Anat Shenker-Osorio is not an organizer, but she’s been influential in how the field approaches messaging and narrative. Over the years, she has introduced and popularized important ways of thinking about narrative, such as the need to enlist our base as trusted messengers to reach the folks in the middle. 

Most recently, Anat has helped to develop the Race Class Narrative (RCN), a progressive communications approach designed to defuse weaponized racism by talking explicitly about race and class. The RCN uses a single coherent narrative to build a multi-racial coalition that unifies the progressive base and persuades the moderate middle. It aims to answer a perennial challenge for people on the left: should we focus on race or economics? (Spoiler: both!) This interview, which has been edited and condensed, was recorded before the recent uprisings against police violence.  


Jonathan Heller: We’re in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic, which is disrupting the world around us. What changes are possible? 

Anat Shenker-Osorio: I am a pathological optimist. I could not do this work if I did not believe incredible positive change is possible in this and every moment. Perhaps counterintuitively, this is more the case now given how much people — and Black, Indigenous and other people of color in particular — are suffering on an existential level. This is a moment in which all bets are off so it's time we clear the tables. In a big moment of rupture like this, which is massively unprecedented, people are re-evaluating what is important, what is “true,” the way the world works, the rules by which we operate, and what expectations to have, even as they're not consciously aware they're making those evaluations. 

JH: I appreciate that perspective in these times. Before we dive into what you do, let’s make sure we're on the same page with some definitions. How do you think about narrative and how do you differentiate narrative from framing, messaging, and ideology?

ASO: Narrative is foundational and overarching. It's the set of beliefs and ideas about big things, like how people relate to each other or where money comes from or the way different genders interact. It's the superordinate structuring of our thought and, because of that, it structures our expectations.

So, for example, there was a narrative not so long ago that women were too emotional or “hysterical” to be able to manage voting or thoughtful work outside the house. Because that was the story about women, and everybody understood that, it structured a set of policy choices around whether women should be allowed to vote, which kinds of professions they should have, whether they should be able to open a bank account, whether they were viable inheritors of family land. When that narrative shifted around what women are and how their brains work, it allowed us to shift social expectations, rules, laws, practices. That then engendered a shift further in what women are because women began to behave differently and participate in public life differently.

JH: That’s a great example. How about framing?

ASO: Framing is a much abused word. It has a particular definition in linguistics. It means that words occur in context. A single word evokes an entire set of associated meanings. The classic example, brought to light by George Lakoff, is “tax relief.” The word “relief” is used to talk about bad stuff we want to avoid. By using “relief” with the word “tax,” we're taking the set of associations of things we want relief from, and we are sticking it onto taxes, thereby impugning taxes. Frames tell us that words mean things.

JH: Do you differentiate between narrative and ideology?

ASO: For me, the word ideology connotes something more conscious than narrative. For example, someone may believe they are libertarian because they believe in free markets. But undergirding those explicit political beliefs (ideology) is a set of narratives, most of which will not be recognized consciously. 

JH: That reveals another piece: that narratives are invisible. People don't know that these narratives even exist.

ASO: Yes. And because they are invisible, people sometimes produce discourse or messages that rely on a narrative that fundamentally undermines what they are consciously trying to achieve. We all swim in the water of dominant — frequently unhelpful — narratives, and we are not aware of it.

Judith Barish: As you make these distinctions, where do you see your work intervening? Which of these things are you trying to change? 

ASO: I believe there are people who are fundamentally progressive. The set of beliefs and narratives they hold consistently are dominantly progressive. And there are people on the right who are similarly not movable. 

Most people, though, operate under a set of competing narratives. They believe, for example, both that raising the minimum wage is necessary to make ends meet, and that, if you raise the minimum wage, it will send the cost of goods disastrously out of reach. They believe that immigrants contribute to our culture and community, and they're scared that immigrants are taking our jobs.

The work I do is about toggling people into the most progressive understanding they can have of the world, which is latent within them, and keeping that up, up, up, top of mind, so that that is their default. The way I do that is by getting the base, folks like you and me and our friends, to keep repeating the set of messages that will activate those progressive narratives that already exist in people.

JH: What do you see as some of the dominant narratives we would want to change — the narratives that are most getting in the way of progressive change? 

