Oh, great — another Trayvon-Martin-George-Zimmerman editorial. That’s what you’re thinking. Or is it just me? I’m all for constructive dialogue about important issues but that’s not what’s happening here. For countless writers and activists this is nothing more than a soap box to stand on, an excuse for the same old messages to be heard, cleverly framed in the events of the moment.
The problem is that all these rants profess a set narrative, and no one has the same narrative (except for all those re-bloggers out there who have nothing original to say). And no matter how I tried to avoid it, my Facebook discussions ended up with me playing referee for a shouting match about the character of the individuals involved, as if these people knew Trayvon or George as lifelong friends.
Even if Trayvon were as innocent as a babe and George was a one-man Klan, even if Trayvon were a hoodlum destined for a penitentiary and George was a model citizen without a prejudiced bone in his body, the FACT is that one man killed another man in circumstances we can never know. We can guess intention, we can guess motive, we can suppose a whole line of what ifs and maybes on how this might have been avoided, but a young man is still dead and another has to live with it on his hands however they may or may not feel justified.
But the fact is we’re telling stories.
We can’t accept that we don’t know how much suspicion was incurred due to race, or age, or clothing, or a heightened response from recent local crimes. And we apparently can’t even agree on what role those things SHOULD play in suspicion. We weave stories about Trayvon’s misbehavings or George’s charity and trust toward African-Americans that are frankly irrelevant, and there’s good reason to have the facts of which stricken from the record or not introduced altogether. This isn’t a popularity contest, but the question of what exactly took place at that exact moment.
While people are upset about it being a racial issue, I find it even more deplorable that we are more eager to judge individuals based on their past or other people’s impressions rather than for what they actually did in that moment of decision or passion. But we need a victim; we demand a villain.
Pardon the expression, but does it absolutely have to be “black and white”?
Isn’t it most likely neither parties were blameless and could have handled the situation much differently? Don’t most confrontations take two people? This wasn’t a drive by. There was an argument, a scuffle, and it seems that not only did Zimmerman not recognize Martin as a neighbor’s guest, but Martin didn’t recognize Zimmerman as neighborhood watch. It was the perfect storm for a quite arguably avoidable confrontation.
But we will try to dismiss culpability by saying a teen was being a teen and rightfully concerned as a profiled minority. We will say Zimmerman was just protecting his neighborhood. But when it ends in someone’s death, you have to really wonder if either of those stories alone logically come to a fatal conclusion.
What if they had politely exchanged business cards, literally or metaphorically? Herein enters the larger context, all sorts of issues from racial profiling, equality in the justice system, Stand Your Ground laws and gun control. We may have our minds made up as to the role of any or all of these, but the fact is we don’t know in this case, or in society in general for that matter. It’s a matter of opinion.
And so our nation’s narratives begin again.
Human beings are wired to think in terms of, tell, learn from, and be influenced by stories. We can’t help it. And we apply narrative to everything, be it cosmology, history, cultural identity, even economics and most certainly politics. Whole peoples, corporations, nations, political parties, races are reduced to one-dimensional characters. “Blacks” are this way, “Whites” are that way, “these people” did xyz to “those people”. It’s all ridiculous when we think about. Except we don’t think about it. It’s our way to feel like we actually understand an unimaginably complex world that would be beyond comprehension if we tried to be utterly objective.
This case is a microcosm of what we feel about the story of America. We are shouting narratives and doing very little listening to those who tell the story differently. One story says we’re over race except for race-baiters and reverse discrimination. Another is that prejudice still plays a role in everyday American life, unseen and unacknowledged by those it doesn’t impact. Other narratives are how America was destroyed (or saved) by Capitalism, or Unions, or immigrants, or Atheists, or Liberals, or the Tea Party. Which story is right? It’s a ridiculous question, and we need to shake off the shackles of our programmed thinking.
Stories aren’t things that are right or wrong. Some stories are more in line with some facts and not others, but we’ve taken them as dogmatic truths where the other guy must be wrong. By doing so, we won’t allow ourselves to be in their shoes.
For example, the average light-skinned man doesn’t know what it’s like to be negatively profiled and may even resent being patted down at the airport while someone in a burqa walks through. The average person of dark-skin may dismiss the fear people have in a bad neighborhood as racist, or not consider the stress of “white folks” concerned about a race riot. Both sides brush off the concerns of the other, offending and being offended, and even being offended by others being offended. It’s crazy.
But we can’t let go of our own stories, and maybe we shouldn’t. We use them not only to define the way our world works, but to teach and educate our children. They are powerful and teach truths (though often mistaken AS truth). Intellectually, they are models, tools, predictors. Personally, we use them to express and give form to our fears and hopes. So why not LISTEN to the fears and hopes of others that are trying desperately to be heard?
Why does our story have to be “right”? Can’t we see the truth in a another perspective? The more disparate the narratives, the more there probably is to learn from each other. If I have one hope for healing America from this wound, this tragic event and all it may represent, is that enough of us can move past our own narratives and truly share our story-telling without judgment or hate.