Apr 20, 2010

Why we Americans argue the way we do.

In the 1980s, USC professor Walter Fisher proposed the narrative paradigm, a sweeping theory of human communication. He said that the human race was, in its essence, homo narrans—man the storyteller. In all situations, we think, talk and choose within the context of a web of stories rooted in our experiences and supplying our value systems.

We reason not through a neutral rationality divorced from values but through a narrative rationality comprising reasons we value as good—a “logic of good reasons” in Fisher’s parlance. When an argument satisfies my logic of good reasons, it “rings true” to me. Hence the name of my blog.

The narrative paradigm might sound like ivory tower philosophical stuff. But it has very practical implications for the way we talk to each other about our country.

Fisher argued that Americans’ most powerful and enduring narrative is The American Dream. When most of us hear that phrase, we think about buying a house and giving our children a better life. But Fisher meant something bigger than that.

The American Dream comprises two linked and balancing sub-narratives: the free-enterprise storyline and the fair-play storyline. (Fisher called them “the materialistic myth" and "moralistic myth"; I’ve chosen free-enterprise storyline and fair-play storyline to avoid the language of academia and connoting what he didn’t mean: false fables.) Both are rooted in foundational American documents, history and values. Understanding the relationship between these two visions within particular moments in American history is helpful in understanding the logics of good reasons we bring to public policy debates.

The free-enterprise storyline tells a tale of individual effort, potency and success. Left unfettered by draconian laws, State-sponsored gods, or inherited class limitations, the hard-working individual can succeed at building a better life as measured in achievements and acquisitions—new car, new house, college for the kids, comfortable retirement.

The free-enterprise storyline’s freedom is a freedom to do as one pleases. The self-made individual—or in modern parlance, the entrepreneur—is its most enduring hero. Competition is the process by which the hero does well. Ultimately, the measure of success is an individual’s net worth, which has no necessary ceiling.

Society is a contractual arrangement agreed upon by individuals and existing solely for individuals’ good. The government that governs least governs best, for excessive government regulations only inhibit the freedom and ability of potent individuals to pursue and achieve the American Dream.

The fair-play storyline tells a story of human rights. All people are created equal; all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; governments derive their powers by the consent of the governed and therefore must govern of the people, by the people and for the people according to the better angels of their nature.

The fair-play storyline’s freedom is a freedom to be as one conceives oneself. The public servant—whether statesman, teacher, philanthropist, or nurse—is its most enduring hero. Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others is the process by which the hero does good. Ultimately, the measure of accomplishment is the degree to which others are uplifted.

Society arises as a natural community to protect and elevate those rights for all. A strong government ensures that the rights of all are secured so that all can pursue the American Dream.

Throughout American history, from the revolutionary period to today, public debates have been steeped in language, values, sentiments and policy prescriptions rooted in both of these narratives.

Citizens whose personal interests, histories and temperaments are amenable to the free-enterprise storyline reason reasonably when they advocate for free enterprise, reduced government regulation, the primacy of markets and the superiority of private institutions.

Those whose personal interests, histories and temperaments are amenable to the fair-play storyline reason reasonably when they advocate for civil rights, universal healthcare, reducing income inequity and public education.

Neither of these narratives is more American than the other. Each represents one aspect of the “American Dream,” “what America is all about,” and “the American people”—phrases often employed by advocates in public debates with the implicit (and false) claim of exclusive conceptual ownership.

Perhaps our public-policy conversations would be more constructive if we saw these two storylines as competing but authentic strands of the American Dream. Perhaps there would be a greater willingness to listen constructively to others if we didn’t see ourselves and those like us as in exclusive possession of American identity and values.

That rings true to me. How about you?


  1. I have enjoyed your first post and concur for the most part. The way we disagree these days is particularly off putting and even incendiary at times. Decorum and civil dabate have slipped to all time lows. I see our complicated potpourri of cultures and beliefs therein as a primary factor in the discord, not to mention the most turbulent economic climate in some 80 years. When people are frustrated and hurting, they say and do extreme things. Fox "NEWS" doesn't help either! Keep on writing cuz!