The Year The Stories Changed
by JC Lee
Contributing writer J.C. Lee pictured in his home city of Los Angeles, CA.
I think a lot about narrative.
That’s partially because it’s my job. I’m a writer. Specifically, I’m a storyteller. So narrative — the invisible, yet traceable line we follow from a story’s start to its conclusion — is something I spend a lot of time with each day. So too, I suspect, do most people whether they realize it or not. Our daily lives are the subject of the stories we tell ourselves. We are our own protagonists moving through the world, conquering various obstacles — “I beat the traffic to get into work on time today” — and mitigating the constant, daily anxiety of living as a conscious being in the process. The reason stories have been around since the dawn of humanity is they provide us with the perfect coping mechanism in an inherently chaotic, unpredictable universe. If death can come at any time, from any direction, it helps to organize events into a structure we can understand. Every culture, every country, every family & individual has their own narrative that keeps events organized, understood and valued. Through narrative, experiences are suddenly pregnant with lessons. Narratives are literally the way we interface with the world, each other, and ourselves.
Which is why they can be insidious. Rarely are we conscious of their effect on the choices we make and how we process information. This is exacerbated in a world where more and more Americans self sort — moving places where most people tend to agree with our systems of belief, empowered to curate, consciously or not, the wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, connecting to those with whom we identify, provided with multiple avenues with which to communicate and form strong bonds, generating countless tribes of people who see the world with a shared point of view.
And why wouldn’t we? Life is more comfortable with people with whom we agree. And in the frenzied, multi-lane highway of our various identities and the plethora of ways in which they communicate, any reduction in the anxiety that causes is a blessing.
The way narrative undergirds this process can’t be understated. For example, as a gay man of color, I’m able to easily meet more gay men of color, with greater ease, than at any point in human history. I exchange anecdotes and information, reinforcing my personal narrative and the narratives of those in my group. This happens over and over again. Soon, narratives are truth and those that don’t conform with those of the group are rejected with little concern for reason, evidence or empathy. The act of rejection, too, is a bonding force — nothing confirms the innate defensive, animal impulse of a tribe like an attack from an outsider. Thus, the more a narrative is attacked, the stronger the group becomes in uniting against it. It does wonders for our self worth and horrors for the diversity of ideas with which we exchange.
Which brings us to the long nightmare that has been the election of 2016…
I’ve thought a lot about why this election, more than perhaps any in our history, has felt — on an intuitive level — so much more divisive than any other in my lifetime. The answer, I suspect, is the way in which narratives have cut through tribes that once saw themselves as unified in unforeseen ways, pitting people who perceived each other as comrades on opposite sides of a divide they never knew existed.
And unlike past elections, where unifying narratives aligned with political parties, in 2016, they have fractured around personalities, splitting groups along fault lines that have long existed, but never had both the geographic and media reinforcement to cause them to rupture.
That’s all changed this year.
Each major candidate is bolstered or burdened by a narrative that helps explain to believers and/or detractors why their particular promise of America has not been fulfilled.
For supporters of Donald Trump, he is the outsider finally speaking to what so many white Americans have felt for so long: their country has been stolen. They work incredibly hard, and in spite of those efforts, their wages remain stagnant and the duress of their everyday life grows worse. Barack Obama is the embodiment of this: he is the Other manifest, distributing what has historically been theirs to his fellow others. The anxiety that their tribe is diminished, their power as a voting bloc growing smaller by the year, has been exploited by the Republican Party for generations. They have been lied to and manipulated. They are furious. Trump is the narrative prism through which they view the world. And their only road to reclamation is to burn the institutions that have betrayed them to the ground.
Detractors of Hillary Clinton have a similar narrative. She is the ultimate insider, the ultimate scheming politician. What ought to be her greatest asset — years of public service — inverts, instead offered as incontrovertible evidence of corruption. Tough, bipartisan compromises and difficult foreign policy decisions are seen through the prism of fraud. She will say anything to get power. She has no moral compass. And as with all effective narratives, they give voice to subconscious, irrational fears and anger. Evidence offered to the contrary is irrelevant, because the feeling the believer feels is real, more real than a statistic or article, thus the narrative must follow.
This is nowhere more presently evidenced than with supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders. There is no mathematical route for the Senator to win the Democratic nomination for President. And before he was eliminated from contention, the premise of his campaign — that a political revolution would inundate his opposition in order to enact his agenda — had no evidence to demonstrate it was at all realistic. But its appeal was never based in realism. Rather, it relied on the innate optimism so many on the American Left envision for their democracy: a highly educated, mobilized majority was patiently waiting to be activated. They wanted America to work, but lacked a figure to embolden their faith. This is a popular, hopeful story told by liberals, historically common and time and again disproven during Presidential election cycles. But in 2016, geographical self sorting and social media amplified the voices of believers. Another narrative was born: “How could it be that every person in my (already curated) social circle believes what I believe and yet Sanders is losing?” The answer must be corruption and conspiracy. The systems that have stymied the mythic silent liberal majority throughout American history are again at work. Any undermining of this narrative only reinforces its validity. A vicious cycle is enacted, culminating in the type of behavior we saw at the Nevada Democratic Party Convention over the weekend.
There is, of course, truth in every narrative. Hillary Clinton is far from an exemplar of moral truth. White Americans really are losing their grip on power to minorities. There is corruption in the system that Sanders rightly critiques. But narratives aren’t interested in what is or is not true. Our most popular narratives, after all, have nothing to do with actual events and everything to do with emotion. They are attempts to understand and alleviate our deepest fear and fury. It’s why our best narratives feature villains (immigrants, Clinton herself, the system). But so too, villains are a childish impulse. We tend to recognize this in narratives with which we disagree. It’s easy to scoff at Trump supporters blaming Muslims, but not so easy for people who support Hillary Clinton to understand why other people hate her. Our villains are real, it’s the villains other tribes blame we call silly.
And the narrative we all share — that America is the land of the free and home of the brave — is only another manifestation of this. After all, is America the country it is today because of our principles and beliefs, our so-called faith in freedom and the current of Capitalism we’ve ridden, or is it a quirk of history, the fact that we’re surrounded on two sides by massive oceans, making invasion nearly impossible, and were provided by nature with a vast wealth of natural resources with which to grow rich and powerful?
I’m not claiming to know the answer. But if history can teach us anything, it’s blind adherence to anything ends badly. There’s no changing who we are, but we can change the way we think about and interact with one another. We will always fall victim to our natural inclination to narrative. It’s what makes us human. But the stories we tell each other, their power and legacy, go far beyond our novels, movies and TV shows. They dictate who lives, who dies, who gets help and who gets bombed.
We owe it to one another to do better. We must.