The Unfinished: Storytelling as Political Necessity


St. James Park was once a yurt village that I was never allowed to stay the night in. Having lived within commuting distance of Toronto at the time, I would board the GO Bus to Union Station for $7.70 on Saturday afternoon, and not return home until the last bus took off for the Newmarket Terminal at 12:50 the next morning. The Occupy movement was in full swing that October, and their weekend general assemblies would galvanize hordes of students, activists, champagne socialists, trade unionists, counter-culturalists, direct actionists, occupiers of all tax brackets and socioeconomic strata, some donning overalls, others in suits and ties, myself somewhere lost among them. Sometimes I still hear “We are the 99 percent” ring in my ears while standing in line at the grocery store checkout, watching the cashier scan the barcodes of off-brand boxes of breakfast cereal.

The ninety-nine percent. This rallying cry would become my first political schema: a cognitive constraint that enlisted myself against the one percent who were responsible for the injustices suffered by the other ninety-nine. I took on an identity shared by my other class-conscious compatriots muddling around a gazebo and a megaphone. E pluribus, unum.

We were the protagonist of our own rebellion story, standing in solidarity against the amorphous villain whose high-rise cast a shadow on our revolution. The tensions, fears, and uncertainties of the recession finally ripened the social climate for the change we needed. People were angry, motivated by principles of social justice, fairness, and egalitarianism.

And then winter came, and it quickly occurred that this story was unfinished by design. There were no goal posts, no agreed upon objectives, no bargaining units, no specific demands, and no structured ending. A story without termination is a story without structure, and without structure a story’s substance can wear away—becoming only incoherent, neglected symbols in a void. This would become Occupy’s fatal flaw. Their hyper-egalitarian “one voice” philosophy precluded any semblance of order and individual leadership that would have otherwise been conferred upon the movement. No clear goals were effectively communicated, no names were named. There were calls to action without plans of action.

Though the storyboard was properly fit with well-defined characters, themes, a central conflict, and an appropriate setting. What was missing was a plot, a central course of events that bring the characters to some sort of resolution. Without these, stories lose their grip, squander their momentum, and fail to set the gears of storytelling into motion.

The demise of the Occupy movement can be explained by its distinct lack of message control—when this narrative is lacking, so too the most central element of one’s story. Andrew Gelman and Thomas Basbøll recognize this element’s role in structuring human cognition and communication. They draw from work in cognitive science that holds that our understandings of the social world, and indeed of the self, are thought about in terms of “story-like causal relations” [1]. However, any old story won’t do. When stories work, their message is marked by two qualities: immutability and anomalousness. This holds that they must depart from prior explanatory models and their maxims must be developed well enough that critics can locate their flaws. That is, it is better to tell a story built upon potentially unrepresentative, but original maxims, than to fail to craft a story at all. This is true of both our social scientific understanding of the world, and our everyday lived-in experience of the social world: both are equally motivated by our natural inclinations to etch, ingrain, and retell stories that make sense of the symbolic and experiential stuff of life.

The immediate point of the Occupy story is that there wasn’t much of a story at all. Its incompleteness stunted its satisfaction of Gelman and Basbøll’s immutability condition. I didn’t realise until years later, but Occupy gave me a political map that, while being to-scale and easy enough to find myself within, was lacking a compass—missing a sort of north arrow with which to guide one’s orientation in the world. Likewise, an orientation that can be questioned, falsified, or challenged by a rival cartographer. The map, so it turned out, was useless in doing anything aside from discovering myself on its topographic field. Yet this only serves half of a good map’s function.

Today, the social engineers behind political messaging are equipped with ‘big data’, detailed personal statistics of vast complexity, that are used to assemble the constituent elements of a story. They’re the product of intensely personal data mining by ‘neuro-marketers’ who use bio-indicators such as brain waves, eye scans, facial recognition software, skin sensors, and heart rate monitors to collect individual responses to political stimuli in real time [2]. Data collected from more commercial sources, such as Neilsen ratings, credit card records, and customer rewards cards, are goldmines for assembling detailed dossiers of consumer behaviour, and are becoming increasingly targeted by politicos, campaign managers, and party staffers [3]. Natasha Singer has exposed how private marketing technology firms like Axciom Corporation and Cambridge Analytica collect and analyse these data for the purposes of strategic political communication [4].

Although these practices are defended as innovative and anodyne avenues for market research, the literature has demonstrated that even seemingly innocuous personal information, such as ‘Likes’ from our Facebook profiles, can be used as powerful predictors of sensitive personal attributes. In fact, even one Facebook ‘Like’ has a non-negligible predictive capacity above baseline for identifying our gender, age, and personality traits [5].

