Sunday, December 14, 2014

Dear Racists,

I've been noticing your posts on The Facebook, and I'm writing today to let you know that it's not entirely your fault. Yes, you're behaving like idiots. But you're also the victims of your own nature, and of a broken storytelling apparatus.

In case no one's ever told you, you're a Storytelling Simian. 

It's a wonderful thing about you, and accounts for a lot of your capacity as a person because it allows you to tell future-stories. First, you can imagine worlds that are different than this one. And then you can create them into being. 

Where it gets sticky is when you use stories to describe the world as you have thus far experienced it, which involves a winnowing, simplifying process whereby you inevitably leave out a lot of important stuff. This isn't inherently bad. Life is infinitely complex, and for you to be able to tell future-imagining stories, you need some kind of storytelling start-point. The problem is that as you go through this simplification process, it all gets mixed up with another, essence-level aspect of your personhood: the need to belong. 

An evolutionary biologist would tell you that this comes from the whole safety-in-numbers thing and sure, that makes sense. But I think it's just as true that people chase after a sense of belonging because life is simply better in community. 

Love is an outgrowth of community, and without love... what are we?  

Whyever the case, the combination of this need to belong and the urge to tell stories to make sense of the world often results in communal storytelling that exists primarily to explain to people the parameters of the community from which they get their sense of belonging. And the unfortunate downside to this is that belonging necessarily implies not-belonging. An out-group.

This in and of itself is not a huge problem (they can't let just anyone go on the cool-kid camping trip, or the forest will fill up with people and you'll defeat the point), but when it's motivated by fear of not-belonging, the results are ugly. Nuance disappears, and individual bits of data can no longer be examined for their own merit. Rather, they are inevitably rejected or selected based entirely on whether they fit into the established narrative. That is because they no longer exist as individual data points, but rather as potential threats to a story that largely determines an essential aspect of personhood: the sense of belonging and of being loved.

This works itself out in a lot of nasty ways.

For example, it implies that it can't be both unwise for someone to resist a police officer, and also a racially-motivated crime when that police officer responds with unmerited violence. One or the other, baby, and out-group anyone who thinks differently.

Fear is a nasty little imp. It sits on your shoulder and natters and niggles. It says that if you don't belong, then you're not loved. It says that for you to belong, other people have to not-belong. It says to pick a side, and stay on that side no matter what.

And everybody does this.

EVERYBODY. 

Even the super-cool, inclusive, awesomely-bearded yoga dude from your holistic healing class will out-group somebody.

Everyone is small and everything is so infinite that all these factors will always come into play. We will always simplify the world, reducing it down to where we can make sense of it, feel a part of it, and place ourselves in a community of what feels to us like a good source of love. 

There is a solution, though, to the violent out-grouping that leads to racism, religious extremism, and the cool kids never inviting me to go camping with them. 

Well, not a solution. More like a stop-gap measure to tide us over until we all (inevitably) croak. A method for living peacefully (if not comfortably) in the tension of our finitude. 

That "solution" is more stories. 

We've got to tell more stories, and we've got to find a way to listen to stories that don't fit our established narrative. I don't care who you are, or who it is you've decided will make up the out-group. You have GOT to find a way to listen to stories from that out-group. You have got to find a way to make the lines between the groups more porous. My suggestion? Start at the edges, where maybe a few of those Republican-Democrat-Liberal-Conservative-Black-White-Rich-Poor people aren't quite as idiotic as maybe the rest of them seem. 

Slow down.

Listen slowly. 

Find a way to let go of your preconceptions and just hear, moment-by-moment, the narrative heart of someone else's way of thinking. 

You're a racist, but that's not inevitable. We're all something-ists, and none of us have to stay that way. We can change. We can grow. We can listen to stories, and then we can imagine better stories of our own. 

We can have a dream.

- - -
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