Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the Media's Love of Narrative (but not of People)

Every time I see a news story about a violent encounter between people of different races I cringe.  I respond this way because of the sadness of loss of life, first and foremost.  I also worry about the negative effects it will have on the race relations of a very diverse society that we live in.  But I also cringe because of the way the stories tend to roll out in the media.  

Typically the story breaks on a mainstream news outlet with a very clear, concise narrative; unarmed teenage minority murdered by armed white adult in cold blood.  Other sources pick up the story, injecting it with new adjectives, interviewing people with rapidly escalating emotions.  Citizens take to social media, community centers and sometimes the streets to air their fury and grief against the country's unjust, inhumane and prejudice systems and the majority population who run them.  

Then we find out more facts of the case and the the waters become murky.  The protagonists became less sympathetic when we find out George Zimmerman had a broken nose, or when pictures break of Michael Brown intimidating a store clerk shortly before the shooting.  Conservative media outlets and bloggers counter with charges of reverse-racism, liberal hypocrisy and the need to arm.  Depending on who you listen to the villains become the victims and vice versa.  Then we get further information on the shooters, which damage that argument; Zimmerman was told to stay in the car by the police but he ignored them.  Michael Brown was shot 8 times, far more than police protocol (3 shots, 2 to the body, 1 to the head) in stopping an armed aggressor, let alone an unarmed person.  So the villains, who briefly became the victims, are the villains once more.    

And I just sigh and shake my head.  It absolutely breaks my heart that young men have been killed.  I have two sons.  The prospect of one of them being killed, no matter what the circumstances, is the most frightening thing I can think of.  But it also breaks my heart because another pair of human beings, this time a young man and a police officer,  involved in an unspeakable tragedy have lost their personhood, and instead have now been made into characters.  They are martyrs or monsters depending on who you listen to.  But they are no longer human beings, with imperfections, emotions, spirits, prejudices and consciouses.  They are now literary devices.  

There are three reasons I think this depersonalization of the people involved in these incidents happen.  

People rush to opinions without knowing the facts.  Whenever we hear a story like this our first instinct is to respond emotionally.  The emotion is typically anger, though sometimes it is sadness, or grief.  Our first reactions to these stories are almost always whatever our own prejudices and internal narratives are.  If we find ourselves saying "well isn't it always..." or "well, probably what really happened is..." it's probably a sign we are judging based on a preconceived notion we already hold as opposed to trying to truly understand what took place in each unique situation. Stereotyping and prejudice, be it of minorities, or police officers, are cognitive shortcuts.  We think that if something is true in one instance, it is probably true in the exact same manner in this other instance.  It saves us from the effort of thinking and researching.  Unfortunately we allow these shortcuts to cause us a bias when approaching a situation, which is unfair to the people involved because every situation is different.  

People and entities with a secondary agenda spin the stories in ways that support their own ends.  The media wants to shock and scare you into keeping the dial (or mouse) where it is.  Talking heads want to show they are more incensed than the next person, so they use ever-escalating rhetoric to drive home their point.  Attorneys want to make their clients look like perfect, flawless saints, while making their opponents look like trigger-happy, murderous bigots, or mercurial urban thugs.  Sadly, much of this comes down to ratings (in the case of media) political point scoring (politicians and social media) or money (attorneys).  These persons or entities are using a tragedy to enhance their own standing in someway.  They don't care about any of the people involved, and they do irrevocable damage to the race relations of this country and suffering families when they stir up overpowering feelings in otherwise rational people by presenting them with the most extreme version possible of what may have happened.  

People naturally want to join "teams".  In times of tragedy, people find themselves comforted by notions of solidarity or camaraderie.  By thinking in terms of "us" and "them" it gives people a way to channel their feelings, be it gathering empathy from the people on their "team" or directing rage at the other "team".  Sadly, this does nothing to increase our understand of the situation nor does it allow us to see the incident in a clear enough light to begin a discussion on how to prevent situations like this in the future.  

I recognize there is no way to prevent violent encounters completely.  But the polarized responses to these situations, the reenforcement of our prejudices, whatever they may be, lead to all of us being at greater risks for these things happening in the future.  There really isn't a "cure" in these case, but maybe there are a few salves that can help heal the wounds faster.  If we are forward thinking, and don't allow bitterness or prejudice to command our actions, maybe we can respond in healthier ways to not allow things to escalate to the point of violence to begin with.   

Reserve judgement until all the facts are in.  I know it's our first instinct to go on the offensive, to air out our grievances at the top of our lungs.  But having time to gather all of the information, looking at a situation in a more sober, analytical light, we can come to a better understanding of what happened, and what our responses should be. 

Fight fair.  No matter what evidence is found in these cases, people are always going to end up disagreeing.  That is perfectly okay, and even desirable in a democracy where people are allowed to express themselves freely.  If this means taking to the streets to protest, writing your senator, or blogging about the situation, do it.  But I think it is of the utmost importance to dialogue in a respectful way, that edifies the people we are talking with and, perhaps more importantly, reasserts the personhood of the people involved, even the person you feel is at fault.  

Find common ground.  We are all human beings trying to make sense of our world.  Even those we disagree with have arrived at their opinions in some way that perhaps we can learn from.  It's a cliche, but it's true; be quick to listen and slow to speak.  

If we can do these things, I think we can return to a place were we see the people involved as people.  Not saints and sinners.  Not character archetypes in some kind of national film.  But real human beings. 

Posted on August 24, 2014 .