Monday, April 26, 2010

The Narrative

Did anyone else watch 60 Minutes last night and their piece about "The Narrative" of Islamic radicals? (You can watch it here) Leslie Stahl interviewed a former Islamic fundamentalist who now works to try and discredit the very beliefs about the west that he formerly held. What struck me in the piece was not only what the narrative is, but also how easy it is to see in other extremist movements today, and even more mainstream movements.

At one of the panel discussions, a young Muslim tells Stahl that if she can convince him of one good thing the US has done than he will discard everything else that he thinks, such as that the CIA ran the planes into the World Trade Center in order to start a war. Of course in hearing him speak you knew that there was nothing she was going to be able to say that would convince him otherwise. As someone once told me, "you have facts and I have my beliefs," and beliefs are not always over come by facts.

What I wondered was how was this any different than many of the groups in the US at the moment. There is absolutely nothing that is going to convince certain people that Obama is not a Muslim, that he was born in this country, that taxes have actually gone down for 95% of Americans and that we are not on the verge of socialism/communism/fascism/(insert ism here). In other words, they have a narrative as well which blinds them to the reality. And the left has been just as guilty of this as the right is.

The problem has become, how do we have rational conversations anymore? Everyone seems to be so trapped in their own ideology that they cannot be open to any other opinion. There is not even a point in which people are simply going to agree to disagree, instead it's just vitriol and the belief that you are wrong if you don't agree with me and therefore you must be stopped.

A while ago I watched an interview with George Clooney and Michael Eisner on the media, and Clooney said something that has stuck with me. He said that in the past, although there were multiple media outlets they more or less passed on the same information. You could be getting your news from ABC and someone else from The New York Times and someone else from Newsweek. You might all disagree on an issue, but there was a common set of information with which to start. Now that common set of information is gone.

If all you do is watch Fox News there is no way you can have a meaningful conversation on a topic with someone who is getting their news from CNN or the New York Times. There is no common basis because both are reporting such radically different information. He said his aunt (not Rosemary) and uncle believed that Hussein was behind 9/11. There was nothing he could do to convince them otherwise because that is what the commentators on Fox had told them was true. Even though the other media outlets said differently, and had the facts to back it up, they were wrong because they were just the "liberal" media out to disparage the president and the country. And he wondered, how do we engage each other, how do we participate in a democracy, when we are not even starting from the same place or with the same basic set of information?

Clooney's question haunts me at the moment and I don't know what the answer is because there is only going to be a continuing proliferation of opinions and information, not a diminishing. So how do we as a people meet somewhere in the middle in order to make this all work? How do we dismantle our narratives and begin to hear other people's opinions, even if we disagree, and not feel that we have to resort to violence to stop what we dislike?

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