Thursday, August 27, 2015

News and Narrative

No person on Earth is capable of simultaneously observing, for any duration, every individual event (if there is indeed such a thing as a discrete occurrence). We know only what the locality of our own perceptions and our personal histories permit us to know.

Even if an omnipath did exist, the deluge of information would probably sweep him or her into a terminal state of epileptic confusion—unless the power of seeing all events as they happen was conjoined with the ability to understand how they occur in relation to one another. To witness something doesn't necessarily imply an understanding of its antecedents or repercussions.

Our understanding of the past and present consists largely of a small number of events and entities separated by wide blank spaces. Arranging objects and occurrences in terms of an overarching narrative—inducing the nature of the whole by examining how the known particulars fit into one another—is how we're able to function in the world in spite of our ignorance regarding most of its contents.

Two parties may agree on the veracity of a sequence (or more appropriately, an assortment) of events; both will grant that certain things did occur, and they might even agree on the chronological arrangement of said things, but can differ fiercely with regards to how the events fit into each each other, their implications vis-à-vis other events, and which events are most significant.

The centrality of narratives to humanity's conception of its world is as old as abstraction itself, but it wasn't until recently that we all began to notice. The writers and philosophers and artists of the twentieth century pointed out that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes, that objectivity itself was really a very subjective matter. "You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view," professed postmodern philosopher Ben Kenobi.

We see Kenobi's thesis borne out beyond his imagination in the early twenty-first century, when most of our impressions of the world find their ingression through electronic sources, at a blisteringly rapid pace, in great quantities of tiny packets. Now we're finding there is no emperor, all of us are the emperor, all of us could be naked, and we are only as indecent as we persuade those around us to believe we are. We all live on the same planet, but the worlds we inhabit vary tremendously. If you're a progressive who's ever spoken to a conservative (or vice versa) about, say, the Benghazi incident or George Soros, you must know what I mean. Even the "truths" of science are matters of contention: the debates about the dangers of GMO crops to public health and the reality of climate change have shown us that we tend to really trust the research and the data only insofar as it validates our prejudices about the matters we hold closest to us.

In politics, participators are applauded for "controlling the narrative." Not only must the man or woman seeking election be able to convince people of their cause and its benefit to the public interest, but also persuade them of (or reinforce) the veracity of a worldview. The presidential hopeful who wants to deport left-handed people needs to create voters who live in a world where southpaws are a menace.

Hmm. This prelude was probably unnecessary. All I really wanted to talk about was a moment of introspection following the reports that Vester Flanagan had been apprehended in his car with a self-inflicted gun wound.

I started following the story yesterday morning. At first, all anyone knew was that two reporters had been shot dead in Virginia, and that the police were perusing some promising leads. I repeatedly reloaded the page to see the latest updates, eager to see who the prime suspect turned out to be. The reason I was so curious—and I doubt I'm alone in this—was because it's impossible to blow someone away in the United States without it advancing one of the major narratives (usually to the detriment of the others), and I wanted to know which political camp stood to benefit from the shooting.

Okay, I was thinking when I read the first reports, so the victims were all white. If it's a white killer, then the one camp will argue that this happened because of lax gun control laws, and the other will attribute it to mental illness and dangerously restrictive gun controls laws.

But, I thought, if he's a person of color, any color—or, god forbid, a Muslim—it's going to be a fucking circus. Please let the shooter be white. Please don't validate Donald Trump, Wade Michael Page, or Dylann Roof's narratives. Please don't let this event fit into the worldviews they advocate. Please don't let this be an occasion for the nativists and reactionaries to affirm their beliefs.

That's a little fucked up, isn't it? Two people dead, one in the hospital, and here I'm most concerned about whose ideology the event will lend credence to. But I don't think I was alone in this—and that's even more fucked up.

Then the information about Vester Flanagan trickled out. Oh, god, I thought. The shooter was black.

Oh god, I thought. He's saying he did this in response to Charleston.

Oh god, I thought. The retrogrades are going to have a fucking field day with this.

I was all set to scroll down to the comments sections on CNN's updates and just start puking. (The comments section on any CNN story is proof that it's possible to have an actual clash of civilizations between people living in the same country, during the same time period, speaking the same language.) To my surprise, CNN (and all the other major news sites) disabled the comments sections on the pages pertaining to the shooting.

What, I imagined the mutants shouting to themselves, we're only allowed to have a discussion when a white man kills black people, but we're not allowed to weigh in on black-on-white violence? IN OBAMA'S AMERICA, WHITE LIVES DON'T MATTER. Etc., etc.

After reading the now-open comment boards on ABC News, I don't have to imagine anymore.

It's interesting to observe that the nastiest, most bigoted reader-commentators on CNN are also usually the most active. And it's frightening that the most backward political sects have stumbled upon the concept of narrative, and are zealously working day and night to use it to their advantage. Every vitrolic, off-topic comment posted on CNN brings the Kingdom of God closer to Earth. The more we assert our version of reality, we imagine, the more forcefully it presses into everyone else's, the more real it becomes.