American Political Landscape and Social Cognition
Recently, a peer reviewed, scientific study from PLOS One, The effect of exposure to fiction on attributional complexity, egocentric bias and accuracy in social perception, published findings that the narrative forms of popular and literary fiction are correlated with different social cognitive styles.
While this study looked at the relationship between individuals and the form fiction is generated, it’s possible to speculatively extend this relationship to individuals and the form American political broadcast news is presented. In particular I will focus on attributional complexity, which is a measure of how well we can “infer attributions, both for internal and external factors” as motives for individual behavior and how that relates to the construction of media narratives.
Often the political division of news narratives is understood in terms of “us versus them”. This article offers another way to understand the narrative division, rather than appealing to one’s relative position in terms of the division between conservatives (Republicans) and liberals (Democrats).
To do this, we will first compare what characterizes each form of fiction, and then we will speculate on how those characteristics might compare to popular political stances.
While there are many different articles online criticizing the division between popular and literary fiction, I agree with the authors of the study that the proper point of view is not to valorize or deprecate one form over the other. Both forms are present in our culture because both kinds of social cognition are instrumental for our understanding of who we are as individuals and as a nation.
Understanding the role of narrative forms will give us greater ability to navigate in our increasingly digitized, hyperreality, metamodern (post-postmodern) world.
1 What Makes Fiction Literary or Popular
Discriminating readers will note that literary and popular are not mutually exclusive terms. Nonetheless, there seems to be a general consensus that one major difference between the two is that literary fiction is about the complexity of meaning between characters whereas popular fiction is about what happens.
This isn’t to say that literary fiction couldn’t be popular, nor is this to say that popular fiction can’t be literary.
The main distinction:
- Literary fiction tends to develop depth in its characters so that the motivations and world-views of the characters are salient when assessing the story. Because of this complexity in negotiating different points of view, literary fiction is often ambiguous in meaning. With literary fiction, the ending may not have a clear and distinct meaning.
- Popular fiction tends to focus on the plot. The characters are minimally developed so as to move the story forward. Popular fiction tends to embed its meaning in the presentation of the story. Protagonists are often shown to be unambiguously good while antagonists are often shown to be unambiguously bad. With popular fiction, the ending has a clear and distinct meaning.
The main difference has to do with how construct the meaning, either in terms of events or in terms of the motivations of characters.
Popular fiction is calibrated for meaning, so under popular fiction, the motives of individual behaviors are less important. What is important, for popular fiction, is the impact of the plot, not the inner life of the characters.
As literary fiction centers more on the ambiguity of meaning, readers are required to develop their attributional complexity to modeling the minds and social attitudes of others. The meaning thus, isn’t presented as clearly to reader insofar as the reader needs to construct the meaning out of the context of particular individually unique actors, each with their own story.
To illustrate these distinctions, I will give two examples. The first is the Lord of the Rings Trilogy while the second is the HBO series Game of Thrones.
1.1 The Lord of the Rings
I recently read the Lord of the Rings in its entirety (isn’t the shutdown great…). The last time I read it I was around 13 years old. Now, at 42, I appreciate the formal and epic dialogue Tolkien employed. He describes the world, the actions, and the characters in a way that is immersive and compelling. If I pay attention to the quality and the style Lord of the Rings was written, it would appear to be literary given the skill all the while having immense popularity.
However, when considering the distinctions presented above, Lord of the Rings is decidedly popular despite its epic feel.
- While some of the characters can wax between good and evil (such as Boromir or Golem), and some characters do have an inner life, the events in the story are such that the good characters (Frodo, Sam, Gandalf, Aragorn) and the bad characters (Sauron, Saruman) and unambiguously on one side or the other. We never need to wonder who to cheer for, or who is on the side of evil.
- Lord of the Rings has a very direct ending where Good triumphs and all is definitively concluded.
These two reasons are essential because Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings to present a mythology of Europe. The main threat to this mythology, for Tolkien, was the industrialization that was changing the character of European culture. By adopting a popular fiction structure in the story, Tolkien means to beat the reader with the meaning he wishes to impart. In fact, at the end of the last book in the trilogy, after the ring was destroyed, Tolkien includes another one hundred pages where the hero-hobbits must save the Shire themselves against the corruption Saruman inflicted while they were questing to destroy the ring. If the story was about the One Ring then the trilogy should end with the One Ring, but it doesn’t.
By ending the trilogy this way, Tolkien shows how the Shire is more important (and in some sense, more significant than the One Ring). Throughout the story, whenever any of the hobbits felt weak, they only had to think of the Shire and its abundance of friends, foods and festivities in order to understand the suffering they were enduring was necessary to preserving the Shire. This longing for community and belonging is what carried the hobbits to heroism. This longing is what enables them to defeat the One Ring.
