Human beings are story tellers. Stories help us make meaning of events around us and figure out what to care about. Not surprisingly, conservative and progressive Americans believe they are living very different stories. These differences go way back, but one unexpected and dismaying consequence of the information age has been to widen the chasm to a point that we often can’t see the humanity of people on the other side.
Now, a second fracture is cracking open — this one between people on the left half of the spectrum — and the dynamics are becoming disturbingly similar. Call-out culture, mobbing, shunning, shaming, censorship, family rifts . . . What’s going on? What, if anything, should we do about it? Obviously, there are lots of factors at work here — social media, demographic changes, foreign agents playing us — but from my vantage as a psychologist and storyteller, one factor is the content of our political narratives.
I call the two dominant left-leaning narratives the Social Liberal Story and the Structural Oppression Story. Both can be seen as reactions against a third narrative, the conservative Ancestral Story, which sanctifies traditional social hierarchies. In their opposition to these traditional hierarchies, the progressive narratives are aligned. But when it comes to strategy and goals, they can pull activists in different directions.
Diving in here requires a few qualifiers: First, stories oversimplify. This is a story about stories and it necessarily oversimplifies what it describes. Second, people can shift with surprising ease between narratives that, from the outside, seem incompatible. Third, the two progressive narratives have a lot of overlap. Fourth, we often internalize parts of different narratives without feeling the need for an integrated whole. Even so, looking at bare bones versions of these two stories may offer some insight into the growing tensions between people who think of themselves as liberal or progressive. (For those interested, I discuss the Ancestral Story here.)
The Social Liberal Story
Five years ago, a group of funders in Washington State set out to articulate a unified narrative for advocacy groups that were working to improve education, health, environmental sustainability, social justice and civil rights in the region. What is the golden thread that ties our issues and efforts together? As a part of that team, I spent months interviewing self-identified progressive thought leaders and activists across the country, asking about their core values and vision for the future. The project produced a communications guide called “The Hero’s Handbook” that was well received, but what fascinated me as a psychologist, even more than the collection of talking points we had gleaned, was the convergence in values and narrative among the folks we interviewed.
Dig deep enough into a liberal activist, down to what one might dare to call the spiritual level, and I often heard something along these lines: We’re all in it together. There’s no such thing as a self-made man. I actually am my sister’s keeper. Everybody needs a hand up sometimes. One local leader, Eric Liu, contrasted a rightwing icon, the cowboy, with the image of a barn-raising — rugged individualism in a world of gunslingers vs. collaborative construction in organized community. Many of those interviewed thought of their activism as giving back or paying forward what had been given to them.
Within this theme of interdependence emerged more specific images that defined, for the folks we interviewed, the proper role of government. On the international front, for example, government represented the interests of the collective as part of a broader global community. In the economic sphere, the capitalist exchange of goods and services relied on a shared platform of roads, infrastructure, and sometimes literal public markets like those at the center of Greek and Roman polities. What about all those pesky regulations that can restrict innovation and trade? Rule of law was a public good, part of the platform. The rules make the game, said one sports fan. Winning the greatest freedom and justice for the greatest number takes teamwork, a shared and level playing field, rules, and refs.
In contrast to the common rightwing metaphor of government as an authority figure, thought leaders on the left depicted government as a tool — one we use to create inclusive wellbeing and build shared assets that get handed down to future generations. More than one person paraphrased Abraham Lincoln’s statement*: Government is how we do things together that we can’t do alone. To borrow a tech analogy, government is a social technology that we, the people, use to build the operating system for our society. Individuals build apps on top of that OS.
The quest in this story is, approximately, that of the French Revolution, which sought to undermine the rigid hierarchies of the European class system, creating broader freedoms and equitable opportunity through collective action. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. As part of the same Enlightenment enterprise, America’s founding fathers had staked out a similarly bold claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
America’s Founding Ideals vs Founding Realities
When the founders of our country signed onto this vision, their rejection of hereditary aristocracy was radical and disruptive. In the decades and then centuries that followed, it would become world changing. But, limited by their own place and time, they meant quite literally that men were created equal — men of European descent.
