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The Heart of Strategic Influence: Aristotle’s Contribution to Addressing DisInformation

We must discern the nature of the conflicts we are in, and whether or not we fight with effective weapons.

Aristotle argued that there is a sense in which poetry has greater truth value than history. He meant that while history refers to specifics, poetry refers to the nature of the topic (or, as Plato said, its Form). Where history refers to the details of a war, poetry refers to the nature of War. While history may reference the details and consequences of a particular love affair, poetry refers to the nature of Love itself. While history may trace the impacts of a major decision, poetry addresses the universal human experience of approaching a fork in the road.

History is about particular things while poetry is about the nature of particular things. Poetry speaks to larger truths. It is in the Aristotelean sense that what philosophers call the “truth value” of poetry is greater than that of history.

A correlative claim that can be made of the Aristotelean distinction is that one can claim that a history is inaccurate or false, but one cannot make a sensible similar accusation about a poem. A poem may fall flat. It may not resonate. But to claim that it is non-factual is to misunderstand the nature of poetry itself. It is to misunderstand its power.

Poetry does not strive for factual coherence; it strives to touch the deep meaning of human experience. Its target is the heart, not the mind.

Narrative is poetic. It is not historical.

Why should NATO participants and national defense professionals care about the distinctions that an ancient philosopher made hundreds of years before the birth of Christ? Because understanding that distinction may mean the difference between containing Russian aggression or not. The distinction may determine whether or not nation states can hold themselves together in the face of strategies seeded to collapse them from within.

Understanding this classical philosophical distinction between history and poetry will determine whether or not we are able to discern the nature of the conflicts we are in, and whether or not we fight with effective weapons. Using history as a weapon against poetry is to use the wrong tools in a misidentified battle space.

“Disinformation” is an incorrect label for a narrative that influences public opinion. If it was non-information or wrong information, then it could simply be countered with correct information. It would be in the category of history, the facts of which could legitimately be disputed.

When “Disinformation” is effective it is because it is told in poetic, narrative form and cannot be countered with recourse to “truth” or “facts.” It can only be countered in poetic form – that is, the deeper resonance with human experience is what has to be addressed. Information is unarmed against a poetic narrative. As is history. The “facts” of history can be retold, and be given any variety of resonate meaning.

What the facts mean is what matters to the human heart more than what the facts are.

Influential narratives give we human beings that thing we crave: meaning. When disinformation is influential it is because it means more to the target audience than the truth or the facts or verified information. Information is just raw data and we do not crave raw data. Raw data has no inherent appeal.

Homer’s Illiad, for example, has had profound influence in western cultures even though it is not a factual historical account. It is in the category of the poetic. It speaks to the nature of a heroic quest therefore gives its audience a way to frame their own challenges. It enables the audience to view their own battles with obstacles and hurdles in a heroic light. The lack of truth value is irrelevant to the meaning it imparts to our experiences. The lack of truth value does not negatively affect its meaning value.

The gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, Rome, and India are archetypes. We recognize them. As types they refer to something beyond actual individual persons. The Muse speaks to us about the nature of inspiration. Sirens are not “real”; they strike a chord in us regarding the nature of temptation.

Rather than continuing to be dumbfounded by the influence of disinformation, we need to get a grip of this ancient distinction and get our categories straight. Technological advances have not altered the nature of the beast. And they cannot help us fight it if we cannot even identify what it is we are up against.

To the extent that truth-telling is part of our narrative strategy, it cannot be reactive; we cannot chase our adversaries around matching their lies with the truth because, as recent cognitive science has demonstrated, countering lies by repeating them with the word “no” (or some other negative) attached actually has the opposite effect. It strengthens the false statement in the mind of the audience (“Don’t Think of an Elephant” is George Lakoff’s challenge). Truth and facts should be a part of our narrative, but it is in determining the meaning of the truth and lies that we must dominate. That is the heart of influence.

Ajit Maan
Ajit Maan, Ph.D. writes the Narrative & National Security column for Homeland Security Today featuring her original work and work by guest experts in narrative strategy focused on identifying active narratives, who is behind them, and what strategies they are deploying to manipulate and muddy facts to the detriment of America. She is founder and CEO of the award-winning think-and-do-tank, Narrative Strategies LLC, Adjunct Professor at Joint Special Operations University, Professor of Politics and Global Security, Faculty at the Center for the Future of War, and member of the Brain Trust of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative at Arizona State University. She is also author of seven books including Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, Narrative Warfare, and Plato’s Fear. Maan's breakthrough theory of internarrative identity came in 1997; she published a book by the same name in 1999 which was released in its second edition in 2010 (with the addition of the subtitle Placing the Self). Internarrative identity deals with one’s sense of identity as expressed in personal narrative, connecting the formation of identity with one assigns meaning to one’s life experiences. Maan’s theories are influenced by Paul Ricoeur’s writings in narrative identity theory, and she cites several of his works in her book (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 90). The connection between the interpretation of personal narrative in relation to the larger social group seems to be a key factor in the work of both Maan and Ricoeur. She states that “Following Ricoeur, I’ve argued that who one is and what one will do will be determined by the story one sees oneself as a part of. Going further than Ricoeur, I have suggested that a genuinely imaginative theory of narrative identity would be inclusive of alternatively structured narratives” (Maan, Internarrative Identity: Placing the Self 71-72). This seems to indicate that Maan believes that identity influences behavior, but she also recognizes that one can be constrained by society to accept a self-narrative that fits within existing cultural norms. After establishing herself through her work on Internarrative Identity, Maan has now turned her attention to the analysis of narrative as a means of understanding (and combating) terrorist recruitment tactics. Her 2014 book, Counter-Terrorism: Narrative Strategies, examines the scripts perpetuated by a wide range of terrorist organizations while also making important interdisciplinary connections between studies in the humanities and current world events (a workbook companion to the text was published in 2018). She collaborated with the late Brigadier General Amar Cheema on the edited volume titled Soft Power on Hard Problems: Strategic Influence in Irregular Warfare, published in 2016. Maan's 2018 book, titled Narrative Warfare, is a collection of articles examining the topic of weaponized narrative; her 2020 book, Plato's Fear, examines the relationship between narrative and power. Her work was the focus of Representations of Internarrative Identity, a 2014 multi-authored scholarly monograph dedicated to the exploration of Internarrative Identity through diverse fields of study and from international perspectives. In addition to her contributions to academia, Maan has been active in sharing her knowledge with a wider audience thereby uniting military and academic experts in the cause of eradicating violent extremism around the world.

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