praise one another for doing the right thing. If they say ‘I’m only doing what I should,’ then amazing, social norm achieved!
Article two: give air time to those who tell stories of the world the way you want it to be. Tell those stories yourself. Retell them to others. We give too much airtime to people who upset us – be they politicians, racists, TERFs or others. STOP IT. We should be aware of them but we should NOT be giving them airtime. We should, instead, be telling the stories of the good we see in the world, of the wonderful things we’ve seen happen and how we came across them. The more we nurture these good things the more they will grow and fill the airwaves. Sometimes, sure, we have to directly oppose those who would do us harm and I’m all for that, but that’s an endgame. For as much as possible we should be telling stories of blessing and encouragement to those around us. Ok, so here’s two examples. I’m a MASSIVE fan of both the new series of She Ra and of Star Trek Discovery. I’m a fan both because they’re brilliant pieces of fiction but also because they tell stories about a world which exemplifies the kind of values I want to see normalised where I live. It’s also an important strategy for ensuring the Overton window moves in the direction we want it to. Every time we highlight something bad rather than tell the story of something good we are actually doing the work of those who hate for them because exposure normalises.
Article three: there is no ‘winning’, there is only constant recreation of the culture we want to live in. Too often I grow tired of seeing ‘nothing change’ but the truth of the matter is, if I stop talking about the world I want to see, stop talking about the way I want it to be and stop acting to make it so, then it will change and not for the better because others are every bit as invested as I am in remaking the world in a way that suits them. The problem is they’re White supremacists, Indian Nationalists, German Fascists, TERFS, whatever. And this really comes to a deeper point – we need to normalise being politically active. I don’t just mean being a member of a political party – I mean being active in your community, being active in making your voice heard – whether that’s writing to your MP, joining committees at work, creating silly things like running clubs of movie nights or whatever it might be. We have seen in the post war dividend and the rise of corporate globalisation the downside that we’ve been alienated from our political lives. We have them but it works best for certain powerful vested interested if you and I don’t actually act as political beings – because it then leaves others unopposed. These days we tend to regard being political as a thing which we add on to who we are. Instead we should normalise the fact that all humans, all stories, all activity, is political in nature and act accordingly. It might seem tiring but it’s really only tiring when we try to add it on rather than letting it be part of who we are. If you have children and want them to have the best world possible? Then you need to be political and you need to help them understand that homo sapiens is a political animal, not a happiness seeking one.
Finally – Article four: Protect the stories you want to see triumph. Too often in my life I’ve seen ‘allies’ expect me to do the work, to fight the fight and allow them the space to say they’re on my side. That’s not enough. Not for me and certainly not to build a society which is open. Allies need to see themselves as more than people who are alongside those under fire. The apostle Paul writes something along the lines of ‘if you succeed I celebrate with you but if you fall I suffer with you.’ Excuse my paraphrasing for my own benefit. The point is this: we are all potentially allies to someone in need of our support and we need to normalise acting as if it was us being attacked directly. I’ve often seen the counter attack ‘I don’t see any X people saying this is a problem’ by racists, sexists, whatever. This is because they’re probably too tired, depressed or frightened to speak up. The fact Allies are fighting for them is exactly what these scum bags are afraid of. We need to normalise stepping in. We need to normalise making it a social problem when racists and sexists et al express their horrendous opinions. We should have zero tolerance. We are the good samaritan. I sometimes think people get tired of it but I’ve found a way to bypass that issue. When I see these events occur? I have nurtured a sense of ‘this is my space you’ve come to shit all over and I won’t have it.’ Righteous anger is a good thing where it’s put in the service of other people’s dignity.
I hope these ideas are of some use to you. I hope you see there is always hope even when our own governments are trying to strategise against us. Thank you for reading this and see you all soon.
Following this I think there’ll be a final essay on how we engage with those who differ from us – not on social media because there’s absolutely not point with the way it’s structured and with the incentives it provides – but in the flesh. Additionally, there’s no getting away from the fact that social inequality breeds social division and unravels social cohesion. There’s definitely more to say on this too because no matter how good a story is, if it’s moving in the opposite direction to people’s experience it runs the danger of losing its power to change the world.