Myths for an age of political polarisation

Want to change the world? Then what you need most isn’t facts; it’s a really great story. So I argued in a book called The Myth Gap (summary here), which came out last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the US election.

Donald Trump and Nigel Farage had hardly triumphed thanks to their evidence base, after all. Instead, it was thanks to their power as storytellers and the resonance of the tales they told: of taking back control, of building bigger walls, of threats from a shadowy ‘other’.

Part of populist leaders’ attraction, I suggested, is their ability to speak to the contemporary absence of – and deep hunger for – grand narratives that explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who we are.

To win against these kinds of adversary, I argued, progressives need to reimagine themselves as mythmakers and storytellers. And while there’s clearly no single myth that will work for everyone, I argued that the kind of narratives we need today share three defining features.

First, prompting us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us rather than a ‘them and us’. Second, to situate ourselves in a longer now, in which we get back to thinking in generational timespans. And third, to help us imagine a better good life in which growth is less a story of increasing material consumption and more about finally growing up as a species.

A year on from the book’s publication, I still think we need these kinds of myth. But I’ve also become preoccupied with how to build bridges across the chasm that defines our politics in an age of savage political polarisation.

My concern partly stems from a year spent running the Brexit campaign at Avaaz. Having started out a convinced Remainer, I ended up thinking the biggest problem wasn’t so much leaving the EU as the prospect that any outcome would leave UK politics poisoned for a generation, with both sides feeling stabbed in the back.

Spending six months on sabbatical in Jerusalem has only deepened my unease. I was last here in 2004, and it’s horrifying to see how extreme the polarisation between Israelis and Palestinians has become. Each side now blames the other for everything, and is simply unable to see how it has also helped to create the current impasse, or what it might have to sacrifice for peace.

The abyss in UK politics isn’t as devastating as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, of course. But the political similarities — the anxiety, irritability, tuning out and ‘othering’ those who disagree — are still striking. And they’re getting worse.

The divide we face is bigger than just Leave and Remain, too, as David Goodhart observes with his idea that British politics is now split between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’. Somewheres, he argues, are rooted in specific places, usually where they grew up. They value security and familiarity, and are conservative on cultural and social issues. They tend not to have gone to university, do less well economically, and often experience change as loss. Anywheres, meanwhile, like openness and mobility. They’re mainly graduates, who’ve left where they grew up to live in London, the south east, or abroad. They’re comfortable with social change, and internationalist in outlook. They are much more individualistic, and tend to curate their identities rather than having them ascribed to them.

I find Goodhart’s two tribes fascinating — especially from the perspective of story and myth.

I feel as though Somewheres start with an advantage in storytelling because the best stories are so often specific to places. The tale of a 7 billion ‘us’, on the other hand, is still just an outline draft. And by extension, I also have a hunch that Somewheres have something important to teach Anywheres about belonging.

The individualism that Anywheres are so fond of has a long shadow, after all. George Monbiot points out that individualism is ground zero for consumerism, neoliberalism, and today’s epidemic of loneliness. Adam Curtis observes that the sense of group identity that political movements depend on struggles to survive when self-expression has become the highest good. The sense of belonging that’s at the heart of what it means to be a Somewhere is powerfully relevant here.

Of course, Somewheres’ focus on belonging can be very dark too: just look at the far right. But a point that Anywheres are prone to miss is that it doesn’t have to be. Take the SNP. It’s internationalist, progressive, cosmopolitan; yet also firmly rooted in place and national identity. English politics might look a lot healthier if a similar synthesis were available south of the border.

And I think that it’s just that — a synthesis of the best of Somewhere and Anywhere — that we need to be looking for. Fuzzy compromises on the most charged issues, that do nothing to resolve the underlying clash of values, won’t satisfy anyone. Instead, we need to find a way to talk about, and work through, the divergences between two very different worldviews.
Somewheres and Anywheres clearly value different things, after all. The real question is whether those values are necessarily at odds, or whether they could in fact be reimagined as complementary.

