We share our most important lessons in stories. One of my favorites is about a new bride, her mother, her grandmother, and a holiday roast. And tradition. (More)

A Different World, Part III – Our Moral Stories (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature explores the conservative mindset. For all their rhetoric about individualism and freedom, conservatism is at its core authoritarian. Thursday we saw the conservative penchant for claiming the authority of the dead. Yesterday we revisited the conservative moral equation and see why It’s Okay If You’re One Of Us is not hypocritical in their framework. Today we discuss how better understanding the conservative worldview and moral equation helps us be better Fred Whisperers.

Listening and telling stories.

As DBunn noted in a comment Friday, effective Fred Whispering – those one-to-one, face-to-face conversations with median voters – starts with listening. Listening shows Fred that we care about what he has to say. It also helps us identify shared moral values on which to build. As we discussed in September:

Active listening is a skill. There are dozens of published methods for it, and different people find different ones work better for them. The method that works best for me is a four-step process:

  1. Receive – Quite simply, pay attention. Don’t anticipate, or try to interpret, or ponder your reply. Listen to the words, and the tone of voice.
  2. Reflect –  Once the person finishes, try to replay it in your mind – word-for-word – as if you had said it. This will trigger a cascade of thoughts-as-if, we imagine a situation in which we might say those words that way. Don’t try to ‘make’ that happen; just ‘let’ it happen.
  3. Repeat – Clarify and confirm what you heard by repeating what the person said, exactly or with a generous paraphrase. The point is to ensure that you heard and understood what the person said.
  4. Respond – Only now do you actually reply, if you need to reply at all. And often you don’t.[…]

But sometimes we will need to reply, and as we saw in October when we discussed Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick, we share our most important lessons in stories:

Stories are not only entertainment. Research shows that when we tell, read, or hear a story about doing something, we use the same parts of our brains we’d use to do that thing. Stories simulate behavior, and that’s why the Heath brothers describe stories as flight simulators. Pam Laffin’s stories about her battles with emphysema and needing a lung transplant in her 20s hit us far harder any expert lecture on the risks of smoking because we experience those battles as we read or see her describe them.

Stories are sticky ideas because the story form imposes most of the other points of stickiness: a Simple core, Unexpected twists, Concrete details of people doing things, making the story Credible and, if it has a sympathetic character, Emotional. And since they simulate behavior – we process them as if we were doing them – stories can inspire us to do something.

Like change how we cook, or how we think about tradition….

Mary’s Holiday Roast

Mary had just married that summer. Tonight, she and her husband would host their first holiday dinner in their new home. Their family weren’t quite like the Griswolds in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, but still Mary was nervous. She wanted to make everything perfect. Especially the holiday roast, a family tradition.

Mary looked up the family recipe and mixed the spices carefully. She rubbed them over the meat, then centered it in the roasting pan Mom had given them at their wedding. It was exactly the same kind of pan Mom had, and the same kind Grandma had. It was part of the family tradition. Mary checked that the oven was preheated and lifted the pan.

“What are you doing?” Mom asked her.

“Starting the roast,” Mary replied.

“But you forgot to cut off the ends!” Mom said. “That’s part of the family tradition! It’s why our holiday roast is so delicious!”

Mary took a breath. Calm down, she told herself. “You’re right, Mom. I’m sorry.”

Mom reached for the pan. “Here, I’ll do it.”

Mary shook her head. “No, Mom, I can manage.”

Mom looked at her. “Don’t ruin the holiday roast.”

Mary glared back. “I can do it, Mother!

“Now, now,” Grandma said, rushing into the kitchen. “What’s wrong, girls?”

“She’s going to ruin the holiday roast,” Mom said.

Grandma looked. Grandma sniffed. Grandma checked the oven temperature. “Seems fine to me.”

“But she forgot to cut the ends off!” Mom said.

“Oh, that?” Grandma asked, laughing. “I had to do that when you were a girl because our oven was tiny. And I stopped doing it years ago, when we got a bigger oven.”

Mom looked at Mary. Mary looked at Mom. Then they laughed.

“So much for tradition,” Mary said as she put the roast in the oven.

So much for tradition.

I heard that story thirty years ago, and I still remember it. It’s a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Story, six-for-six on the Stickiness Scale. And a great lesson about tradition.

Mary didn’t throw out tradition entirely. They still had the traditional holiday roast. She even used the traditional family spice mix. But she didn’t cut the ends off the roast. Now that Mary and Mom knew why Grandma began doing that – and that Grandma had since changed how she cooked a roast – cutting the ends off would have been silly. And wasteful.

Some traditions make sense, even today. Some never did. And some might have made sense when they began, but the conditions have changed. Our society is no more static than the size of Grandma’s oven. Preserving a past expedient as “tradition” – when we no longer need it – is as silly as cutting the ends off Mary’s roast.

And as wasteful, because the ‘ends cut off the roast’ by many conservative traditions are real peoples hopes and dreams, or even their lives.

Mary could end that silly “tradition” because Grandma was alive to explain why she’d begun it. And that’s exactly why it’s absurd to “give the dead their vote.” The dead are not here to explain why they wrote, said, or did something that conservatives now cite as proof that we must be faithful to “tradition.”

So the next time Fred asks about “original intent,” you might share the story of Mary’s Holiday Roast. The story is sticky, even if the roasting pan shouldn’t be.

We can also share sticky stories about our progressive First Principles of Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. I offered three such stories in November in our series on Real American Values: the stories of Dee Grubbs, Bill Brandt, and Leroy Smith, Jr.

To be more effective progressive advocates, we need to understand how our worldview and moral equations differ from conservatives. Then we need to make that stick for Fred … by listening, and by sharing our moral stories.


Happy Saturday!