When Worlds Collide

There is no escaping that we interpret the world through a narrative framework which has deep roots in human nature. We see the same characters and plots across time and cultural boundaries. The details in these narratives are fleshed out to fit prevailing conditions by elites who offer us meaning and belonging through narrative in exchange for loyalty.

Each grand narrative, whether religion, Nationalism, Liberalism, Confucianism or Marxism-Leninism believes itself to hold a monopoly on truth, at least that truth within its scope. All tend towards reductionism,  dichotomization and projection of its flaws, that is, scapegoating, onto some ‘othered’ group. There is also a general tendency to emphasize information which re-enforces a narrative and ignore any which undermines it. These tendencies are generalized, all are guilty, while all claim unique innocence.

Interacting across boundaries between conflicting narratives is one of the greatest challenges we face. Real maturity is the ability to approach someone with whom you don’t agree, one who follows a narrative different to yours, and try to see things from their point of view. Few can do this. People often simply virtue signal, exchange comforting confirmation bias, and tell themselves that this is open, intelligent discussion. If they find someone who appears to belong to the same narrative-community as they do, but fails to reciprocate the virtue signalling, they quickly move to thought policing, selecting this or that truth deemed unassailable within their narrative and demand confirmation of it. If instead they receive a contrary interpretation stemming from an alien narrative, the discussion generally breaks down in a failure of ‘cultural’ translation, unless either or both of the participants are skilled cultural mediators. The non-conformist will be deemed stupid, ignorant or evil.

An extreme minority of individuals for some reason or another eschew acceptance of any standardized narrative, painfully costing them the basic human need of belonging. Rather than adopting virtues based on their efficacy for reciprocal virtue signalling, that is the ritual of kinship confirmation, they choose values by some non-standard criteria. This may be unsuccessful, thereby leading to greater psychological pain in the form of repetitive cognitive dissonance, in which case the individual will at best adjust his criteria, or give in and find an amenable narrative-community to join. Others may find that their independently chosen value criteria and independently constructed narrative results in less cognitive dissonance than any available narrative-community. In this case, they will likely maintain it, particularly if they can find other independent-minded individuals with whom to relate to some degree and thereby compensate for the lack of community belonging. Such individuals may emphasize value criteria of inquiry or critique over universal moral value criteria or ontological axioms, for example who must have which human rights or whether there is a God.

Attempts to share facets of their relatively cognitive-dissonance-immune narrative with conformists will necessarily meet with little success. These will, rather, lead to animosity, as the masses are too emotionally and egoistically invested in belonging, and belonging to that narrative-community which they trust holds a monopoly on truth. Rarely will anyone other than other non-conformists or those nurturing the seeds of doubt, those for some reason stricken by cognitive dissonance, but lacking the inkling of any more effective alternative narrative, benefit from these attempts at sharing.

The world is full of a variety of personality types, interpreted via the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, the Five Factor Model or others. Besides, altogether a large segment of humanity is subject to psychological or neurological disorders ranging from sociopathy to autism. It takes all types to make a world. There will always be conformists, non-conformists and a variety of narrative-communities- they go extinct as quickly as they are born. Not all narratives are equal, they answer questions of differing times and contexts, there can be no definitive narrative. Jordan Peterson notes that all narrative-communities occupy a position somewhere on a spectrum between totalitarianism and nihilism- too much conviction and too little. As is always the way, either extreme can be fatal. Narratives could also be placed on a scale of maturity. They all feature a mythical or -semi-mythical founding figure who represented some pure and unattainable state of virtue, of moral purity, or dedication to the cause. Moses, Christ, Mohammad, Buddha, Confucius, America’s founding fathers, or any national hero-poet. However, the narrative only becomes a narrative when it is adapted or codified to become something workable in everyday human society, as St. Paul did with Christianity, Dong Zhongshu did with Confucianism, or Lenin did in a, shall we say, regrettable way with Marx. Besides likely being born out of a previous narrative, Buddhism from Vedantic philosophy, Christianity from Judaeism, Marxism from Liberalism, and so on, each narrative is inevitably subject also to syncretism- the absorption of aspects from pre-existing narratives. Christianity famously incorporates platonic concepts and aspects from various mythological traditions. Marxism-Leninism employed nationalist policies against purist Marxist dogma, and Confucianism adopted folk metaphysical ideas to compete with Buddhism, which itself adopted Daoist ideas in the formation of Zen. Another inevitable process is the division into sub-narratives. This is analogous to the division of language into dialects. The parallel with the division of dialects into ideolects, personal variations on a sub-narrative, is also useful. Christianity has its denominations, Marxism-Leninism has its Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists, etc, while nationalists for example can disagree on where a nation should begin and end- for example, is Moldova a proud independent nation or an estranged part of Romania? Each individual will then interpret these in at least marginally unique ways. Perhaps most importantly, each narrative necessarily undergoes revision and adaption as real social or environmental conditions force it to revise itself immediately upon implementation. But those conditions constantly change forcing it to constantly adapt. Human nature doesn’t change, allowing myths older than time to still resonate today, but the relative needs for emphasis and de-emphasis of narrative aspects on the part of both elites and the masses, which themselves can change wildly in character, fluctuates over time.

