“. . . an idea can still change the world.”
—Evey, V for Vendetta
The United States was formed as a shining beacon of the Enlightenment. It was formed on the principle that reason could be used to run a nation. Each group would have its voice and no one group would have total dominion over another. The only flaw with this goal is that reason is influenced by perception. Sure, during the Enlightenment it was believed that people would come to their beliefs by using logic and reason, setting aside perception for higher thinking. But we no longer live in the Enlightenment. We live in a post-modern world (or by some accounts, a post-post-modern world). And while we still prize reason and logic, we are swayed far more often by narrative.
Narrative tells us who we are. It tells us what to value and who to trust. It will sometimes offer statistics or studies, but we often come to the narrative first then find evidence to support it. And why not, since it is easier to know what to look for once we have decided on how to perceive.
After grieving over the divisiveness in our nation, a divisiveness that seems to prevent people from talking to one another about politics, after watching a horrible election and living through a year with multiple mass shootings, I have come to the conclusion that we do not argue facts; we argue narratives. The Right has a narrative of individual freedom and fiscal conservatism, of protecting the interests of the wealthy so that jobs will trickle down to the middle and lower class, of self-empowerment through drive, ambition, and motivation. The Left has a narrative of social justice, of looking out for the interests of the downtrodden, of ensuring equality for all groups. That is, ultimately, what political issues are: narratives expressing group ideals.
And after watching arguments on Facebook and reading articles online in the wake of the election and the Newtown shooting, it seems that we use narratives to rally our personal beliefs and reason to try to convince others. But the problem is that reason, in the face of narrative, will often lose. It doesn’t matter how many statistics are cited about mass shootings, the narrative of fear and protection is stronger. The narrative of gun control is that we need guns to protect ourselves from rampant crime. We need guns to protect ourselves in case the government attempts to oppress us. We need guns because the Founding Fathers say we can have them. We need guns because armed citizens can stop mass shootings. It doesn’t matter that serious doubt can be thrown on each and every one of these beliefs. As long as people believe the narrative, statistics and studies probably will not work. The narrative is more powerful because it humanizes the issue. It frames the argument in terms of our family, our friends, our children, not in the terms of numbers or percentages. In my editing classes, we were taught to always talk about people, not about things. Readers like reading about people, and narratives specialize in people.
As tragic as it is, a school shooting makes a compelling narrative. Our media will cover the event for days. But what our media does is attempt to portray the event in as objective way as possible. Then pundits come in to weave a narrative around the event. Faces of victims become what we could protect with a gun. Faces of victims become who we could save by stronger gun control. The same event is interpreted in two different ways depending on the narrative of the pundit, depending on the narrative of the viewer. And after a few days of vicious, heated arguments, we end up back where we started: two sides mad at each other, convinced the other side is wrong, and no change.
Stricter gun control would probably make a difference. (What real purpose does an assault rifle play in civilian hands?) But it is an incomplete solution. In order to institute real change, we have to create a better narrative. If we believe everyone is only one bullet away from being a victim; if we believe we are only one gun away from the government oppressing us; if we believe that an armed citizenry will stamp out crime; if we believe that the only way to feel control over our lives is to have a gun; then nothing will change.
Ultimately, we need to decide what narrative we really want to tell: one of fear or one of hope. Are mass shootings just the consequence of the status quo, or are we willing to ask the truly hard questions about guns, violence, and the American culture? What kind of narrative do we want to tell?