America’s founding ideals were beautiful, says liberal commentator Van Jones; America’s founding reality, not so much. The arc of our history has been a series of fights to bring reality into line with those ideals and to continue the Enlightenment’s revolutionary project of expanding who they apply to — who counts fully as a person and a citizen. Generations have fought and won battles to expand the circle, bringing in religious minorities, the descendants of African slaves, laborers, women, American Indians, queer folk, and even — in a very limited way — members of other species.
This multi-generational fight for more inclusive personhood and associated rights is part of what makes the social liberal project “progressive.” The promised land in this story is one that we create together, where individual capacities and preferences trump lineage and biology. It is the one described by Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That was King’s ideal, but he, obviously, didn’t live to see the day. Nor have we yet, and — in the context of slow or stalled progress since the Civil Rights Movement, anguishing police brutality, mounting xenophobia and growing economic inequality — many young progressives have abandoned this dream. Some actively scorn it. For reasons that are very understandable, driven by emotions including compassion, frustration, and anger, a different narrative has moved to front and center. It is a story about oppression — one in which the quest, at least in the near term, is not inclusion but redress, restitution, and perhaps retribution.
The Structural Oppression Story
The story that has become the rallying point of many progressives in recent years is this:
All prosperous capitalist societies — including, especially, the European democracies and the U.S. — were built by oppressors on the backs of the oppressed. Modern America was built by stealing the land of American Indians, commandeering the sweat and blood of black slaves, keeping women in the kitchen, oppressing brown-skinned immigrants, and exploiting Europe’s former colonies. Virtually all societal ills derive from this one fact — structural oppression — and redressing this wrong will fix most others. “Everything flows from racism,” a young white activist commented on Facebook. Many of her peers agree.
The Structural Oppression Story isn’t simply a reaction against the conservative worldview and the traditional power structures it sanctifies, it is also a reaction against the failings and slow progress of social liberalism.
There’s an old saying, In some ways I am like all other people. In some ways I am like some other people. In some ways I am like no other person. Where the Social Liberal Story focuses on the first and third of these, our shared humanity and unique individualism, the Structural Oppression Story (like the older Ancestral Story) focuses on the second, the ways in which we are like some other people, but not all. As Yale Professor and writer Amy Chua has said, “Sometimes this universalist rhetoric, ‘Oh, we’re all just one people,’ is a way of hiding a lot of inequality and smaller kinds of group oppression.”
She offers a cringe-worthy example:
Woodrow Wilson said in 1915 in a very famous speech, ‘There are no groups in America. America doesn’t consist of groups, and if you continue to think of yourself as belonging to a smaller group, you are not American.’ It’s astonishing that he could say this, in these universalist tones at a time when Native Americans were still largely denied citizenship, Mexican Americans were still being lynched, Asian Americans were barred from owning land, and African Americans were being subjected to violence and degradation virtually every day.”
(I have to add that women didn’t yet have the right to vote, and a married woman couldn’t own a bank account without her husband’s permission.)
In context, Wilson’s speech welcomed recently naturalized citizens and encouraged them to adopt an inclusive American identity on top of that which linked them to their kin and homelands. His words may have been aspirational; they were meant to challenge and inspire people whose circles needed expanding. But for other Americans, like those like Chua listed, they constitute a dizzying denial of the fact that some people’s lives have been defined by group identity whether they wanted it that way or not.
No wonder, then, that activism organized around the Oppression Story is raw and exasperated. It gives voice to people who are done making nice, done waiting politely to be invited to the table, and by others who are horrified at their own history.
Free speech has been exploited by bigots; shut it down. Education has failed to end inequality; name it a tool for maintaining the status quo. Capitalism is decimating our planetary life support system; throw it over.
If the Social Liberal and Structural Oppression stories sound different, that is because they are different, and not simply in degree or emphasis. They have different philosophical roots and are responses to different sets of social conditions. If the conservative Ancestral Story is anchored in ancient theologies like those in the Bible and Quran, and the Social Liberal Story is rooted in Enlightenment philosophy, the Structural Oppression Story is grounded in a neo-Marxist analysis of society known as Critical Theory, most often applied as Critical Race Theory or Critical Gender Theory.