And that’s the basic question now facing each of us.

If you take the former view, from either side of the political divide, then your only real option is to fight like hell. It’s an honourable point of view, but the problem is that it just leads to more of what we have now: acrimony, attrition, and all political bandwidth taken up with patching over the cracks instead of actually tackling the defining issues of the 21st century.

If you take the latter view, on the other hand — that politics isn’t necessarily zero sum, and that the possibility is there of a conversation that enriches all participants and proves that we do indeed have more in common than what which divides us — then you are, unavoidably, in the business of collective storytelling.

In one sense, it’s a radically new and cutting edge skill-set at the heart of what 21st century citizenship is all about. In another sense, it’s the oldest and most quintessentially human skill in the book. It’s time to dust it off and relearn how to do it.

This post was originally published on the Young Foundation’s blog.

10 thoughts on the future of activism

So here are 10 thoughts on the kind of activism we need at a point of widespread crisis and deep polarisation – a distillation of what I’ve been thinking about over the course of the first half of a six month sabbatical.

1 The best activism works for both inner and outer transformation, because it understands that the crises burning around us are external expressions of our inner worlds

2 The best activism moves beyond the idea of victory, and categorically refuses to become a story of “us versus them”

3 Love has the power to change the world, but love and care for others only becomes possible with love and care for self

4 Change depends on shared stories, but we cannot truly listen to anyone else’s story, much less develop shared ones, unless we are brave enough to truly tell our own

5 Self-help is great – but if it extends no further than individual level then it’s stunted. In a time of culture wars and deep polarisation, what we need now is *collective* self-help and healing

6 Moral evolution is the central story arc of human history, and we are poised right at the cusp of our species’ emergence from adolescence and into adulthood

7 Our civilisation faces an initiatory moment of death and rebirth, and myths about these themes hold deep wisdom for us at this point

8 The universe is intelligent, conscious, and non-random, and at the most basic level for us rather than against us

9 Unbelievably rapid, non-linear change becomes possible when we remember that we create the reality around us through our expectation, attention, and intention

10 Our best days are before us, not behind us

Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts

Last week, I gave the first of this year’s RSA lectures at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Here’s the text – video to follow as soon as they’ve uploaded it…


So here’s my argument in a nutshell. If we want to change the world, then what we most need isn’t evidence, data, or policy proposals. It’s stories.

No-one is more surprised about this than I am, believe me. I’m a policy wonk, not a communications expert. Over the last 20 years I’ve worked for Cabinet ministers, at the UN, as a think tank research fellow, and a consultant for everyone from Oxfam to the US National Intelligence Council.

And as anyone who’s worked with me over that period will confirm, I am a total nerd. I love evidence, data, and policy proposals. I get excited about killer facts and slam dunk pie charts. I spent years of my life wanting to be Josh Lyman from the West Wing.

Through it all, I thought that changing the world was about getting the right evidence to the right policymakers.

I don’t think that anymore.

Continue reading “Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts”

Launch week

So the Myth Gap is finally out! If you missed them, there were…

And here’s a photo of the launch at Daunt’s bookshop on Marylebone High Street 🙂

Economist review

The Economist’s religion editor, Bruce Clark, has a review of the Myth Gap on his Erasmus column – full article on here. Here’s an excerpt:

What makes Mr Evans a bit unusual is the diagnosis he makes of why (at least in part) Copenhagen [the 2009 UN climate summit] failed and Paris [its 2015 successor] succeeded. One of the problems, before the Danish disaster, was that green activists, even the most lively-minded ones, were boring people to death with pie-charts, acronyms and statistics. By the time world leaders had gathered in France, environmentalists had begun to grasp the message that they could only touch people’s hearts by telling stories. In other words: by using the method of religious prophets of old, the marketing gurus of the 20th century and the science-fiction writers gazing into the future. It was a sign of the times that François Hollande, the president of France, encouraged a strong spiritual input in the summit. All these people understood that they could only grab and retain people’s attention with good yarns: powerful, memorable, morally compelling narratives that could prompt the listener to step inside and take a stance. That is the argument Mr Evans makes in a very short, very sharp book, “The Myth Gap”.

