My friend Steve Horwitz* gave a lecture the other day and got back a student comment card that said the lecture had been, among other things “unconvincing and dangerous.” Uptight pedant that I am, I immediately pointed out that if the lecture had been unconvincing there was no way it could have been dangerous. No one is persuaded to fight the battle of Agincourt, experiment with manned space flight, try sushi for the first time, fall in love, or engage in any number of other potentially dangerous and worthwhile activities by someone who is unconvincing.
Those of us who spend a lot of time jumping up and down promoting ideas about things like free people, and free markets, and the value of the humanities, and the continuing importance of the Oxford comma, get pretty used to people who think our ideas are dangerous. But a lot of us haven’t yet mastered the art of being convincing. And that means that our ideas can only be dangerous in the same highly theoretical way that a caged tiger is dangerous. “If someone were to let that tiger out of the cage,” we think, “then we’d have a real situation on our hands!”
Nope. If we want to be dangerous, it’s not enough for us to have innovative and worthwhile ideas and activities that we want to promote. We have to couple that with an ability to convince people that those ideas and activities are worth it. We have to be able to convince them to accompany us into battle, space, the sushi bar, or bed–wherever we’re trying to go.
There are lots of ways to do that. The reason that I can’t shoot pool or play darts worth a damn is that I’ve spent most of my time studying the various ways in which people have done that over the centuries. I’ve got a book about some of those ways, even.
But my favorite way to convince people of the value of a dangerous idea is through stories.
I’m reading a remarkable book just now called The Heart of Judgement: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative (note the Oxford comma, by the way). It’s by Leslie Thiele, who is a political theory guy at the University of Florida. Among other things, he argues that narrative–story–is central to our conception of self and to our understanding of the world around us. Because of that, it is a crucial tool for explaining to ourselves and others how the world works. He writes:
In everyday life, people operate much like jurors trying to interpret fragmentary evidence given in testimony. Achieving narrative coherence is crucial. To the extent that a story can be told about the world around us, sense can be made of its complex relationships, and judgments can be levied upon them. The mental acts of understanding and judging…are achieved through the organization of perceptions into narrative format.
In other words, we don’t “get it” until we can tell ourselves a story about it.
What does this mean for those of us who want to be dangerous? It means that the Institute for Justice has the right idea when they put out short videos telling the stories of cases that they’re working on (like the case of the casket-making monks, who just won). It means that IHS knows what it’s doing when they put together short videos of professors like Art Carden telling stories about important ideas like the Broken Window Fallacy. (A term coined and explained originally by my favorite economic hottie, Frederic Bastiat.)
It means that anyone who is interested in winning the war of ideas had better realize, and pretty darn quick, that the war isn’t going to be won by data sets and graphs, but by the people who can tell the best and most convincing stories about what those data sets and graphs mean. Do that and you’ll be dangerous.
*Steve is, incidentally, both dangerous and convincing. That’s why I like him so much.