Some narratives have undergone millennia of syncretism, diversification, and adaption from often very rocky and uncertain beginnings. It may be as much chance as virtuosity that selects those that are re-enforced into (perhaps seemingly) timeless relevance by these processes. The longevity o Christianity is still dwarfed by that shamanistic practice or Pharonic beliefs. It is in retreat in some regions before liberalism’s ideals of capital accumulation, progress, secular humanism, scientism and rationalism, a combination which has hardly had time to mature and indicate any level of sustainability as a narrative cocktail.

Narrative-communities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We belong to different overlapping communities, each comes with a narrative that we identify with. Sometimes narrative communities are in direct competition and therefore they proscribe contemporaneous belonging in one another, sometimes not. Abrahamaic religions are an obvious example, but a nationalism may also seriously frown on belonging  to a religion other than the main nationally-tied one. In China there was a saying that one is Confucian in the office, Daoist in retirement and Buddhist on the deathbed. A Confucian could have been born a ‘barbarian,’ in Chinese parlance, but no barbarian advocating sovereignty for their people from the emperor could be Confucian. Bolshevist proscription of religion is a lot more nuanced and fluid than often decried. One would have been worse off as a prosperous peasant, property owner, or anti-communist nationalist. Today, some fanatically atheist liberals are more critical of the religious than pre-1917 Marxists were. The Nazi approach to the Catholic church differed little from the Bolshevik one.

The three Modern Western socio-political narratives of Fascism, Liberalism and Marxism-Leninism ape Monotheism in many ways. For example, they approach one another in much the same way as the three Abrahamaic religions approach one another- in zero-sum belligerence. This is also true within Liberalism, regarding its left-right divide, which, while a reductionist dichotomization, is a self-fulfilling fantasy. Both the intra-liberal conservatives and ‘progressive-liberals’ accept the results of the Liberal American or French revolutions, but hold discreet narratives over the legacy of those revolutions, mischaracterize the (heterogeneous) opposing side and paint them as an invasive threat to that legacy- some interpretation of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Throughout the twentieth century, the global left, which prior to 1917 had stood simply for direct-democratic worker ownership and control of the workplace (that is, of wealth creation), had been co-opted, bought out and corrupted by the Soviet State, and bandied about a fantastical image of it. Though in no way representing that original ksocialist aim, the USSR claimed to be socialist to lend itself the legitimacy that the original socialist idea had held, while the Liberal western elites were eager to de-legitimize domestic socialists by association with the undemocratic USSR, although many or most western leftists were by then intra-liberal social democrats, not Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, the left characterized the right as all imperialists, racists, reactionaries, fascists and manipulative exploiters. Each had their own mutually incompatible narrative and projected the flaws of the Liberal order squarely onto the other, nurturing false narratives of the development of western liberalism that increased the likelihood of poor policy and eventual cognitive dissonance while re-enforcing polarized, communitarian boundaries. A more defensible narrative is that the liberal order is a product of the delicate balance of those ‘right-wingers’ who advocate private property rights and some semblance of a free market on the one hand, and the radical left, without whom we wouldn’t have universal suffrage, healthcare, and the most basic labour and womens’ rights which prevent most from living in an early-Liberal Dickensian dystopia.

The 2016 US presidental election demonstrates this clearly. Sanders, though barely a social democrat, was considered too ‘socialist.’ The candidate of the status quo, Clinton, despite massive ethical and legal issues, was considered the progressive choice by many, simply because she was a woman who wasn’t Trump. Opportunistic campaign media had painted Trump racist and even fascist by twisting his words and putting some in his mouth, but this was accepted by many who, certain they belonged to the narrative-community with the monopoly on truth, accepted at face value the virtue-signalling myth that their media was ‘free and fair.’ Many Trump supporters, meanwhile, decried the ‘left’ as full of fanatical ‘Cultural Marxists’ obsessed with political correctness and identity politics  which had invaded and corrupted the liberal order. However, Marx and his followers were concerned strictly with economic exploitation and were averse to anything like identity politics or political correctness, in fact viciously attacking moralizing on such issues from the likes of Proudhon. The ethos of identity politics or political correctness could just as easily be traced to the emancipatory zeal of the liberal American and French revolutions. Many were shocked when Clinton’s campaign of virtue signalling identity politics, incessant scapegoating the outsider in the form of Trump and Russia, and economic status quo lost the electorally crucial rust belt states to Trump’s message of change and jobs. The narrative which had become establishment disregarded the decline in economic outlook of millions of working people and over-estimated their eagerness to signal belonging to a narrative community whose emphasis on identity politics was only convincing if there were not more fundamental, pressing issues like the economic insecurity of millions of working families.

Since the end of the Cold War Liberals on both sides of the divide have believed in Fukuyama’s ‘end of history,’ re-enforcing their claim to a monopoly on truth. Recently, the rise of right-wing populist leaders across the west has started challenged this. In times when narratives start to break down, it can be helpful to remember that you are something deeper and more fundamental than any narrative-community in which you find identity. Human beings have evolved enough cognitive abilities to find food and reproduce, not enough to grasp objective absolute truth. We are stuck in our reductionistic, dichotomizing, comforting narratives. As soon as we free ourselves from one, we find ourselves in another. Resisting this is psychologically harmful. Granted, we can discover mathematical facts from the cosmic to the subatomic level, but the closer matters come to those of human identity and vested emotion and ego the less we can deny this dynamic. What can we do but try not to take things for granted, consider the possibility we may not have a monopoly on truth, and, when confronted with others who do not conform to our narrative, genuinely try to see things from their point of view, however distasteful it may seem at first.

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