This is critically important for the purposes of storytelling as it allows for targeted messages to be relayed to us based on how well they correspond to our personalities and consumer behaviours. For example, personality traits Openness and Conscientiousness have been demonstrated to have a strong correlation with liberalism and conservatism, respectively [6]. If strong predictors of personality traits, such as ‘Liking’ The Colbert Report on Facebook, are targeted and exploited by political actors, this may present an insidious threat to the free market of ideas, and the stories that animate them. This is because it allows for tailored messages to reach only those audiences primed to espouse it; in effect, this has potential for us to become political sycophants—ideologues existing in enclaves wherein only a narrow slice of political information is exposed to us.

These ideological messages can be thrust upon us through coded, or underhanded, means designed intentionally to exploit those innermost attributes and prejudices. Dog-whistle tactics have been long-standing in the political arena, but when combined with the data analytics of today we become presented with a new set of ethical problems to grapple with. Take the case of 2012’s Romney for President, a political action committee that produced racially-coded television advertisements for select white demographics in Ohio and Colorado. The ad producers leveraged demographic data—records mined and analysed by corporations like Acxiom—to subliminally play on the racial sentiments of the white working class, a demographic empirically demonstrated to respond to this sort of emotional appeal [7].

Given its strategic benefit, it stands to reason that political advertisers will only continue to become more stringent with whom they decide to target by employing increasingly invasive data collection methods. In doing so, the target audience will become so intently identified such that only those segments of the electorate that are naturally responsive to the message will be made aware of it at all.

The possibilities to this end are seemingly boundless. Rose McDermott et al. suggests that even our sense of smell has ideological and political correlates [8]. These too can be leveraged for more rigorous message-control: imagine a digital billboard that emits an attractive scent that only a precise demographic niche is perceptive to. Even the idiosyncrasies of one’s speaking habits can evoke a novel, positive response among political audiences [9]. As it turns out, even something as instinctive as casual speech is immutable.

These message-elements are ordered into the format of a story through the process of narrativization. The sheer quantitative complexity of big data on its own is not enough to assemble the various elements of a message into a cohesive and meaningful communique. There must be a qualitatively affecting narrative that entices the senses and emotions in order to turn mere ‘data’ into information—that is, to render it intelligible and meaningful.

The act of visualizing information is imperative to communicating effectively in the narrative form. It is no coincidence that cognitive scientists conceive of the human brain as a connectionist neural network that is innately configured to process symbols along spatial-visual lines [10].

The phrases “far left” and “reactionary right”, by this account, are not incidental terms. They attest to the mind’s propensity to draw clear spatial representations of the political.

Reductive as it may be, there is experiential merit in visualizing politics. Taking a conceptual model and reifying it in three-dimensional space, allowing it to live and breathe in a cognitively ‘natural’ symbolic order, is a powerful tool in enhancing how we simply experience politics.

The lynchpin of the Occupy movement’s message was their scathing opposition to the inequality of wealth in the United States. One of the main motivating factors that drew me to their rallies was the outrage I experienced upon seeing the infographics that portrayed the share of the national wealth concentrated among the top ninety-ninth percentile of income earners. This is a testament to the power of simple visual heuristics, images capable of framing an issue in a way that is evocative to the target audience.

Generally, this is the domain of ‘branding’. How political brands take form is important for the purposes of visual communication to the electorate—names, colours, and logos are essential for both remaining in, and drawing from, the public’s collective memory. For example, the green colours of the Reform Party were strategically chosen for its association with populism and the prairie spirit, and the Liberal Party’s red was originally selected for its historical roots in socialist and revolutionary politics. These colours, identifiers, and trademarks are deployed by political strategists in a way that not only familiarizes voters with the themes and characters of the story they seek to tell, but also attracts them to the implicit messages that each ‘brand’ has embedded within it.

This is akin to how commercial retailers market their products to consumers; in this way, the voter is treated more like a political consumer than a politically sophisticated voter. This notion that we associate implicit thematic elements from a political stimulus is essentially predicated upon the connectionist paradigm of the political brain. Ex uno, plures.

The visualization of political ‘brands’, and the messages they contain, are vitally important for informing our understanding of politics, as well as our behaviour in the political arena. The larger point, however, is that it serves as a strong example as to how political messaging is ‘heresthetically’ framed in a way that’s both pleasing and accessible to our sensibilities. It alludes to the fact that we, as voters, readily attach ourselves to tribalistic political units (i.e. parties, ideologies, movements, and brands) in order to simplify and heuristically engineer our political environment. Brands, in this way, are politically orienting forces.