By having the hobbits fight for their Shire directly after the One Ring is destroyed, Tolkien emphasizes that the true struggle isn’t the destruction of the One Ring, but the preservation of the Shire.
The One Ring is only a vehicle to provide Tolkien a means towards moving the plot along so that Tolkien can impart his meaning to the reader. After all, defending Europe from industrialization and modernization is what Tolkien wants us to do.
As Tolkien’s emphasis is on the “meaning”, it’s interesting to note how Tolkien treats the in-group and the out-group in terms of attributional complexity.
- The characterization is relatively flat. Frodo and Gandalf are arguably the two most important characters, but their personalities are one dimensional. Golem has the most ambiguity, but he acts more as a warning to the depravity the Hobbits must struggle against.
- The distinction between good and evil is never in question, so in-group v out-group is clear. (Golem appears ambiguous, but he does not dilute what is good or evil with his ambiguity.)
In the ways outlined above, meaning is distinct throughout the text, in some sense unimpeachably clear despite the struggle of the characters.
Clearly, these distinctions place Lord of the Rings as popular fiction.
One more example is warranted. For this, let’s turn to Game of Thrones, in particular the HBO series.
1.2 Game of Thrones
I haven’t read the books yet. But I have seen all of the HBO series. This series seems different, in a way, from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In particular, there are many characters who have their individual complexities, and the ending is very ambiguous. Could the HBO TV series be considered literary?
Game of Thrones is questionable because the last season of the TV series rushed. The ending departs from the story George RR Martin did write and has a decidedly different feel for last seasons.
I include this example because it’s arguable that once we know how a narrative form is to “look” we can take narratives and try to fit them into those forms.
For the first five seasons, Game of Thrones feels very literary as the meaning of the events are ambiguous. There are many unexpected events that change the fate of the characters, with the characters developing slowly over time their experiences impact them. There are also many side characters, who experience change and show growth, pushing the boundaries for who is good and who is bad.
Then, the entire structure takes a turn. This turn lets us see how a general population can resolve the ambiguity in the story in terms of the popular fictional form, by casting Cersei Lannister as a villain.
As so many rejected the ending in Game of Thrones, there is also much discussion (such as here and here) as to how Game of Thrones should have ended so as to provide more satisfaction. See the video below.
I think this YouTuber did an excellent job with his suggestions. He
- repositions the plot so that the main conflict is maintained throughout the story.
- clearly delineates characters as good or evil, with Daenerys Targaryen as a clear hero and the Night King as the clear villain.
This re-write eliminates ambiguity while maximizing the tension as a conflict between two sides that are clearly good or evil. Interestingly the change also flattens the complexity between the characters. After all, if the point of the narrative is to maintain conflict then having characters, at least on the side of good, being ambiguous defeats the purpose of focusing conflict, as energy that can be used to build up the main conflict is lost in the ambiguous relationship between characters.
With this edit in Game of Thrones, we can more clearly see the divide between literary and popular fiction. If we take literary and popular fiction as being a mutually exclusive category that is complete (that is, all fiction must be considered popular or literary) then it is clear that the HBO series as currently constructed is more literary than popular. The ambiguity of the ending, as far as conflict goes, gives us room to interpret the ending in various ways (as a tragedy, as the end of the medieval era of Kings, with the rise of a kind of Democracy, or in terms of Jon Snow or Tyrion Lannister’s struggle).
Without the clarity in conflict/resolution from an optimized popular narrative form, audiences are left to construct their own meaning, which would require them to dive deeper into the mental and social stakes of each of the characters. In this way, we can see how the popular/fictional narrative forms directly relate to how much consideration is needed in the minds and situations of others when constructing meaning.
At this point, we can turn towards contemporary broadcast news outlets to see how they compare with these distinctions.
2 American Political News as Conflict Oriented
Previously, I had written an article comparing the presentation of political narratives as cartoons. In terms of the popular/literary narrative forms it is clear that the “us versus them” narrative form follows the popular narrative form by emphasizing conflict.
This isn’t without reason however, as the current information paradigm for streaming platforms and cable news increases the amount of competition for attention.
The need to secure attention has led to news outlets providing ready-made messaging for easier digestion. As Matt Tabbi has written in his essay We Need a New Media System
Now there are no major commercial outlets not firmly associated with one or the other political party. Criticism of Republicans is as baked into New York Times coverage as the lambasting of Democrats is at Fox, and politicians don’t fear them as much because they know their constituents do not consider rival media sources credible. Probably, they don’t even read them. Echo chambers have limited utility in changing minds.
