Humans learn best through narrative. A narrative gives context to an issue or situation, making it easier for humans to understand and relate to circumstances. That contextual fabric helps humans remember as well. This is probably because early social groups communicated exclusively through oral narrative, although I actually have no idea if that’s true. It sounds reasonable.
We now communicate largely through social media. From the beginning, social media connected far flung friends and relatives, made connecting with new acquaintances from far away a possibility, and allowed us to share the things we find interesting, heart warming, or funny. It still does. But it now has a darker side—the exploitation of narrative.
Narratives around every news report and social issue pop up like mushrooms after a summer storm. The sheer volume of information being hurled at us in real time is so overwhelming that we have a tendency to search for the narratives to connect the dots and make sense of the chaos. This in itself is not unreasonable.
It is dangerous, though, when you search only for the narratives that will support your entrenched opinion about things. I see a deep divide among conservatives and progressives, particularly regarding the social unrest surrounding racial issues. That’s not a new thing, of course. However, social media presents so many narratives that are designed to obscure facts and circumstances that conflict with the originator’s views. Case in point, a recent conversation with a conservative friend from way back brought up this little gem: “Seems the violence, riots, vandalism, street blocking are done by the liberals. I cannot support those actions. Not sure many liberals want their houses, businesses, roads destroyed.”
And there it is. The threadbare narrative that liberals are trying to destroy society altogether. The President has been pushing this narrative hard as a desperate attempt to shore up his base and frighten them into re-electing him this fall. And my conservative friend has fallen into the trap.
And so, my response to the trembling conservatives who fear liberals more than they fear COVID-19:
Many conservatives have accepted the narrative that it is “the liberals” who are rioting, blocking streets, or looting. However, these things are being done by people on every point in the political spectrum, and by a great many who consider themselves apolitical, because they find that they can’t create meaningful change through traditional channels. Our society has rules. Most of these rules were put into place to maintain the status quo, although they were sold to the public as a way to protect them. In fact, the segments of society that need the most protection are the ones who benefit the least from said rules. At some point the frustration reaches critical mass and … here we are.
For a conservative white male who has played by the rules, you will probably feel as things have worked out just fine. Find yourself in the shoes of a woman who makes only 81% of the salary of a man doing the same job (btw – it used to be 87%, it has gone DOWN. It is much lower yet for minority women), and you will feel differently. Or the shoes of the father of a young black man with no criminal record who was killed by police or vigilantes for walking down the street “looking suspicious”. Or the shoes of a native american who has tried legal avenues to block the construction of an oil pipeline across their land, only to lose the fight, followed by an oil spill from that very pipeline. Or have the government tell you that you can’t close roads in your reservation in order to protect your people from COVID-19. Or the shoes of a minority trying to get a mortgage for a home, only to be told that the home doesn’t appraise high enough (even though the appraiser values comparable homes in white neighborhoods at two or more times higher value). Or the shoes of a woman who reported a rape and finds out YEARS later that her rape kit was never even processed.
These problems are not your problems. They don’t touch your life directly (though they may touch family members or friends). You need to stretch on this and I know it makes many people uncomfortable. I’m not asking anyone to go along with destruction, but just try to imagine the hopelessness that lies behind the eyes of those out there on the streets protesting racial injustice, poverty wages, or marching for women’s rights. And yes, there are always opportunists who are taking advantage of situations like this. We should not in anyway excuse them, nor applaud violence by the disaffected. The point is that we need to understand the “why” and fix those problems.
We have reached critical mass.