The Conservative Party brand tells a reactionary story that diametrically opposes the attenuating forces of the political left; conversely, the New Democrat’s brand tells a proactive, or radical story in opposition to their right-wing counterparts. They mitigate the risk of decision fatigue by narrowing our range of political affiliation to one of only a few viable candidates composed of a collage of colours, slogans, and ideological tropes. Yet, the stories that political parties tell are orienting in a way that the Occupy movement’s never were—because they call for your vote. This is the course of action that is demanded of you in return for being provided the heuristic benefit of brand affiliation.

This is the ‘plot’ of the story that was sorely absent from my angst-ridden misadventures at St. James Park.

But all plots move deathward. It must be borne in mind that the privilege of branding extends beyond the control of the organizations and movements themselves: they can take on a life, message, and story of their own when in the hands of external actors.

Take, for example, Andrew MacDougall’s op-ed, which employs a number of tactics, explicit and implicit, that ‘brand’ both the Liberal and Conservative parties around their leadership personas [11]. In what is essentially a lesson in rhetorical heresthetics, the author paints a vivid picture of both party’s image. Justin Trudeau as the green, youthful, celebrity politician that resembles change and a new stylistic direction; Stephen Harper as an experienced, true-blue veteran that evokes stability, prudence, and phronesis, or “political wisdom”. More implicitly, MacDougall alludes to Trudeau’s brand as being an extension of his familial dynasty, a pedigree too illustrious for its inheritor to live up to.

Bleak imagery is invoked: a “sea of troubles” rising upon Canada’s shores; an animalistic Russian threat; a combative and tumultuous national milieu. And with this, a specific visual representation is brought to mind that frames the political context as one in which Trudeau is unprepared for. Harper, in turn, is lauded for his public policy track record, as MacDougall lists the various tropes of the Conservative Party platform: “lower taxes, a strong military, cracking down on crime, getting rid of the wasteful and ineffective gun registry and abolishing the Wheat Board”. In framing the choice in this way (that is, between the Liberals or Conservatives), prospect theory would position Trudeau in the domain of losses, or at best, the domain of probabilistic gain. Whereas Harper, by this account, represents a sure gain. In effect, this reduces the nuance of the debate to an easily discernable dichotomy—option A representing only a possibly beneficial outcome, while option B resembles the safe bet for the more risk averse.

MacDougall’s piece is less a partisan hit job than it is a representation of an effective political story. One that encapsulates the thematic elements of a narrative, evokes strong and suggestive imagery, identifies the central conflict, orients the audience, and presents a simple and reductive decision-making heuristic. Political messaging par excellence.

Like the call to arms of yesterday’s radicals, “We are the 99%”, the message is manufactured to circumscribe one’s response to it: either you’re within, or without. It is crudely reductive, binary, and dichotomous, and for as long as we maintain an adversarial political system this will remain an effective communicative strategy. It is the inevitable product of electoral and systemic complexity, and the fact that we have such cognitive shortcuts is its saving grace. Without them, we can become lost in the whirlwind of political mayhem; the natural confusion that arises from an overwhelming decision analysis that would demand of us more mental faculties than we’re willing to afford. This is the reason why we support Bernie Sanders for President, but not necessarily Bernie Sanders as president [11]. It’s the reason why we faithfully support our political darlings, even amid high-profile scandals [12]. And it’s the reason Obama couldn’t get his story straight [13].

McDougall’s article gets at the heart of how we make political decisions. Political heuristics are practical in their application as repellents of decision fatigue, identity insecurity, and moral confusion. To this end, politics is itself a heuristic game. To be sure, there is insidious potential for harm to a democratic sphere when these messages and heuristics are applied deceptively, or hyper-selectively to those carefully determined to be best suited for them. In a democracy, the enterprise of ideas and messages should remain open—and this is an important caveat to maintain.

However, it is equally important to be privy to the fact that our politics are determined by the heuristics made available to us. Contrary to folk theories of democracy, we don’t vote, or otherwise politically behave, according to rational maxims. The political sphere is ensnared by cognitive constraints shaped by language, symbols, visual cues, and messages that inflict low-resolution representations of ‘the political’ upon us.

It is incumbent upon the political participant to develop their own sophistication by navigating those symbols and heuristics that we expose ourselves to, and triage them in a way that makes sense to us. To convert them into ordered messages, parable-like and didactic, that mold into our social schemata. And yet they are unfinished and amorphous, as is the development of our political sophistication, as is the acuity of our political minds: when We are the 99% has lost its ring, we move on to other schema, other stories.

The Unfinished: Storytelling as Political Necessity

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