Chapter 8 – Part 2: Stories as Arguments

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Monday, June 4, 2007

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One of the basic ways our brains organize the world is by shaping events into a sequence with defined roles. This structure takes on the form of stories that make sense of our experiences in the world. In politics, stories are paramount. They provide the most compelling moral arguments for distinguishing true from false and right from wrong. In this installment of the Thinking Points discussion, we look at the role of stories in political discourse.

Last week we looked briefly at an important kind of frame called the argument frame. This week I would like to build upon the ideas presented in Chapter 8 of Thinking Points to help clarify how arguments work so that you can develop greater skill in both critiquing conservative arguments and articulating powerful progressive arguments.

This will be the last discussion in this series on the content of Thinking Points.

Stories in the Human Experience

Everybody loves a good story. They are fundamental to the human experience. I don’t mean this to just apply to our cultural history, although myths and cultural tales do have a major part to play in cultural experience. Instead, I am referring to something much more fundamental to our daily lives as living beings interacting with our surroundings. That is, stories have the general form they do—dilemma, actor, action, object, and resolution—because our minds use this basic process in completing physical tasks.

For example, consider what happens when you take a drink from a glass while sitting at the dining room table. Your brain structures the visual field by clumping together regions of space with similar features (say, the generally brown colored solid object that your brain associates with the word table). In order to take a drink, it is necessary that several roles are filled including drinker (you) and the drink (a cup of coffee?). There is a sequence of events:

  1. The scene starts with the pretext (a person – you – is sitting at the table in the dining room)
  2. There is some kind of dilemma (the person is thirsty and in need of a drink)
  3. There is an action with a beginning, middle, and end that resolves the dilemma
    1. The person sits with his or her hand at one side
    2. The hand is lifted and directed toward the glass
    3. The hand grasps the glass and pulls it toward the person’s mouth
    4. The glass is tilted to pour liquid into the person’s mouth
    5. The glass is returned to the table and released by the hand
    6. The hand returns to the person’s side

Thus, this structuring of experience has a similar form to that of a story. We are perpetually engaged in simple narratives like this throughout our entire lives at the neural level, making stories a profound source of meaning in the lived experience.

Stories Make Arguments

There are many kinds of frames, each having its own set of associated concepts and inferences. When frames are combined into a story (or when they only make sense in the context of a story), the conditions for what is likely to be true are constrained by the set of concepts and inferences involved. Consider the following two stories – one about conspiracy and the other about an accident:

Story 1: The Climate Cult
Once upon a time there were a few people under the impression that something bad was happening to our planet’s climate system. They banded together with like-minded friends and formed a coalition to scare us with a fantastic doomsday scenario. Luckily, we have found that the warming they were talking about is not such a big problem. Heck, it might even be a hoax perpetuated by the Climate Change Cult.

Story 2: The Industrial Experiment
Civilizations grow in complexity when new technologies are discovered. Sometimes these technologies alter society in unpredictable ways that harm the civilization. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, our civilization started a dangerous experiment. We began burning fossil fuels. Unbeknownst to us, we polluted our planet in a way that created long-term and far reaching risks of harm to our children and grandchildren. We erringly tipped out of balance with the natural world. When we learned of the imminent calamity in our midst, we were initially skeptical and afraid to accept the implications of our dangerous experiment. But after years of study we now know that the harms are real and something must be done to prevent an escalation of danger for our civilization.

Story 1 is a conspiracy story, often told by people who seek to discredit the scientific basis for claiming that human-caused climate change is occurring. In this story, there are several “truths” that are necessary for it to make sense:

  • There is no real threat of climate change
  • Climate scientists are villains who want to manipulate public opinion
  • The heroes are people who see through these manipulations and perform the civic duty of informing the public that we are being bamboozled.

Story 2 is an accident story, often told by people who want to acknowledge the dangers of ecological imbalance and seek effective solutions, without getting caught up in a blame game about who is at fault for the threat. In this story, there are “truths” that contradict those in Story 1:

  • There is a real threat of climate change
  • Climate scientists are heroes who want to help us understand the nature of this threat
  • The villains are people who place personal interests above the truth or are unwilling to accept the nature of this threat. These people are keeping effective solutions from being implemented that can reduce the damage from climate change.

Each of these stories promotes a different interpretation of reality. While following the sequential logic of the story, our minds are attracted to concepts that match the story and are frustrated by concepts that contradict it. This encourages one interpretation to hold greater sway in the mind over another. The story makes sense of the situation by providing this interpretation. It also activates the concepts associated with the story, priming the brain with a preferential bias for similar concepts and inferences through neural associations.