Anti-Oppression in Action
Where the Social Liberal narrative undermines traditional hierarchies through repeated cycles of expanded inclusion, the Structural Oppression narrative takes a different approach. Since society is structured as tribes of oppressors and oppressed, all people get classified based on the tribes they belong to: Are they brown or white? Female or male? Queer or straight? Members of a religious minority or Christian? Poor or rich? Immigrant or citizen?
If a person is not oppressed, they are by definition an oppressor because biases like racism and sexism get built into the structure of society, and each of us either benefits or suffers from them whether we know it or not. Hence the mantra, Check your privilege or the expanding definition of white supremacy.
Some people call this whole narrative “intersectionality.” Conceptually, the term intersectionality refers to the fact that it is harder, for example, to be both black and female than one or the other because the intersection of the two can create an added layer of challenges. Pile on enough and those challenges become insurmountable.
In practice, intersecting membership in traditionally oppressed tribes often gets used to define a stack-rank of oppression that subverts the traditional power hierarchy by inverting it — brown queer immigrant females on top and straight white males at the bottom. Otherwise it operates like all power hierarchies do: Those at the bottom shouldn’t really question those at the top; they should listen and assent, and play the roles they are allowed or assigned. Since members of all tribes inherit the sins of our ancestors, people can be expected to feel either guilty or done-to depending on which tribes they belong to, regardless of their individual life experience. Those from done-to tribes merit restitution or at least penance, and those from guilty tribes should be willing to pay it.
In this story, the quest is to upend the old social hierarchy, perhaps to create equality or perhaps to replace it with a new one, as suggested by phrases like the future is female, or brown is the new white. Either way, the promised land is a world free of patriarchy and white supremacy, and we get there by flipping power dynamics in a social-spiritual form of affirmative action. The goal is to give power to those long denied it and give voice to those long suppressed. To the degree that the individual lives raised up by anti-oppression advocacy reflect the tribal norm of hardship, it does that pretty well.
When Anti-Oppression Becomes Anti-Liberal
I believe that the Structural Oppression story offers a much-needed cultural corrective, calling attention to important realities that the Social Liberal Story doesn’t address: the reality that injustice is built into the very structure of social institutions and organizations, including those that are well intentioned, including on the left; the reality that group identity and intergroup power dynamics profoundly shape human experience.
I also think that when the Structural Oppression Story is treated as the true story of human history it replaces one set of incomplete truths with another and pulls thinking and behavior in directions that are strikingly conservative. When the Structural Oppression Story becomes religion, like the conservative Ancestral Story was for so long, it poses a threat to liberalism overall and undermines the very goals of social justice advocates.
Righteous tribalism is the stuff human history is made of. Since the conservative worldview is what expresses (and sanctifies) that history, tribalism pushes adherents of the Oppression Story toward thinking that can mirror that of conservative ideologues they despise.
One core similarity, as I said, is that the conservative Ancestral Story and the Structural Oppression Story both focus on people as representatives of groups or kinds rather than as individuals or representatives of the human species. Both, likewise, seek to elevate only some tribes. I should emphasize again that both the Social Liberal and Structural Oppression stories can be seen as reactions against a script that across millennia has created stability and wellbeing for some at the expense of others. This means that motivations leading the left and right to embrace tribalism are very different. Conservatives seek to secure power and wellbeing for those who have traditionally held it; anti-oppression activists for those who have not.
At their best, these activists concentrate on lifting up marginalized tribes because this is where suffering is most concentrated and intransigent wrongs can be righted — while still holding to the idea that all people matter. At their worst, though, anti-oppression activists dehumanize those they see as privileged oppressors and have little interest in solving problems or reducing suffering that flow from causes other than structural oppression or (dare I say it?) from our attempts to correct structural oppression.
Is someone despairing or addicted because the automotive plant laid them off or the coal company bankrupted their pension? If he is a white male, he started out with unfair advantage and he’s probably a Trump voter anyways.
Has a questionable accusation of sexual harassment cost a man his job or reputation? Remember how many others got away with it.
When each of us is seen as representative of a group of people, restitution and retribution don’t necessarily have to accrue to the actual victims or oppressors. Ideally, yes. But when that is not possible, another member of their tribe may do. Like conservative Christians, adherents of oppression narrative sometimes believe — or act as if — one man can atone for the sins of another.
