Redescription versus renarration

Often, when I try to talk about codesigning philosophies, people compare (or even equate) what I’m doing with the kind of thing therapists, new age counselors  and life coaches do, when they help people “tell themselves different stories”. Byron Katie is a notable example of this kind of “renarration” therapist.

This is a fair comparison. What I am doing is similar in some important ways. Both my approach and renarration is the basic concept of social constructionism applied to individual life. It is inspiring stuff. The promise of change, freedom and self-determination in social constructionism was one of the most intoxicating active ingredients in postmodern thought. It liberates us from having “hard truths” forced on us by convention or by aggressive, clever, fact-armed polemicists, who think that stripping a person of legitimate objections to their arguments is the same thing as persuasion. We’ve learned  that any truth, even a self-evident one, can, in principle, be interrogated and deconstructed to smithereens, clearing space for other truths. The process of deconstruction exposes the fact that they were constructed — by someone. So, why not construct our own custom truths? Renarration is individualized social constructionism, packaged for popular consumption.

None of this is wrong, even in popularized, vulgarized form. But I think it is not right enough.

It is not right enough in the way that it was right enough to claim that deposing Saddam Hussein would bring freedom to Iraq. Removing what is bad, unstable or oppressive is a necessary condition of replacing it with something better, but it is not sufficient. As some of us learned from the hard lesson of Iraq, something better must be constructed.

Further, the replacement must be constructed well and broadly accepted by the populace, or it will be factionalized, unstable and non-functional. It may even collapse and be reconquered by the old power. We cannot just go in, clear ground, and replace what was bad with something we imagine should be great.

Likewise, removing beliefs that feel bad does not ensure that anything will replace it, or that the old bad belief won’t come back and reassert itself. We have to make something that persuades us through and through — mind, heart and body.

As designers say, “We must make the right thing, and make the thing right.”

Here are the key differences between the approach where we tell ourselves different stories “renarration”, and the kind of philosophy codesign I’ve been experimenting with “collaborative redescription.”

I’ll argue/explain them more fully someday, but for now I’m just going to make a list, so I can finish this up and go ride my bike.

  1. Collaborative redescription is not therapy. It is not meant to heal psychological wounds or build senses of empowerment, or anything like that. It is a method for designing philosophies that work well for the purposes of the person using it. “A point of view is worth 80 IQ points”, so there’s a chunk of self-help benefit to doing it, but it’s less a “being my authentic self” benefit than the kind of benefit you get from acquiring and using better tools for a job.
  2. Collaborative redescription goes beyond beliefs. It is about changing conceptions that produce beliefs. But changing conceptions also changes how we perceive, how we respond, what and how we value, how we feel, how we experience life, where we detect patterns or analogies. Our inner dialogue or narration or our personal doctrine are just a tiny part of this, and they must be integral parts of our life experience, not words we recited in an effort to shout over unwanted perception, feelings, etc. When conceptions change, they holistically change the entire field of experience. They ripple through our being, reconfiguring — transfiguring, in fact — our existence in radically surprising ways. Descriptions give us a handy way of seeing conceptions, and redesciptions are an effective way to experiment with new conceptions, but the redescriptions are a means, not an end. Ideally, the redescriptions end up being superfluous, and can be discarded and forgotten. The conceptions remain and work wordlessly behind the scenes.
  3. Collaborative redescription takes adoption seriously. We cannot directly control our beliefs, and decide what we will believe or what we will disbelieve. All we can do is try on alternate ways of thinking to see if they produce persuasive beliefs, and investigate unwanted beliefs until they break down. The beliefs are believed or not, and trying to act otherwise is courting intellectual dishonesty, delusion and bullshit.
  4. Collaborative redescription is not centered on the self — not how one thinks of oneself, nor one’s own history, nor one’s relationships, nor one’s history of relationships. It is likely to affect these things, but it focuses on whatever indicates problems with how one conceptualizes, not with emotional needs or distress.
  5. Collaborative redescription is not self-discovery or self-empowerment. The insights aren’t necessarily supposed to come from within, or from any particular source. Origin does not matter.  The main thing that matters is what you find persuasive — or unpersuasive. Both parties in the collaboration are doing their best to come up with something new that might work. It is about developing a personal philosophy that actually works. It has to be adopted and used, and it should work well.

I haven’t even gotten into methods, so there may be more practical differences than the ones I’ve listed, but this should suffice to establish that collaborative redescription is not just a flavor of renarration.

But if you’ve actually read Byron Katie or Marianne Williamson or anyone who urges people to tell different stories, and what I’m saying seems off-the-mark, please let me know. I’ve know them mostly second-hand because theirs is a genre I don’t enjoy reading.

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