There’s an interesting body of research that studies how people process information and make decisions. It’s called behavioral science, and one point frequently noted is that human brains are wired to create shortcuts that help us understand the world. One way we do that is categorization.
We construct narratives about how the world works and then look around for affirmation.
This is what Daniel Kahneman calls the confirmation bias, and it colors how we interpret new information. We are not disposed to hold and digest dissonant ideas, which is why we gravitate to news sources that affirm our beliefs and remain unperturbed by facts that don’t.
I think that part of wisdom is resisting this inclination and embracing complexity. F. Scott Fitzgerald noted that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This has extraordinary implications for how we think about policy. If you look around for the most thoughtful political commentators (I’d start with David Brooks, who communicates many of these ideas here) you’ll find that they allow dual narratives to color how they see the world. For every policy, they intuit that its virtues are accompanied by its vices.
Take these two truths regarding rent controls. On one hand, widespread gentrification in some inner-cities has priced younger generations out of their own communities. Soaring rent prices disrupt the cultural and familial bonds that hold neighborhoods together.
But here’s another truth, backed by a trove of research. Keeping rents pegged at rates grossly below the going rate can have unintended consequences for the rest of the housing market. As seen in New York City, those lucky enough to snatch a rent-stabilized unit will likely stay long after it has become inconvenient. Less fortunate renters must compete for more expensive apartments.
Both narratives are, to varying extents, empirically verifiable. Yet focusing exclusively on either principle leads to a radically different vision for how to support low-income urban families. The only way to begin constructing a housing policy that is both humane and sensible is to hold both stories at the same time. Unfortunately, that’s hard; those who commit to a single narrative have an easier time building a coherent and easily digestible story. (Donald Trump is the ultimate embodiment of the single story.)
Look at another issue: criminal justice.
Since at least the mid-twentieth century, multiple narratives have competed to describe crime and punishment. On one hand, mass incarceration and tougher police tactics—including racially-motivated drug laws—undoubtedly contributed to the decrease in violent crime in the 1990s (although varying levels of credit are also given to gun laws, drug trends, and Roe v. Wade). To one degree or another, locking up large numbers of mostly young men helps to reduce crime.
Here’s another narrative. Police departments are militarized, divided from the community, and disturbingly quick to resort to deadly force, especially toward young black men. Even more, officers who kill civilians are acquitted at alarming rates. This narrative resonates with what Bruce Springsteen sang after Amadou Diallo was gunned down: “You’ll get killed just for living in your American skin.”
Functional governments and well-adapted politicians recognize that competing narratives can be represented by a pendulum. At times, the pendulum will swing too far in one direction and will need to be rebalanced. Historians might point to the unrest of the ‘60s as one example. Alternatively, though, Nixon’s subsequent “law and order” policies incarcerated thousands of nonviolent offenders and were steeped in racially-coded language and inequalities. One vice of the pendulum, then, is its tendency to overcorrect. Politics rarely rewards nuance or gentleness.
Which direction do we need to move in now?
2016 might be a particularly tense year because both stories of criminal justice are deeply convinced that their narrative describes reality. Breitbart recently announced that “It’s 1968 Again” and “The bad old days have returned.” Headlines like those are a softball for Mr. Trump, whose poll numbers go up whenever Americans feel unsafe. RNC attendees in Cleveland were greeted on Day 1 with banners that read “Make America Safe Again” and a red-faced Rudy Giuliani reminding them why they should feel afraid. (One Borowitz Report accused the RNC of plagiarizing Revelation’s visions of the Last Days).
Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter and a substantial body of research insists that aggressive policing has fostered profiling, brutality, and gross racial inequalities. America needs to be made safe again, they say, for young men reaching for their wallets or peddling cigarettes.
Understanding both sides of the pendulum doesn’t mean that both merit a response at the present moment—that’s impossible, actually. It’s hard to reconcile the crime-prevention strategies of a man like Mr. Giuliani (who authored stop-and-frisk policies and vehemently opposes Black Lives Matter) with the reforms advocated by demonstrators. We can’t have both right now.
Perhaps the most pressing issue at the moment is that these two narratives are operating in largely separate spheres.
The Republican Party’s leadership has little interest in holding competing ideas loosely. Black Lives Matter is sometimes exasperated by attempts to change the conversation, even to the point of protesting Bernie Sanders rallies. That’s a problem on both sides, and it obstructs our ability to create change. If we have the will, it’s a lot easier to engage and understand each other when we hold multiple stories in our hands at the same time. A particularly graceful person, fully grasping competing narratives, can learn to speak to both sides. That kind of person can be a catalyst for change.
If we do that, then we can get down to the more difficult questions of deciding which narrative best captures reality right now, and which story deserves more of our attention.
Guest Writer: Ben cares deeply about creating an opportunity society, affirming human dignity, and trying to take Jesus’ words seriously. He is a junior at Messiah College, where he is studying economics, politics, and anthropology. Ben has worked with several local and global nonprofits, including HOPE International and Family Promise, as well as the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank. He hopes to inform local policymaking with principles of behavioral science in order to lower barriers to mobility.