An Eye for an Eye Leaves Everyone Blind

Monday, April 30, 2012

On April 29, 1992, four Los Angeles Police Officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King, sparking what became the Los Angeles Riots. By the end, over a billion dollars in damage had been done, 53 people lost their lives, and many, like Reginald Denny, were forever changed. Twenty years later, on February 26, 2012 George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and the aftermath of that event is still unfolding around us as acts of anger and retaliation slowly ripple across the nation. If we expand our view, we find that these types of acts are repeated all over the world, every where from Afghanistan to Canada time and time again.

Our problem is thinking we’ve got the story, that we know what happened and who the other person is. We make decisions based not on fact, but on what we believe, on what we’ve heard, and what we’ve seen. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls this the danger of a single story. She says that, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” That Zimmerman shot Martin is true, there is no question of that. What remains to be seen is whether his reasons for doing so - the story he tells, in effect - will be considered justifiable by a court of law. Our understanding of the facts is blurred by context and by who is telling us the story.

“Stories,” Adichie says, “who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power. Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity. Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become.” Whether it’s the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny or the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the problem remains the same, people carry with them the preconceived notions of society that color their perception.

What’s the solution? More stories from all voices and all points of view. Alex Kotlowitz writes that “Stories inform the present and help sculpt the future, and so we need to take care not to craft a single narrative, not to pigeonhole people, not to think we know when in fact we know very little. We need to listen to the stories—the unpredictable stories—of those whose voices have been lost amidst the cacophonous noise of ideologues and rhetorical ruffians.”

In the end it comes down to empathy and understanding, recent studies have shown that reading fiction actually increases a person capacity for empathy, the same is most likely true for narrative non-fiction. As I wrote in my previous blog, reading rewires your brain by forcing you to live through the experiences of a stories protagonist. Would Zimmerman have shot Martin if he’d read To Kill a Mockingbird? Who can say? I do believe though, that if we try to empathize and put our preconceived notions aside, this world would be a better place.