The Power of Narrative.

People like to say that mankind’s first occupation was (depending on who you’re talking to) soldier or prostitute, and this is probably somewhat true. Our first occupations belonged to those who fulfilled our oldest, most animalistic and natural, urges. Mankind’s second occupation, though, is undoubtedly that of the storyteller. From the moment we’ve been able to communicate, we’ve been telling stories about our world and the people who live in it. Some of these stories, like those that tell  where to find game or what berries are poisonous, are utilitarian. Others, like that of Gilgamesh or Odysseus or QuetzalCoatl, are more extravagant. But they’re all stories that we tell and they all are, in one way or another, about the world.

Because the stories we tell are meant to describe the world, the question of which stories we chose to tell is incredibly important. Take, for example, the difference between the ending of World War 1 and World War 2. At the end of World War 1, the narrative was framed very traditionally in terms of warfare: the winners beat the crap out of the losers, and Germany was saddled with an enormous punishment for a war it didn’t start because they had been the strongest central force. The ending of World War 2, on the other hand was couched in deeply moral and legal terms: Germany and Japan were referred to as the “axis of evil,” and their leaders were put on trial to ensure that the world saw their actions as illegal and unjust. The difference in the aftermath of the two wars (widespread resentment and the rise of Fascism in the former, and the absence of this in the latter) makes something obvious. The narrative we choose to assign to history is neither arbitrary nor meaningless. The way we talk about a series of events very often helps define those events, and constructs their future.

I’ve seen the power of narrative at work on campus over the past few weeks, during which Yale has been embroiled in controversy surrounding the University's treatment of students of color. Aside from a very small number of isolated incident early on in the past few weeks the demonstrations have been peaceful and civil, and the topic at hand has always been the treatment of minority students on campus. However, the powers that be in the world of journalism are choosing to tell a very different story. Almost every news organization from the New York Times to Fox News has been painting the events at Yale, as well as those at the University of Missouri, as some kind of apocalyptic debate of whether or not free speech is in danger of being swallowed up by political correctness. They avoiding tackling the difficult and important events on campus in favor of a safer, trendier narrative.

Aside from the fact that freedom of speech is in no way threatened by asking others to be racially sensitive, and that the events on campus in the past few weeks have actually promoted free and direct discourse instead of stifling it, the decision by major media organizations to spin the story as a debate on free speech is downright dangerous. Think, for a moment, how this shapes the narrative surrounding Yale and Mizzou. Instead of considering what colleges around the nation to do to better support their minority students, most people in the United States right now are engaging in an argument over whether or not free speech can survive on college campuses. Whether or not they intended to (and I don’t truly believe they did), the major news organizations that decide to focus on an issue that’s unrelated to the protests are silencing the voices of those protesting, and then need to recognize this. Because if they don’t, they risk dangerously distorting the importance and the outcome of what’s happening on campus.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex