The Advance of Liberty Depends on Stories, Not Just Arguments

If you tell the right story to enough people, you don’t have to argue with them.

As a political activist and someone who trains others in “the art of political persuasion,” I teach a good deal of psychology to people who would like to see significant changes in our political institutions. I am interested in communication, psychology, and persuasion because, as the French historian Gustave LeBon wrote in Psychology of Revolution,

“A people cannot choose its institutions until it has transformed its mind.”

As part of my work, I am often explaining why fact-based, logically constructed arguments fail to persuade, and I provide techniques that are much more powerful in changing minds.

Since I am extremely motivated by the preservation of individual and civil liberties, I have many libertarian allies who, according to psychometric studies, are the most systemizing but least empathic of any self-identified political group. This lack of empathy and love of systematization causes them to have a particularly hard time when it comes to making the political changes that they seek.

David Hume, the British philosopher put it clearly almost three centuries ago:

“… as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.”

In other words, even if you have the sounder principles, you won’t be winning supporters by making arguments that don’t speak to those “affections.”

This speaking to the affections can be learned. And liberty activists, in particular, have no choice but to knuckle down and do so if they are to make the magnitude of change they say that we need. To see just how effective psychologically informed approaches to persuasion can be on a microscale, one needs to engage individuals in conversation, but to see how effective they are on the macroscale, we need to look at history.

As Winston Churchill once advised the presidential speechwriter James C. Humes, “Study history, history, history. In history lie all of the secrets of statecraft.”

Pure thinkers and philosophers are of course crucial to the advance of liberty and justice. America would probably not be recognizable were it not for John Locke, for example, and certainly, we clearly need to understand our principles before we can manifest them in our politics and law. But not all great ideas change the world. In fact, most don’t because they don’t leave the pages of a book or website. Refining one’s philosophy with ever-increasing sophistication makes no practical difference if its adherents cannot move a critical mass of people, let alone the political class, to accept it.

Whereas philosophy and morality can provide a very clear idea of how things should be or even how they are, it is history — human nature writ large — that has more to tell us about how we get from a sorry state of affairs to a better one. Per Churchill, history, in all its messiness and complexity, is the teacher in large-scale social, cultural, and political shifts.

So what does it have to teach us about those?

To crassly over-generalize, throughout the history of the English-speaking world, political paradigm shifts toward liberty have been caused by two classes of phenomena. The first causes people to act to protect themselves and their own liberties; the second causes people to act to protect the liberties of others.

  1. People cause political change to protect their own liberties when a critical mass fear that a right they take for granted and exercise in everyday life is about to be taken from them;
  2. People cause political change to protect others’ liberties when a critical mass is exposed to a mass-popularized story about an injustice against a specific person or people that it elicits immediate empathy, unmediated by ideology, resulting in an attitudinal shift in the culture.

Speak to the Affections and Change the World

This article is about the second of those two phenomena and specifically about four apparently disparate historical examples — each involving the popularization of a story about an individual or group of individuals that had such a powerful effect on a sufficient proportion of the population that the political pressure to eliminate an injustice could no longer be resisted.

Whatever part of human nature is engaged in all of these stories, it is one of the keys to the changing of the world by those who don’t wield political power.  

It goes without saying that the full story of any major political or social change is complex. As we look back on the most important and inspiring cultural and political shifts in the direction of liberty and justice, we inevitably focus on the most dramatic and historically visible events and milestones (such as the Civil War in the abolition of slavery or the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the struggle for civil rights of African Americans).

Typically, however, those events occur only after an irrevocable change in the minds of enough of a population that a huge, favorable political change has become in some sense “inevitable,” even though the exact means and details of that change cannot be predicted.

Gustave LeBon again:

“The memorable events of history are the visible effects of the invisible changes of human thought.”

So activists would do well to go back before those milestone events and the political changes they manifest, to the triggers of the massive shifts in public consciousness on which they depended or drew. If those triggers manifest a common pattern, then that pattern may provide a powerful guide to the political reformers and revolutionaries of our own time.

I believe that there is such a pattern, and it is this: most of the huge changes in the trajectory of the history of freedom and justice have been triggered by the harnessing of the imagination and empathy of a large number of people in response to a) the mass-popularization of b) a “concrete” story about c) (usually) an injustice done to d) specific individuals.

Stories of particular people in an unjust situation are often decisive in triggering huge political change because they engage the imagination and empathy of those who hear them to generate experiential knowledge of an injustice, whereas arguments and abstractions can at best provide only conceptual knowledge.

The English-Speaking World Becomes Protestant, Thanks to a Bestseller in 1563?

In 1563, John Foxe published in England a book called Actes and Monuments. The book was a record of the executions of Protestants that were ordered by the Catholic Queen Mary I (1553-58). What made the book an absolute first was its woodcut illustrations, wrought by John Day, which depicted the queen’s religiously motivated killings. The subject matter led to the book’s becoming popularly known as “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.”

Although the illustrations are tame to us now, in the mid-Sixteenth century, the general population had never seen anything like them. Their impact was akin to that of the iconic photograph, seen by millions of Americans during the Vietnam War, of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked girl who ran for her life as the napalm burned her skin or the footage of the planes hitting the twin towers on 9/11/01. The Book of Martyrs represented the first time such horrific images could be seen by a large fraction of the population.

Just 80 years earlier, the printing press did not even exist in England, but now the images and the stories that went with them caused unprecedented numbers of people to experience — albeit in their imaginations — the suffering of their countrymen, to whom they never before could have felt such a visceral connection.

The stories and pictures of just a few individuals, presented in such a way that readers could immediately and so viscerally relate to them, had such an impact on mainstream cultural consciousness that Mary would ever since be known as “Bloody Mary” — despite the fact that her father, Henry VIII (not to mention earlier monarchs) had been responsible for at least 100 times as many killings as Mary had been.   

The critical point for activists of any era is that the book didn’t add anything to the arguments. The work was so psychologically and emotionally compelling that this Book of Martyrs became the second-most widely read book in England after the Bible, and remained so for an astonishing 200 years after its initial publication. One could almost say that for decades after its publication, this book was the only mainstream political media. Accordingly, it steeled the country against Queen Mary, her political methods (absolutism), and her religion (Catholicism).

It is probably not overstating the case to say that Actes and Monuments made absolutism and tyranny so inseparable from Catholicism in the British mind that the primary concern of both grassroots politics and establishment politics throughout its two-century-long best-selling run was to prevent political power in Britain from ever being held by a Catholic.

The critical point for activists of any era is that the book didn’t add anything to the arguments around Catholicism vs. Protestantism, or about absolutism vs. Constitutional monarchy, which had been raging in Britain for centuries. Before the Book of Martyrs, those arguments, while hugely important, had not been settled, and the country could have gone in different directions in terms of its religious confession.

The Book of Martyrs handed political victory to the Protestant anti-absolutist side not because it made a better argument than had ever been made before; rather, it told simple, human stories to a huge number of people who, for the first time, experienced, through their imagination and empathy, the injustice.

The End of Slavery in the British Empire, Thanks to a Story in 1831?

In 1781, a slave ship, called Zong, was sailing between Africa and Jamaica. It had taken too many slaves, so its skipper, Luke Collingwood, threw 133 of them overboard having decided that although they had not died, they were sufficiently unfit as to not be worth wasting food and water on. The owners of the slave ship and, therefore, of its slave cargo wanted their insurance company to pay out on the losses of the jettisoned slaves, but the insurers declined to do so: the law held that if a slave died onboard, then the loss was not recoverable because onboard deaths were the result of bad management, whereas the loss of a slave over the side was an insurable loss.

The insurers met the slavers in court, having hired a certain Granville Sharp, an abolitionist, as their lawyer. Sharp knew that the story of the trial was particularly powerful. The following quotes from the proceedings give its flavor:

“[The jury] had no doubt (though it shocks one very much) that the Case of Slaves was the same as if Horses had been thrown over board…”

“…the necessity for throwing over the Negroes…”

“…[which] perished just as a Cargo of Goods perished...”

It was Sharp’s telling of this story after the event that began the “official” anti-slavery movement among the British population that year — when a group of Quakers founded the first British abolitionist organization. And just like with the Book of Martyrs’ telling of Queen Mary’s atrocities, the telling of the trial added nothing to the argument about slavery. Rather, it told a human story of slavery, which caused those who read it, again through empathy and imagination, to morally recoil.

But the true power of such a story would become even more evident about five decades later, when a summary of the appeal in the Zong case was prepared from contemporaneous manuscript notes, and published.

