–One way major counternarratives come to us is by reversing conventional wisdom. More than a few Americans take pride that the US has not taken a direct hit during wartime since the early 1800s. Yet our nation’s inability to safely store nuclear waste from its weapons arsenal reveals the Cold War to be the first war in modern times where the US has indeed taken direct hits. This recasts one prevailing view of the Cold War, and I think to the better.
Reversals in conventional wisdom are frequent and—let’s admit it—easy to undertake. We can think of any number of policies whose actual implementation produced the opposite of what was initially planned. This underscores a key feature of policy narratives: They import their counternarratives. In semiotic terms, a story is marked by what it is not. (Which is louder: The seconds of astonished silence after the last note has sounded or the thunderous applause that follows?)
–But it’s more than “You say ‘x‘.” and “I counter with ‘not-x‘.” Candidate counternarratives thrive between the extremes of asserting x and not-x, when the issues are uncertain, complex, incomplete and disputed at the same time.
One group speaks of the preconditions for good governance as a free press, a secure judiciary, and respect for human rights. Complexity ensures you can rearrange the adjectives and replace some of the nouns: Another group tells us good governance lies in having secure property rights, respect for the law, and free markets. Thinking-in-threes is binary logic’s way of admitting things are more complex.
–The real value of complexity is that you can keep differentiating any three, even before adding a fourth and so on. Or from other directions: It’s always policy-relevant to say, “I’m sure I’ve left a very good deal out.”
How so? This admission helps when it shifts the question from the easier, “Why does this issue matter now?” (universal answer: politics, money and egos), to the more usefully difficult, “Matter with respect to what and under what conditions?”
An example from the past: Racing horses were once painted with both pairs of legs out-stretched; photography later showed the opposite. Better to say, I think, less that photos were correct and more that they pushed what had been visible to the human eye further. That way, we admit what we see and seeing itself are complex enough for further recasting. That way, we intermittently see horses gallop still as before.
–A recent example: COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, was for many (myself included) a clear failure to do the needful in limiting temperature rise. Let’s say that is true (at least up to that point).
Even then, the crux is not: “Thus,” alternative voices were left out and alternative politics side-lined. You can no more essentialize those voices and politics than you can essentialize the conference. For it first has to be asked: Which COP26 failed?
Such a conference is never altogether there, if only because those attending in Glasgow are being themselves in one venue while being other selves in other venues there. COP26 is and was riddled with this intermittence and who’s to say the earlier or later versions between October 31 and November 13 2021 are not its upside?
This intermittence (like surprise) carries with it a great deal of information. (These shifts have in the parlance, “high-level informativity.”) Which is to say: I’m sure I’ve left far too much out in stopping short at COP26 as an overall failure.
On this wording for intermittence from the work of Marcel Proust, see P. Weinstein (2019). “Soul-Error.” Raritan 38(4): 1-11.