Chua discusses the retribution impulse in her new book about global affairs and group dynamics, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Following conditions of inequality and oppressive minority rule, she says,
If you then introduce democracy, suddenly, majority rule, you’re not going to get peace and prosperity like Americans often expect democracy to bring. Instead, you are often going to get payback time, where the long resentful and suppressed majority will use their new political power to come after that dominant minority.
Chua describes dynamics here in America that plague other countries as they struggle toward equity and inclusion.
In the quest for group power, anti-oppression activists mirror conservative activists in another way — by undermining shared epistemologies, meaning methods for determining what is real. Both mistrust the Enlightenment way of knowing, which relies heavily on reason and empiricism, including the process of data aggregation and hypothesis testing that we call science. Admittedly, when it comes to figuring out what’s real, reason and research are far from flawless. They rely heavily on self-correction over time and can be — have been — misused. But that is not the primary issue for either group.
In the conservative framework, reason and research threaten the authority of received traditions and powerful institutions. In the oppression framework they threaten the authority of phenomenology or lived experience. Reason and research both benefit from education, which is not equally available to all and this, to some, makes them tools of the privileged oppressor. Unquestionable truth is to be found in the personal experience, anecdotes, intuitions, and emotions of representatives from oppressed tribes.
Neither religious faith nor subjective experience is accountable. Both are untouchable from the standpoint of the scientific method, which — because humans are so prone to confirmatory thinking — has been called “what we know about how not to fool ourselves.” In the absence of a shared agreement about epistemology — how we decide what’s real — we have no means of converging on a shared set of facts.
If progressives are united in wanting freedom and justice for all, or broad sustainable wellbeing — or even simply an end to structural oppression — the Structural Oppression Story may accelerate progress, but alone it doesn’t get us there, and the gains come at a price. As I said, righteous tribalism is the stuff of human history. David Brooks, in a surprisingly even-handed article about student mobs, concluded nonetheless with a dire warning:
If I could talk to the students . . . I’d just ask them to take two courses. The first would be in revolutions — the French, Russian, Chinese and all the other ones that unleashed the passion of the mob in an effort to overthrow oppression — and the way they ALL wound up waist deep in blood.
Having visited Cambodia’s killing fields, I feel his words in my gut.
At a more rational level, the one where I deal with concerns about the probable rather than the possible, I worry that Structural Oppression progressives risk replacing one set of incomplete truths with another set that lead us back into a familiar pattern rather than moving us forward. I worry that tribalism on the left elicits tribalism on the right. And I worry that chronic conflict will interfere with us being able to solve huge pressing problems: climate chaos, disruptive economic change, and more.
The reality is that each of these two progressive narratives contains important truths and neglects others (and so do many conservative stories if we take the time to really listen).
- Our shared humanity and unique individualism are precious, and we must never forget that they have been denied or suppressed for most of human history along tribal boundaries.
- The deep wounds suffered by only some groups or disproportionately some groups at the hands of others need to be recognized and redressed if they are to heal. This is not just old history.
Can these two narratives be integrated? Only if adherents of each recognize their narrative as one part of the elephant.
Social liberals face some tough questions:
How do we deal with the fact that group identity is a fundamental part of human nature? How do we address the fact that many of our liberal institutions still run conservative code? How do we deal with historical injustices that have multi-generational consequences? Are there conditions where our theory of change doesn’t work?
So do anti-oppression activists:
If MLK’s dream is laughably naïve, what is the alternative? How do we support Enlightenment freedoms like free speech and inquiry for those whose ideas makes some of us uncomfortable, like ex-Muslims? What about for non-Western people living under traditional authoritarianism? How do we pivot from flipping the pecking order to ending the pecking — or is that no longer the goal? Do we want liberty and justice for all? If so, as we move toward our promised land, how do bring along those who are being told they have no place in our aspirational future because their ancestors had it too good?
We can move forward together only by understanding the limitations of the stories we tell ourselves and by acknowledging the basic humanity and usually good intentions of those who differ. Reality is more complicated than any story, and humanity’s lazy devotion to partial truths as if they were whole truths, even more than willful falsehood, puts us at risk of decline, or conflict, or even collapse. This, I think, is the most fundamental thing that true believers lose sight of.
We can do better.