In that year, 1831, Sam Sharpe, himself a slave but also a preacher, circulated the reports of the proceedings of the old case in the hope of stirring in protest the slaves in his home country of Jamaica. The idea that a story about long-dead slaves could be a more powerful incentive for slaves to resist than their current enslaved state is almost unfathomable. But such was the power of the story that, around Christmas 1831, it so angered the slaves in Jamaica that Sharpe’s protest became an uprising. Plantations were burned to the ground. Hundreds died, and Sharpe was hanged. That uprising was the beginning of the end, resulting directly in the complete abolition of slavery and the freeing of slaves throughout the British empire the following year.

Hannah Arendt, a Jew who fled Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, coined the phrase, “banality of evil.”  The Zong trial had that in spades. The injustices done to the slaves were made all the more repulsive by being presented in the context of, and therefore juxtaposed with, something as mundane, as banal, as the finer points of an insurance contract concerning cargo. Augmenting the emotional impact of a fact in this way is something no argument can do. Such concrete stories of oppression, then, don’t just motivate action: they motivate very focused action — targeted at preventing whatever injustice was experienced in the imagination of those who hear or read them.

The general point is that a specific human story that reflects a situation, rather than a general or abstract argument about a situation, elicits a moral intuition that cannot be mediated, let alone negated, by ideology or belief, before it hits home. This is so because our empathic responses are not the endpoints of some conscious cognitive process.

Specifically, the story of the Zong trial didn’t invite intellectual consideration about whether a “negro” could be property. Rather, it elicited a non-intellectual response to the fact that negroes were property — something much more powerful in moving hearts and, following them, minds. And it did so by humanizing the slaves by showing what their objectification meant in a manner so concrete that others could, in their imagination and through their empathy, feel it.

Stories allow injustices to be experienced, albeit in the imagination. Arguments allow them only to be conceived.

The End of American Slavery, Thanks to a Song in 1852?

The end of American slavery was a long time coming, and it came brutally.  

But how did its most dramatic milestones — its historical set-pieces, as it were — come to pass in a nation for which this sin was both foundational and defining?

Again, we should ask: what stirred the consciousness of enough of the country that abolition was “bound” to come in some form or other?  

Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery in 1838 to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement, had an answer to that question.

And a large part of that answer was a minstrel called Stephen Foster — a white man who would blacken his face to sing lines like: “'Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

Douglass explained why Foster was instrumental in ending slavery by saying of his songs,

"They are heart songs, and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. [They] can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish."

Specifically, “My Old Kentucky Home” was the first song to call a female slave a “lady” and therefore to humanize slaves. That mattered because Foster was arguably the father of American popular music: he didn’t just write a song about the humanization of slaves: it became massively popular and had millions of Americans, and especially southerners, singing it to themselves. Once again, the imaginations of a large number of people were engaged to empathize with, and thus be able to experience vicariously, the injustice of slavery.

If it were the case that a logically consistent, discursive approach to changing society was what abolition needed, a white man in blackface would not, at least to the modern mind, have been the best vehicle for a mass-raising of the country’s conscience and consciousness. But to those who cared most at the time — including the slaves themselves — he was.   

The End of Child Sex Slavery, Thanks to Tabloid Journalism in 1885?

In the second half of the Nineteenth Century, child prostitution was rife throughout London. It was the city’s dismal “secret,” hidden in plain sight. The well-to-do would pay to use girls as young as 12 or 13, whose families would often sell them to brothels to make financial ends meet. Everyone knew it went on, and some even cared about it — but there was no popular will to change it.

That was until 1885, when William T. Stead, arguably the world’s first investigative journalist, published in the Pall Mall Gazette, of which he was the editor, a series of articles about the scandal. He gave them such salacious titles as, "The Violation of Virgins," "The Confessions of a Brothel-Keeper," "How Girls Were Bought and Ruined," and “Strapping Girls Down.”

This series of articles, collectively titled "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” told the story of a 13-year-old girl, Eliza Armstrong, who (by his arrangement) had been sold to a brothel on the condition that Mr. Stead would be her first “customer.” By today’s standards, the set-up was unethical, but Eliza was never in physical danger. However, to the point of Stead’s exposé, Eliza’s mother, who agreed to sell her daughter for the princely sum of five pounds, didn’t know that, and nor did the brothel keeper who willingly accepted Eliza as her latest acquisition to be raped by Mr. Stead and, subsequently, other men.