ASO: It's hard to know where to start! How about: “It is our job to serve the economy.” The economy is this agentive force. It has a heartbeat. That's why we have a “recovery bill.” The patient is on life support and we need to resuscitate the economy. We need to breathe new vitality into it. 

The argument progressives have trapped ourselves into is: “Who loves the economy best?” The right says they love the economy, and you love the economy by giving tax cuts to billionaires. We say, no we love the economy best and you love the economy by raising wages. This is a terrible conversation to have. It is irrelevant. The economy is not real; it's a convention. The conversation progressives ought to have is: “Who loves people best? What is best for people?” 

JB: In your work, are you trying to replace bad narratives with good ones? Or do we let the bad narrative fade into the background? 

ASO: I don't believe you can simply get rid of a bad narrative. You can diminish its power because the potency of narratives is precisely the fact that they occur at an unconscious level. People are not aware they are filtering their desires and actions through this set of beliefs. We can bring to the fore better narratives that exist within them but are suppressed. So, when people receive new information — they see a newscast, they observe something happening in the street, they’re asked to vote or to participate in a demonstration, they observe a video of police brutality against a Black person — they believe something different about what they're seeing or hearing.

JB: It sounds like you're talking about changing people's motivations and actions more than changing their beliefs and understanding?

ASO: Yes. Because I'm trying to win. I'm trying to change their actions. For example, voting is not a belief people have; it's an action they take. We need to take a public health approach to voting and understand that habit formation has a specific set of preconditions.

JH: Does your work expose people to something that temporarily changes their actions? Or are you able to have a long-term impact?

ASO: Both. Let’s go back to the example around the changing perception of women. Changing short-term thinking changed the set of rules and then altered society. We see this over and over again. 

Long ago, there was an effort to make it socially unacceptable to use the “N” word. At the time, people were asking: “Why are you focused on that? It’s just a word.” At the beginning, it may have felt inconsequential, not the heart of the matter but, in fact, having a derogatory descriptor off-limits alters people's perceptions of Black people. It alters the way you see them, the way you interact with them. It's an insistence that they have every right to insist upon terminology about them, the way any set of people should have the right to designate acceptable terminology about them. The short-term wording change alters society and creates longer-term perceptual change.

JH: Let’s talk about the Race Class Narrative project, which you’ve been working on for the last few years. Where did it come from?

ASO: The Race Class Narrative (RCN) was born from the insights of a Berkeley law professor, Ian Haney López. He wrote Dog Whistle Politics, which chronicled the use of racially-coded speech, aka dog whistles. Ian approached me in 2017 to put forward this idea that it would be possible to find a narrative that linked together issues of race and class in a coherent message that was more effective than standard, left-wing, colorblind messages. We thought it could be more effective in engaging the base and in mobilizing the base to repeat and persuade the middle — the folks that switch hit between competing worldviews — into progressive values and a desire for progressive policy solutions. Together, we approached Heather McGhee, who was the President of Demos, and set up the project there. So, the Race Class Narrative is the output of this idea: language analysis around perceptions of race and class, followed up by many rounds of empirical testing. 

JH: What is the narrative?

ASO: It has a specific ordering, which is common among messages that work. It begins with a shared value that explicitly names race. That can sound like: “No matter what we look like or where we come from, most of us work hard for our families.” Or: “Whether we are white, Black, or brown, most of us believe that people who work for a living ought to earn a living.” Or: “The same is true today as has been throughout history: people move to make life better for themselves, and, whether white or Black, Latino or Asian, young or old, immigrant Americans move here for the promise of freedom and opportunities.”

Second, it names the problem in a way that differs from a colorblind economic populist message. A colorblind message would typically be something like: “The wealthy few are taking all of our hard work and making off with the spoils.” Our RCN message pulls back the curtain on the dog whistle. That can be done in a softer way or a more pointed way. The softer way is something like: “But today, the one percent and the politicians they pay for divide us from each other based upon what we look like, where we come from, and how much money we have so we won't join together to demand healthcare for all.” The more pointed way is to say: “But today, the wealthy few (or Trump or Republicans depending on what you're trying to get done) shame and blame new immigrants” or “point the finger at Black people and people struggling to make ends meet.” The less pointed way uses “divide us from each other,” while the more pointed way highlights scapegoating. 

