Sun Tzu and the Art of Narrative

Featured image is a statue of Sun Tzu. By 663highland – 663highland, CC BY 2.5.

One of the few nuggets I can recall from my high school reading of Sun Tzu’s Art of War is this: leave your enemy an escape route. If you surround your foe so thoroughly that they have no option but to fight (suppose surrender is not an option), then they will fight like hell. They will fight as nasty as they can, because there is nothing else left. But if they have a way out, then you can best them in the field with less bloodshed on both sides.

Virginia Postrel in her characteristic wisdom points out that Trump voters had many reasons to vote the way they did. Some of these were racist reasons, to be sure. At the very least, Trump voters displayed a stunning lack of giving a shit for the plight of women and minorities, who bore the brunt of both Trump’s narrative assault and his actual prescribed policies (e.g., building a wall and banning Muslim immigration).

Liberals want to turn Trump’s victory into an endorsement of racism and misogyny. That’s a dumb strategy if you’re against those things. The liberal belief that half the country is made up of horrible people is a big reason Trump got elected, and the more Democrats keep repeating it, the more likely their worst fears are to come true.

And so one popular narrative on the left is to portray all Trump voters as reaching deep inside themselves to find their true hearts of racist darkness. But even if this were true, this is a dangerous narrative for liberals and progressives to advance. Think of this as narrative combat. In the flesh and blood political field, of course, liberals and progressives are routed. But there is a narrative struggle as well. And in this narrative struggle, it’s still possible for liberals and progressives to “win”—that is, to weave history such that in electing Trump, Americans are understood to have succumbed fully to racism. Conservatives and other Trump voters are backed into a narrative corner. If no matter what they do, they will be seen as the worst kinds of racists, then they lose all incentive to believe otherwise of themselves. Worse, they will lose any incentive to rein in the genuine racists in their midst.

trump-turnout
Not a broad endorsement of any vision. Link.

And there are truly nasty elements among the Trump electorate. Nothing I have said above should be interpreted as denying that. The KKK and other white nationalists are jubilant at Trump’s victory. Trump’s campaign brought the Alt-Right out of the shadows, and they will be with us for a long, long time. To be clear, the Alt-Right is explicitly against Enlightenment values and liberalism broadly construed. And these elements will likely be emboldened with the apotheosis of their latest mascot.

But we must be careful to allow Trump voters with non-malicious reasons to keep those reasons, woefully misguided though they may be. Those reasons, those self-conceptions, may yet be compatible with the open society. At least, these self-conceptions may be clay that can be worked with toward liberal ends in a way that white nationalist and Alt-Right identities cannot be. Remember that this is the same citizenry that elected Barack Obama. Twice. And some Obama voters also voted for Trump.

Here is another narrative avoid, one of opposite valence. All over my social media feeds I see recriminations of liberals and progressives and “elitists” for doing nothing but calling Trump supporters racists, sexists, and bigots, and generally employing shame tactics against rural America. Now, just as there really do exist actual racists who loudly and proudly supported Trump for frankly racist reasons, there is a kernel of truth to this narrative as well. But it’s not the whole story. Perhaps because of the careful curation of my social media, here’s what I observed far more often than overzealous accusations of racism and angry demands for white men to “check their privilege”: discussion of institutional and other forms of unconscious effective racism that were met by white men who immediately interpreted these discussions as assaults on their character. Openings of discussions of the reality of social privilege were construed as denunciations of whiteness or masculinity as such.

Social justice rhetoric can be and sometimes is weaponized, but white male fragility is also a very real phenomenon. I was discouraged to hear John McWhorter—one of the “black guys of Bloggingheads”—express disapproval of the term “structural racism” as too incendiary. But the idea is all about how unintentional and unconscious actions can lead to racially disparate consequences. Implicit bias is real. Legacy effects of now-dismantled but historically bigoted policies are real. Spontaneous orders resulting from the unplanned actions and beliefs of diverse individuals can and do lead to perverse outcomes for people belonging to certain communities. While care must always be taken in crafting rhetoric, we must not give up on educating everyone about these realities for fear of offending those who most need to learn that these aren’t just silly ideas cooked up by ivory tower professors. As ever, the burden for this communication rests heavier on white folks like me.

The lesson from all this is that there is no singular true narrative for any electoral outcome, especially from an election as unique as this one with two historically unpopular candidates. We can’t make up our facts (leave that to Trump and the postmodern Alt-Right), but we can be strategic about our narratives and the possibilities they contain.

 

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