Ready to go!

Nearly launch day so just as well the books are finally back from the printers…

The launch lecture at the RSA is booked out, but you can listen live here from 1pm on 12 January. It will also be filmed and I’ll stick the video up here as soon as I have it.

The emotionally intelligent political movement

Paul Hoggett and Rosemary Randall, two psychologists working on climate change, have a great new piece on Open Democracy that explores the challenge of “managing hope and despair in social movements”. All political movements, they observe, are

…haunted by the belief that they might lack the collective resources to address the damage and suffering they see around them, and which motivates their action. So in addition to its external opponents, a movement always has an internal, emotional enemy—a gnawing, repetitive, low-level fear and hopelessness that accompany the struggle for deep-rooted social change

But increasingly, they argue, “sustainable activism” is developing an emotionally intelligent culture. Part of it is about acknowledging vulnerability, and the need to follow periods of intense engagement with time for reflection and self-care. Part of it’s about conscious attention to building cohesive groups with high levels of trust and that “might prefigure the kind of society they hope will emerge in the future … a world in miniature that was more caring, more responsive and more inclusive”.

Most fundamentally, they argue that while sustainable activism believes there can be no personal change without political change,

…it is equally insistent that there can be no political change without personal change. It insists optimistically that those who are not against us must be with us, and therefore carries a notion of ‘us’ which is inclusive and generous, one which offers the benefit of the doubt to the other.

I think this idea of a more inclusive ‘us’ is central to the kind of activism we need to deal with today’s defining issues like climate change – and in The Myth Gap, I argue that prompting us to think in terms of this ‘larger us’ is one of the three key ways in which 21st century myths need to change our thinking, along with helping us think in terms of a longer now and a better good life.

Look at a Trump, a Farage, or a Le Pen, by contrast, and the defining theme of their politics is thinking in terms of a smaller us, in which ‘we’ need to be ready to defend ourselves from some threatening ‘other’.

It’s a point not lost on Van Jones, who’s emerged as a key voice in US activism following Trump’s victory (check out his electrifying speech at Standing Rock if you haven’t already). In a Rolling Stone interview earlier this month, he observes that,

The problem is not the abundance of people with bad intentions; it’s the superabundance of people with good intentions who don’t know what to do yet. The Dream Corps is where I work, and we’re going to launch a campaign, #LoveArmy. We have got to bet on the good in people, including people who voted for Trump, and build up a big Love Army.

In the UK, too, similar themes have started to sprout in the wake of the Brexit referendum: look for instance at More United, which stands for unity and inclusion and against hatred and division (its name quotes from the maiden speech in Parliament by the late Jo Cox MP).

2016 has been an unbelievably shitty year. But the rapid emergence of values-led coalitions like these – ones that wear their heart on their sleeve, rather than trying to win against opponents like Farage and Trump with graphs and Powerpoint presentations (the way progressives all too often still do – look at climate activists pre-2009) – is a big deal. This is going to be the front line of activism from here on out.


The Myth Gap in Resurgence

I’ve got an article on The Myth Gap in the current edition of Resurgence – text below.

We need new mythologies to face the environmental crisis
Alex Evans

It took me almost twenty years to figure out that evidence and rational arguments don’t drive real change on the big global issues.

Almost for as long as I can remember, I wanted to work on global environmental issues. And once I’d seen my first episode of The West Wing, I knew I wanted to do it as a political adviser inside government.

I got my wish. In 2003, I became one of two special advisers to the British Secretary of State for International Development (first Valerie Amos, and then Hilary Benn) in Tony Blair’s government. I did three years in the job, served as part of Labour’s general election ‘war room’ in 2005, and sat in on meetings with everyone from Bob Geldof to then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

My abiding impression was one that took me by surprise: how little power the government really had, at least on the big issues like climate change. For all his faults, Tony Blair was a leader who really did care about climate change – to the extent of making climate one of two centrepiece issues at the G8 summit that the UK hosted in 2005, which I worked on. Yet for all that, he barely influenced the global agenda at all.