In fact, Mr. Stead, in true modern investigative style, acted his part right up until Eliza screamed out (as all the new girls did at the point of loss of innocence), when he safely and immediately spirited her away from the brothel under the protection of the Salvation Army, which supported his whole effort and moral crusade.

Stead’s writing was explicit, horrific for its time, and sold newspapers like, well, a Nineteenth-Century Book of Martyrs. And just as Foxe’s book had used violence to generate a visceral cultural reaction with political consequences, Stead’s articles used sex to precisely the same end.

What happened next was complicated, but thankfully things ran to their intended and moral conclusion. First, the powers-that-be reacted by imprisoning Stead for the kidnap of Eliza, but the story was out, the outrage was in, and the moral genie couldn’t be put back in the bottle.

The series in the Pall Mall Gazette caused a nationwide uproar. Fearing riots, the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, pleaded with Stead to cease publication of the articles. Stead replied that he would do so only if a Bill that would raise the age of consent be passed without delay. Since Harcourt could not make that guarantee, Stead ordered his paper’s presses to continue until the paper simply ran out.

Amidst the resulting hysteria, many reform groups and prominent individuals called for an end to this sexual commerce in minors. Dozens of protest meetings were held throughout England. Thousands of people, including wagon-loads of virgins dressed in white, marched to Hyde Park demanding that the Bill be passed. The government bowed to the inevitable. The Bill passed within weeks, one of the greatest single blows against oppression since abolition was struck.

Once again, a bright light had been shone on an injustice, not by arguing about it, but by telling a human story that manifests its consequences. Readers of Stead’s series had reacted viscerally. The human brain gave them, as it gives any of us, no other choice. Stead’s tabloid journalism, distasteful to many at the time, worked: his pragmatic, psychologically astute means were justified by the legal and moral ends that quickly followed.

If You Tell the Right Story to Enough People, You Don’t Have to Argue with Them

Of course, I’m not asserting that any of the above stories were the single causes of the huge changes they contributed to. But I do claim that they — and stories like them — are much more causally important than we realize. To ignore them is to ignore one of the most powerful tools for major political change.

To get someone to act in a way that improves the lives and liberty of others, it’s usually necessary to get them to feel something — and not just to believe something. To cause society-scale political change, it’s usually necessary to get a large fraction of people to feel more or less the same thing.

As we’ve seen, that requires getting someone to feel, through imagination and empathy, the situation of another.

A human story does that.

But there’s something else that gives a human story power that an argument can never have: it makes no claim.

A societal step-change in the direction of liberty occurs in reaction to an injustice. One of the challenges in any political argument is the simple fact of generating opposition by taking a position. Since we are all wired to see the world in a way that reinforces what we already believe, our unconscious minds bring our cognitive forces to bear in defense of our current belief system when it is met by a challenging fact or idea. In most cases, if I initially disagree with you, I can only allow that you are right if I admit I was wrong. It’s a kind of zero-sum game. A simple story doesn’t threaten a worldview in that way and so it doesn’t stimulate the cognitive defenses that will almost guarantee its rejection. An ideological objection to a story about a person doesn’t even make sense.

No, a story is more like an invitation than an imposition. And it’s an invitation to something that imaginative, empathetic humans are wired to accept.

In all of my examples — as in myriad others— you may have already thought of as you’ve been reading this, a societal step-change in the direction of liberty, of the good, occurs in reaction to an injustice.

Notwithstanding the fact that political candidates generally enjoy more support when they have a positive vision, people have a more visceral response to a particular injustice (real or imagined) than to the promise of increased liberty in a particular domain absent of a present injustice. Accordingly, in the above examples, LeBon’s “transformation of mind” that forced significant political change in favor of human liberty was a reaction against the widely-told story of a person experiencing injustice. In recent times, extensive behavioral economic experiments have established that an overwhelming majority of people (84 percent) will willingly suffer a personal cost to punish a stranger whom they observe to be treating another stranger unfairly.

This should surprise no one who considers how we use the words “liberty” and “justice.” Ask most people if society should compromise liberty for justice, and they would say, “Yes, if it has to.” Ask them if they would compromise justice for liberty, and some would tell you that would be a contradiction in terms — and most of the rest would say, “No.”

It is absolutely true that the Lockes, Mills, Paines, Jeffersons, and so on are necessary to show us what we need to do and why. But it’s the tellers of stories and the media that they use to tell them to enough people — shining a light on actual experiences of injustice and allowing us to react exactly as we please — that actually make us do it.

Further Reading

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