In this sense, all news outlets more or less follow a popular fiction form for their narratives, in order to rally their audiences. For this reason I am not going to insist that conservative outlets have a substantially different narrative format than liberal outlets as all news outlets have a clear in-group/out-group distinction, one that lends itself to popular fiction.
As stated before, I am going to avoid criticizing one form or another as after all, this narrative form is one way in which we construct our identity socially.
For this section, we can use the distinctions given in the scientific study to look at how news groups structure meaning for their listeners. The next two sections look at their treatment of the in-group and the out-group for news outlets.
2.1 In-group Form
While pundits on both conservative and liberal news outlets have a centralizing tendency as “the meaning” (in order to preserve the in-group/out-group distinction), conservative outlets tend to double down on reducing diversity within their ranks. For example, back in 2018, right wing pundit Doug Mainwarning, who identifies as gay, criticized Fox News for being too pro-LGBT. To quote the article:
Fox News, Mainwaring contended, has absorbed the gay culture of New York City and Washington, D.C. “Bottom line: Don’t expect truly ‘Fair and balanced’ reporting on LGBT issues from Fox News,” he concluded.
Of course, many LGBT people and allies would argue that Fox News is biased against the LGBT rights movement, not in favor of it.
What’s interesting here, is that Mainwarning not only advocates pursuing a conservative agenda of family, he also attempts to live the conservative husband-wife + children format in his personal life.
“I wholeheartedly support civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, but I am opposed to same-sex marriage,” he wrote. “Because activists have made marriage, rather than civil unions, their goal, I am viewed by many as a self-loathing, traitorous gay. So be it. I prefer to think of myself as a reasoning, intellectually honest human being.”
He said his “proclivity” for homosexuality has “never faded,” but he married a woman, and they adopted two children before their marriage broke up. They eventually reunited, but “because of my predilections, we deny our own sexual impulses,” he wrote. They have a happy marriage nonetheless, he said.
This suggests that conservative push for an idealized lifestyle regardless of their individual concerns. This is different from more liberal news outlets which will explore individual concerns through the rubric of larger movements, like LGBTQA, Black Lives Matter, #metoo, and others.
For instance, watch the clip below and notice how many times the speakers references the concerns of others, by attributing motives (to police, senators, other activists, and the elite).
This is a remarkably different contrast to the conservative example above, whereby a gay man lives a conservatively ideal cis-lifestyle (without the heterosexual sexual activity).
In terms of the scientific study, we can speculate that
- for conservatives, the emphasis is on reducing attributional complexity, as members of the in-group are expected to conform to a central ideal at the expense of individual concerns
- for liberals, the emphasis is on increasing attributional complexity, as members of the in-group are expected to understand other individual concerns within the in-group as those concerns are impacted by external and internal conditions. (An example of an external condition for Black Lives Matter might be institutional racism. An example of an internal condition for LGBTQA might be sexual orientation.)
This distinction on attributional complexity for in-groups lets us see how the emphasis of conservative and liberal news outlets is differently focused.
We can also see this in-group treatment expressed differently between groups in how conservative and liberals use their donations. Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff, for instance, has noted that Republicans and Democrats have different relationships with language. Not only this, but the way Republicans and Democrats use their funds shows how each treats their in-group differently. Lakoff explains
Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to their think tanks. They say, ‘Here’s several million dollars, do what you need to do.’ And basically, they build infrastructure, they build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that. Why? Because the conservative moral system, which I analyzed in “Moral Politics,” has as its highest value preserving and defending the “strict father” system itself. And that means building infrastructure. As businessmen, they know how to do this very well.
Meanwhile, liberals’ conceptual system of the “nurturant parent” has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, ‘We’re giving you $25,000, but don’t waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don’t use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.’
The main difference is as stated before: liberals attempt to include the concerns of their in-group whereas conservatives attempt to focus their in-group on having centrally dictated concerns.
Surprisingly, this focus on attributional complexity as a way of considering others continues when we look at the treatment of out-groups.
2.2 Out-group Presentation
As stated previously, I believe both news outlets follow a popular narrative form, in order to give a clear divide between “us and them”. Nonetheless, it’s significant how that divide is presented.
Take a look at how news anchor Tomi Lahren speaks about “the opposition”, California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Her presentation includes adjectives like “greasy” thereby embedding the meaning of Newsom’s actions in her presentation. Despite her attributing to Newsom a mental state (wanting to be President, for example), this presentation acts to dilute the ambiguity of meaning by emphasizing the nature of the conflict between “us” and “illegals/undesirables/corruption”.
Contrast the video above with the one below.