Third, the RCN narrative concludes that we need cross-racial solidarity in order to have the outcome that we desire. That sounds like: “By joining together across race and across place, we can make this a place where freedom is for everyone, no exceptions.” 

JH: So you start with values and then you provide an analysis. The words you used were “pull back the curtain.” That unveiling seems to be a critical part of a narrative. 

ASO: Yes, that’s right. Another common misstep is that progressives tend to use the passive voice. This is something RCN attempts to solve. Like all good narratives, we begin with the value and name the problem using the active voice. Passive voice is ubiquitous. “Jobs were lost.” “The wage gap grew.” The Race Class Narrative names names.

JH: How can organizers use the Race Class Narrative? How does it help them?

ASO: We have created an entire suite of elements, everything from ads to memes to handouts, that organizers can use and share. The Race Class Narrative works well in a TV ad, but it's not intended for use purely in an air war. 

The assumption behind the Race Class Narrative is that you have to engage the base in order to persuade the middle. One of the fundamental misunderstandings we have is that activists are the ones that persuade the middle. I don't think that's true because there's not enough of us and because we are suspect. I'm more open to a concept when I hear about it from a friend because I don’t feel my friend has a reason to say it, other than to convey their opinion. It is the job of organizers to get the base to repeat our narratives in order to persuade the middle, because the base is a more trusted source of information. When your friend, your cousin, your neighbor, or your high school acquaintance posts something on their Facebook page, it is more persuasive than when you hear the same content in an ad — because of the level of suspicion. The Race Class Narrative pays attention not just to what the base believes but also to what the base will be inspired to repeat. The main way organizers use it is to ask people who are their ideological compatriots — who believe them but aren't yet motivated to action — to repeat this to other people. 

Repetition is a really big deal. More familiar messages are rated more convincing. Never mind the content. Repetition creates cognitive ease, so people rate familiar ideas as more favorable, more convincing, and more positive. 

JH: How do you think organizing has to happen if narrative change is a goal?

ASO: There's a canard about relationships, that you can choose to be right or you can choose to be happy. That applies in organizing, only in this case “happy” means “win.” Frequently, we have an understandable desire to do what I would call non-strategic political education. There are so many terrible true things in the world and we un-strategically desire to tell people about all those things. But it does not actually move people or build power. We need to think through the lens of, “What do I need this person to believe and what do I need them to do,” as opposed to “I need to tell them this terrible truth.” That said, I also don't believe in a narrative in which we don't name problems.

JH: Do you have thoughts about narratives around shared wealth or abundance? 

ASO: I’ll give the researcher answer and say I think it's an empirical question that is worth asking. There is a valid hypothesis that having an abundance narrative as opposed to a scarcity narrative is important. But we need to be careful about how we render that narrative so it doesn’t reinforce bad notions. So, an abundance narrative that lifts up wealth and just how much of it we have because we’ve been so productive may backfire. I like to think that progressivism is the radical notion that people are people and not units of productive capacity. We've not managed to tell that story. Why have we monetized human existence?

JH: Do you have advice for organizers in this moment? You began by saying you were an optimist. What are the opportunities you see right now?

ASO: Even before the pandemic, the future was always unknown. The future is determined by the set of our collective actions. The future is what we do together. Today, that uncertainty is much bigger than we ever imagined. That can feel debilitating because it is scary, but there is also unbelievable possibility in it. We could make every single corporation public. We could just decide that we should own them. Things are happening now that were recently deemed “impossible.” It was impossible that the largest corporate restaurant chain in the United States would grant paid sick leave, and then they did. It was impossible that people who work at Amazon would strike, and Amazon would be forced to make concessions, and, while it’s absolutely not enough, they did. We need to reconsider what we've been told is possible, and that's what the COVID moment opens up. 



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Mahalia_O'Shaug...July 27, 2020 - 06:36Hiya! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless I'd figured I'd ask. Would you be interested in trading links or maybe guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa? My blog covers a lot of the same subjects as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other. If you are interested feel free to shoot me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Awesome blog by the way! My blog post slot
July 27, 2020 - 06:36