Later, I spent a long time working in and around the United Nations, including two stints in the Secretary-General’s office. There too, I figured that if I could just persuade top level policymakers of the case for radical action on issues like climate change, then the rest would fall into place; there too, I found myself disillusioned and struck by how little power the supposedly powerful really had.

All of which made me wonder: if evidence and elite level decision makers aren’t enough to achieve a breakthrough, then what is?

Today, I feel more sure than ever that if we’re to overcome an issue as enormous as climate change, then we need to look far beyond policymakers and pie charts. Instead, I’ve come to believe that we need to build the kind of mass movement that has in the past created the political space to end slavery, or create new civil rights, or secure the write-off of billions of dollars of third world debt.

To animate movements on this scale, we need powerfully resonant stories, and they need to be stories that unite rather than divide us. “Enemy narratives” that tell us why climate change is all the fault of Exxon or Saudi Arabia won’t cut it. Instead, we need stories that help us to see the world and ourselves in a very different way.

Not so long ago, our society was rich in these kinds of stories, and we called them myths. Today, though, we have a myth gap. Religious observance is declining steadily. So is trust in leaders and institutions of all kinds. Almost unnoticed, we have slowly lost the old stories that used to bring us together and help us to make sense of the world. In their place, new “anti-myths” are flourishing – that we are what we buy, for instance, or that the world is heading rapidly towards environmental collapse and there’s not a thing we can do about it.

To navigate our way through the turbulent rapids on the river ahead of us, I argue in my new book The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?, we need a new generation of twenty-first century myths that can explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who “we” are.

Specifically, we need myths that get us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us; that situate us in a longer now, with much greater awareness of the deep past and deep future; and that help us to imagine a different good life, with less emphasis on material consumption and more on wellbeing, happiness and (most of all) a sense of larger purpose.

The other two roles that our twenty-first century myths need to play are deeper still, and have to do with helping us process the profound emotional and psychological dimensions of climate change.

First, our myths need to help us work through our grief for what is happening all around us, both to the natural world and to the human victims of climate change – and help us to face up to our collective guilt for the fact that this is a human-caused disaster, in which some of us are much more guilty than others.

We need myths, then, that speak of redemption: an idea that goes beyond repentance and forgiveness, and more fundamentally extends towards how we can atone for what we’ve done and start to make things right again.

Second, we need myths that give us hope for the future by moving beyond the arid jargon of “sustainable development” and instead tell us stories of restoration: how we can repair the damage we’ve done to the climate, help to mend the ecosystems we’ve broken, and right the wrongs done to other human beings by climate change.

In a world of 7 billion people, there’s clearly no single myth or set of myths that will work for all of us. But all of us need myths, and all of our twenty-first century myths will need in their different ways to speak to these core themes – implying the potential, and indeed the need, for a deep dialogue between different, but ultimately complementary, stories about who we are and the world we inhabit.

At the same time, every myth needs ways of being expressed in the real world if it’s to mean anything. This starts with each of us individually – in our responsibility to be mindful of the myths we choose (rather than having them chosen for us by kneejerk reactions), and in our we live out our myths in our consumptions decisions and what we choose to speak out about.

Second, it’s about expressing our myths through groups – not only religious congregations, but also through new groupings of the “spiritual but not religious”, as well as much more participatory, less controlled political movements.

Most of all, it’s about rediscovering our capacity for collective storytelling and to dream together of hopeful futures even amid conditions of crisis and breakdown. If we can rediscover that skill – one that used to come to us naturally, and is as old as our species itself – then we can translate our stories into real world changes to policy, business, finance, governance, and behaviour, and start to build a 21st century Eden 2.0.