First off, the style is very different but the effect is the same. News anchor Rachel Maddow attributes to the President an undesirable state of mind and create a gap between the audience and the “other”. Maddow adopts a rhetorical pose of speaking to the President (calling him the President, rather than attributing to him cartoonish adjectives or calling him by his first name) when speaking to her audience. (It’s doubtful Trump would ever watch MSNBC.) By adopting this rhetoric, Maddow is asking the audience to put themselves in Trump’s shoes in order to more fully contemplate how bad (i.e., incompetent, corrupt) he is. This approach is very different from how Lahren tells us what Newsom thinks and how he is bad.
So even while the popular fiction mode of creating meaning through “us versus them” operates in general for news outlets, as perhaps a way of securing an audience in the attention economy, there remains a very real difference between how liberals use attributional complexity as a form of social cognition. In contrast, conservations prefer to directly tell us what the meaning is.
3 Narrative Form and Metamodernism
As stated in the study, neither form of narration is superior to the other. Both individuating and social binding is necessary for our functioning as social individuals in a society.
As human beings we are capable of focusing on self or others. At times, it may be more appropriate for us to consider the needs of others. Other times, it may be more appropriate for us to consider our needs. As the study points out,
Literary fiction is associated with greater attributional complexity, which seems a valuable cognitive style. Yet, attributional complexity may also delay or derail decision making and it has been shown to be negatively related to mental health. Literary fiction is, somewhat, associated with lower ego-centric bias, but it should be noted that ego-centric bias is positively related to mental health. Other possible negative consequences of exposure to literary fiction include the fact that an increase in social accuracy may be nefarious for interpersonal relations.
Like all things, too little or too much of a specific approach will lead to imbalances, so that we need to consider more than one approach.
Living as an individual in a group is paradox. We need to know who we are as individuals but we also need to know who we are as a group. We need social binding in order to be able to have neighbors, extended relationships. But we also need to be able to stand up for ourselves and think for ourselves in order to meet our needs.
While we need to be able to act, continued exposure to only one kind of narrative form will develop our awareness of who we are (as individuals and as a group) in increasingly imbalanced ways.
- Conservatives sacrifice individual concerns for their group. They expect this sacrifice of others so that concerns not fitting the conservative narrative (such as those of Black Live Matter, #metoo, LGBTQA, not to mention those of immigrants, and so on) are not worth consideration or, at least secondary.
- Liberals expect that individual concerns be brought forth for the group to address. They expect that others will sacrifice larger group concerns when those concerns do not fit the liberal narrative of inclusion (such as the concerns of traditionalists).
Interestingly, there is no pre-determined way that we already are, for narratives to directly tell the truth of who we already are. Rather, engaging in specific narratives will reinforce certain cognitive considerations such that the narratives we choose will both highlight, but also simultaneously obscure, the agendas that each of us could have. This engagement can over emphasize the importance of others, or self to the detriment of self or others.
It is largely my hope that this examination will give us greater awareness so that we can choose the tools that are appropriate to us, so that we can develop in whatever way we like, so that we can be more aware of the choices we (and others) have with the goal of being less manipulated by the way media presents our identity to us.
Currently news outlets take much flack for being biased and imbalanced. But given that news organizations are forced to compete for attention, we do bear some responsibility. After all, if as consumers, we valued balanced news, biased news organizations would have to change to accommodate, or suffer the consequences.
But, at least in general, we don’t favor neutrality. Look at the memes on social media. We prize punchy, feel good (and schadenfreude) content. We want memes that show us how the other side sucks or is incoherent. We post slanted content with the desire of creating a gap between ourselves and others. We treat our politics and our news like entertainment, and we reward those who stand out with fame, wealth, and influence.
As we move into the future, those of us who look towards creating a brighter world will often envision a future that will structurally eliminate undesirables. While well intentioned, this desire to systematically calibrate human behavior will always create a backlash, as there will never be a way to eliminate people’s choices nor will it be a way to address everyone’s concerns.
Rather than exclude, in a very real sense, we need all hands on deck. Our institutions, our environment, our political understandings, and our economics are faltering because people are encouraged to be one-sided pundits who blame others for their situation instead of taking responsibility for what we all have created and participate in creating.
The solutions of the past are about creating a system to control people’s behavior, to automate people. As such, we raise people to be robotic.
The solution of the future, the metamodern future, is one by which people have all the tools and avenues they need so that people can live with the people who are around us and they with us — as we all are in the reality we share — and not to be told who they are, who we are, what we care about, what others care about, and what is real or not real by talking heads through a screen.
Right now, this is just a hope. First step, being first, let’s see how our news can be better.