Bush’s Development Story as Argument Frame

The argument frame is described in the Chapter 8 Part 1 discussion. Recall that every argument is comprised of moral values, fundamental principles, an issue defining frame, a commonplace frame, and inferences. On May 31, President Bush presented his international development agenda in a speech at the International Trade Center. During this speech, he was credited with disclosing a proposal he plans to present at the G8 Conference next week. This is a misunderstanding of what he did in his speech. A close reading, giving special attention to narrative structures in the language, reveals that he did not share a proposal for dealing with the climate crisis. Instead, he weaved a tale of technological innovation and free trade. I have written about this tale here [Trade Barriers Article].

At the request of two discussion participants, dano and cwatts, I will now go deeper into my analysis of this speech to reveal how effective arguments work. Hopefully this will be helpful for all of us in our efforts to build the skills of critiquing strict father arguments and promoting nurturant arguments.

Analysis of General Narrative Structure
In the presentation that follows I will extract narratives and argument features from several excerpts of the speech. Each excerpt will use frames to create narratives at the level of phrases and sentences. Before looking in detail at these excerpts, it will be helpful to get the big picture, which is that there is a narrative structure throughout the entire speech that is reinforced many times. Each repetition activates the same deep frame to promote the idea that the conservative view is morally good. Thus, listeners and readers who follow the speech without awareness of frames and cognition are being conditioned neurologically to accept this story as a valid interpretation of reality.

The general narrative structure of the speech can be found by reading the following sequence of excerpts – presented here in the order they appeared in the original version with paragraph numbers counted from the beginning of the text (Laura Bush gave an intro that is paragraphs 1 through 7).

See if you can figure out what the story is:

Excerpt 1
“Millions suffer from hunger and poverty and disease in this world of ours. Many nations lack the capacity to meet the overwhelming needs of their people. Alleviating this suffering requires bold action from America. It requires America’s leadership and requires the action of developed nations, as well.”
(Paragraph 10)

Excerpt 2
“We are a compassionate nation. When Americans see suffering and know that our country can help stop it, they expect our government to respond.
(Paragraph 15)

Excerpt 3
“So America is pursuing a clear strategy to bring progress and prosperity to struggling nations all across the world.”
(Paragraph 18)

Excerpt 4
“Bringing progress and prosperity to struggling nations requires opening new opportunities for trade.”
(Paragraph 19)

Excerpt 5
“But it’s important for members of Congress and the people of this country to understand free trade is the best way to lift people out of poverty.”
(Paragraph 20)

Excerpt 6
“Building progress and prosperity to struggling nations requires lifting the burden of debt from the poorest countries.”
(Paragraph 24)

Excerpt 7
“Bringing progress and prosperity to struggling nations requires increased American assistance to countries most in need.”
(Paragraph 26)

Excerpt 8
“All of this will go for naught if people don’t have a good education. So the second way we’re using our aid is to improve education so that the young in the developing world have the tools they need to realize their God-given potential.”
(Paragraph 36)

Excerpt 9
“At the G8 summit, I’m going to urge our partners to join us in this unprecedented effort to fight these dreaded diseases.”
(Paragraph 46)

Excerpt 10
“Bringing progress and prosperity to struggling nations requires growing amounts of energy…we need to harness the power of technology to help nations meet their growing energy needs while protecting the environment and addressing the challenge of global climate change.”
(Paragraph 47)

Discussion Questions

Let’s explore this as an exercise to help build our skills. I will prepare my answers separately and introduce them during the discussion later in the week. In the meantime, talk amongst your partners and I’ll follow along.

Question 1
What is the story?

Question 2
What are the moral values behind this story?

Question 3
Are there any fundamental principles at work here? If so, name any of them that you see.

Question 4
There are several issue defining frames in these excerpts. Name two of them and tell us which excerpts you found them in.

Question 5
Is there any commonplace knowledge presumed in this story? Try to find implications about how the world is presumed to be…even if these presumptions are false.

Question 6
What is Bush wanting you to conclude? Has he suggested any conclusions that weren’t stated explicitly?

Question 7
Is this argument structured effectively? In other words, has Bush managed to:

  1. Present a moral premise that tells you what is “right”?
  2. Introduced a narrative structure that defines who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are?
  3. Make use of contested concepts in a way that priveleges his worldview over others (the strict father worldview)? In other words, establish issues that set up the problem and solution that makes one world view seem much more logical than another?
  4. Determine arguments on the progressive side?
  5. Used commonplace frames that resonate immediately, even if they are untrue?
  6. Used surface frames that evoke strict father deep frames?

This concludes the Thinking Points Discussion series.