Monday, January 17, 2011

Narratives: The Story-Telling Instinct

Not only do human beings live in groups, but they tell stories, or "narratives" within and between those groups. World views, or what I call macro-narratives are grounded in a few "core beliefs," which undergo alternate periods of relative stability followed by gradual and/or revolutionary change. In short, macro narratives evolve over time based on variation and selection. Macro-narratives generate explanations for perplexing past events and serve as the basis for strategies to predict and control future events. Macro-narratives compete with other macro-narratives and micro-narratives. Some competing narratives come from individuals and coalitions of individuals within the group, some come from outside individuals and groups. We all believe that our own individual and group narrative is True and everyone else's is False. In the history of social and political philosophy there are three competing macro-narratives: large group communitarianism (LGC), small group communitarianism (SGC) and individualism. Let's explore these three narratives.

The central core of both LGC and SMC narratives is that individual human actions are described as the product of "social causation."  Communitarians embrace the core belief that "groups of individuals" are the basic unit of social analysis and that individuals are, at best, passive participants in group behavior. There is little (or no) accommodation for individual responsibility, only collective responsibility. The puzzle for LGC is that "large-groups" (with many members) are often comprised of "small groups" (with fewer members) that often tell micro-narratives that compete with the official macro-narratives embraced by large groups. The LGC narrative argues that the interests of large groups trump the interests of smaller sub-groups and individuals. How large is large? Some LGC are globalists and argue that morality is universal and therefore the narratives told by nation states, religions, and multi-national corporations are (or ought to be) trumped by narratives of the "global community" as represented by global groups.

Within the political sphere, some LGC are nationalists and argue that the national interests trump the global interests, and therefore they seek to "liberate" their nation from encroachment by the global community. In the United States, many small group communitarians seek to "liberate" individual states from encroachment by the federal government; and many local governments seek to be "liberated" from ever-expanding state and federal governments. Similarly, some private-groups such as corporations, religious groups, even families seek to limit encroachment by local, state, and federal government, and from other competing larger groups. Hence, even for communitarians the concept of "liberty" is central.

So far we've covered some of the various aspects of the communitarian macro-narratives. What about individualism? Individualism macro-narratives argue that individuals are real. Groups, they argue, have no objective "collective identity" apart from the "individual identities" of their particular leaders and followers. Hence, groups are manufactured by individuals. Thus individualism explains collective group behavior in terms of the actions of individual leaders and followers within groups.Individuals, they argue "ought" to be free from coercive power exercised by both large and small groups, unless those individuals harm others (or threaten to harm others). This narrative places the onus of moral responsibility on particular individuals and not on an amorphous concatenation of interacting groups.   

In the United States today, our national macro-narrative is in a state of flux. For better or worse, it is dominated by two competing political narratives (as opposed to scientific or religious narratives) in a media driven environment. In my next blog I will argue that our national narrative has been hyjacked by overly simplistic Republican and Democratic narratives.                

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