Now that the dust is clearing on the election, there’s a thing us liberals, leftists, not-centrists, what ever the f*** we call ourselves, are going to have to work on:
It’s not that the right is better at storytelling. It’s that their stories are simpler, more viscerally satisfying. “A Black woman stole your job!” “They want your guns!” Easy, reductive us vs them, you in danger girl level stuff. Even when it’s not true, it provokes a reaction. These stories are like snacks. They satisfy a (forbidden?) craving. They have good mouth-feel. They make you want more. Thing is, try to live on snacks and you’ll die of malnutrition.
The left’s story is a meal. Some crave-able comfort food, but also stuff that’s good for you. But “eat your veggies” is always going to be a harder sell than “have another snack.” (Vegetarians sit down, I’m making a point. :P) So the problem isn’t that the left doesn’t understand the right. It’s that we learned to like (or at least eat) veggies too, and they… didn’t.
A lot of left analysis I’m seeing rt now disregards this. “We need to understand why these people love salt.” Bitch, no, everybody loves salt, some of us just moderate. “We need to sell snacks, too!” That’s an uphill climb — and it elides the fact that snacks are bad for you. Leftist points can be distilled into simple visceral stories, sure. “Eat the rich.” “Defund police.” But they don’t hit as hard bc they’re shorthand for complex topics. Like kale chips — superficially snacky, actually good for you, offputting to ppl who prefer potato chips.
Also? people who choose to live on snacks aren’t doing so for any rational reason. It’s literally killing them. They’re doing it anyway because it satisfies some other impulse: in-group approval, a sense of power over a complex and changing world. Snacks are soothing that way.
You cannot reason with folks who’ve chosen to do something against their interest, because their interest isn’t what you think it is. They probably know America is better off unified and equal… but ooh, it feels so good to hurt others.
Some folks just got raised wrong. So I’m not concerned about them, personally. Folks like that might fix themselves, but you’re not gonna do it. What concerns me is leftists falling for snack-style stories. Way too many of y’all buy into the right’s “both sides” nonsense, or “white working class” rhetoric. (As a reminder, both sides are not equally bad, and Trump’s base is actually wealthy white people. About half the working class is BIPoC and they are disproportionately disabled, queer, immigrant — groups the right hates. “It’s about the white working class” framing is a lie.)
And here is where the failure of storytelling kicks in. Why do leftists — people who ostensibly believe in a balanced diet — continually fall for this malnourished bullshit logic?
Same reason right-wingers do: because on some level these leftists prefer snacks to good nutrition. We see it again and again — reductive class analysis that ignores the impact of race and other intersections. White pundits who empathize with racists but find BIPoC equality terrifying (“cancel culture!!!1!”). Black male hip hop stars who throw their own people under the bus. Some of this is human nature. We often draw causal connections that don’t have much to do with logic (e.g. superstition). Some of it is culture. Capitalism is a doctrine of selfishness, after all, and most of us have been indoctrinated with it from childhood. But a lot of it is that many leftists have chosen false simplicity over the complex, often bitter flavours of truth. “Whiteness is the core of America’s problems? That can’t be true*. I’d rather believe [salty snack #1].”
*It can be. But it’s more complex than “white ppl bad.”
Somehow we have to get these folks to swallow “it’s the racism, stupid” pills without choking on them and vomiting back Trumpian talking points. I have no solution for this, btw. I’m trying to tell good stories, but mine are kind of long and chewy. Not very snackable.
End of day, this is probably a question for marketing/PR people to answer, since their specialty is very short stories. But it’s important to target those stories at the right audience. Not everybody likes everything, after all. My books aren’t super-popular in the Western aisle. So, know your audience. Stop trying to sell wholesome meals to ppl who’ve chosen to live on chips — hell, half the reason they’re doing that is to spite you. Focus on folks who claim to want good food but are eating a lot of crap. Remind them that salt is not a food group. And more importantly, focus on those who already know the complex stories, but don’t trust the storytellers. The BIPoC who don’t vote completely get that it’s the racism — but they don’t think leftist politicians do. Because the best-known leftist politicians don’t get it.
That’s the danger of class reductionists & white liberal pundits who sound straight out of MLK’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail — more devoted to “order” than justice, constantly cautioning BIPoC to put their needs off for the greater good. Nobody likes a story with a bad ending. The great non-voting masses of America have fallen prey not only to voter suppression, but also the stories told by GOP/billionaire think tanks: voting is meaningless, both sides are bad, doesn’t matter who’s in charge, life will always suck. This is a narrative we must counter.
And the way to do it is NOT with messages of conciliation toward fascists, or unity with bigots. Not by handwaving consequences because trials and equality are too hard. The way to do it is to SHOW people (don’t tell!) that who they vote for matters. That justice is possible. We all want life to be better. But we have a chance right now to achieve the positive peace which is the presence of justice, to paraphrase MLK, and not just negative peace which is the absence of conflict. Elevate the powerless, not the powerful. Focus on justice, not “unity.” Put some F***** Republicans in jail. (prob the biggest reason I can’t commit to prison abolition; I want these to die in prison.) Put ICE officers in jail if they raped or abused immigrants. Put bad cops in jail.
When we lack stories to tell, actions speak loudest. And a big, important story we need to be telling right now is just how terrifying the vote is, to fascists. Fortunately they’ve helped tell that story themselves, by repeatedly attacking people’s ability to vote. It’s clearly important. Leftists need to double down on that. So that’s all I got, from one storyteller to the many others out there. Hope it helps.Belated add, since some are tossing around lefty snack stories now: again, those are a hard sell bc nuance reduces poorly & capitalism indocs the opposite. But my suggestion: “You’re better off if your neighbor is, too.” Doesn’t rhyme, not very snacky. But that’s the gist.
N K Jemisin
Hugo & Nebula-winning bestselling SFF writer & reviewer
Source: Twitter Thread