the state of us: in defense of context

Jon Stewart is a brilliant thinker and satirist, and in my view the public sphere is less informed without his voice.  When Stewart ran Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, pollsters claimed that a majority of millennials looked to Stewart for primary news; he was their information source.  Many older Americans decried this as a sign of the decline of our country’s intellectual rigor, or of the lack of seriousness and discernment young people possessed.  To be fair, Stewart himself adamantly claimed he was not, nor did he try to be, a trusted source for news.  He is a comedian, and that is all he claimed to be.  However, I think Stewart regularly offered us something news agencies—and most people—lack: context.

How do we come to know the things we know? Could the answer illuminate the sources of our alleged divide?  Our fractious citizenry is a result of our inability to contextualize our unique realities.  We live in circles largely segregated along economic, racial, ethnic and political lines.  These lines, invisible though they may be, are powerful, and they keep us from interacting regularly with people whose experiences and backgrounds are largely different from our own.  We love to yell about the problems this insulated living causes. “Get out of your echo chamber!” “You live in such a bubble.” “You only reached that conclusion using confirmation bias.” The list of accusations goes on, even though our divided communities ensure many of us DO live in bubbly echo chambers. 

The work of self examination required to recognize my bias, to trace its roots, and to mitigate its impact, can be exhausting.  Nevertheless, we cannot be responsible stewards of our citizenship without contextualizing our experiences with the experiences of people who live very differently than we do.  For instance, if my view of police is based on the positive experiences of white friends who live in safe, wealthy areas, then I might passionately defend all policemen as dutiful servants who are patient, respectful and levelheaded in every instance.  On the other hand, if my view of police is based on the negative experiences of black friends who live in a part of town overlooked by investment, then I might passionately accuse all policemen of being overly aggressive and suspicious, more likely to use force than to have a conversation.  Without the context of another’s point of view, our perspectives become reactionary.  In every interaction, we need to recognize our own perspectives and then intentionally contextualize those opinions with the thoughts of others.

The way we access information also demonstrates our need for contextualization.  Increasingly, we are consumers of “the media” rather than informed citizens who advocate for important ideas and people.  We are reactive to sensation, rather than intentionally engaged in the diverse realities of living in America.  I don’t blame us for this reactionary living.  The onslaught of information to which we are privy is overwhelming.  Most of us lack the capacity to curate which information is helpful or necessary, so we give that job to trending social media feeds, and to companies who own news stations and papers.  Without knowing we have done it, we allow them to decide what is necessary, or what angle matters.  Some do a better job than others at providing context for the information they share.  However, we often consume what they present as isolated fact, rather than discovering an independent, historically rooted and thoughtfully framed context.

The point here is not to demonize “the media.”  As David Dark often says,  “there is no the media.”  Rather, we are all implicated in a system that keeps us uninformed, spoon fed with snippets that make us furious, stripping away both nuance and context.  We are implicated because we consume our news in this way, like cows huddled in a corner rather than exploring the expansive field before us. 

How might we shift from passive acceptance to actively contextualizing our views of the world? A few thoughts:

1)   Take inventory of the ways you engage news.  Do you spend energy informing yourself, or do you accept arbitrary knowledge of the school board, affordable housing accessibility, limits to religious freedom, state of welfare, and the condition of your state’s guns laws? Observe your pursuit or avoidance of “news.”

2)   Think about that pursuit or avoidance.  If you avoid the news, is it because it feels too “political” and somehow dirty? If this resonates with you then know you are surely not alone. However, consider this: The ability to insulate yourself, protected from any policy decision your government makes, is a privilege not enjoyed by many who struggle pay check to pay check.  It is also worth noting here that when you make a habit of giving your political power away, it is very difficult to get it back.

3)   If you think most news sources are terribly biased, consider sampling all of them.  Rather than repeat attacks of, “Fake News!” or “They have an agenda!”, take time to listen to a variety of sources. If you believe that a certain outlet is overtly biased yet successful, it behooves the informed citizen to spend time getting to know those powerful voices.  When you listen to disparate voices it might make you angry, but it could also provide context for you to understand the many forces at play around a given issue. Such exposure might help you communicate well with people who lean differently from you.

We live lives largely contextualized by the people we know best, and by news sources we find agreeable.  Such self-referentially rooted context is no context at all, and leads to the passionate defense of positions not fully explored.  As citizens who share a country, we fundamentally understand we share spaces with others.  As long as we value only the opinions of those who are the most like us, we will continue to react badly to those who have a different way of experiencing or seeing the world.

Note well that the forces around you do not provide context; indeed, if you are weary of today’s reactionary blaming, do the work to contextualize your own experience with the experiences of others.  Contextualize your acquisition of news with outlets who spin in service of a different power.  It is the job of each of us to build a bigger table, invite others to have a seat, and then share our experiences.  If we do, perhaps we can stop reacting with anger and blame for people who dare respond differently.  Offering your story to the stories of others will bring insight to our shared concerns.  As Jon Stewart once mocked cable news, “This portion of our program is brought to you by… Context. It’s the shit you have in your tape library that gives seemingly isolated instances perspective.”

storytelling as an antidote to data

In a recent memo to his company, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, again affirmed that slide decks were banned from executive meetings.  Instead of consuming data through bullet points on a projector, Bezos advocates a group reading of a narrative about the topic up for discussion.  His executives sit together in the conference room, silently reading a document that tells a story or explains a paradigm before they discuss the issue at hand.  While this might seem like an inefficient way to run a meeting, Bezos has tapped into the thing that helps us thrive as humans: we were made not just to capture and process knowledge, but to understand stories that help us make meaning.

In my World Literature courses, I begin the semester by asking my students why we tell stories.  As the discussion warms up and students begin to share, an apologetic for storytelling emerges: Stories educate, they inform, they explain and entertain.  Stories told in community do even more though; they help us understand who we are, what access to power we have, and what responsibility we have for each other. They teach us how to resist in meaningful ways, and they affirm our cultural connection to our communities. They teach us how and why we belong. 

Our society has developed incredible ways to collect and process data.  From Survey Monkey to Google Survey to professional pollsters, we are obsessed with gathering feedback.  This can be helpful when we use such data to evaluate our success or failure at achieving goals.  However, often it seems that good data proves we are successful, removing our need to engage with others in meaningful ways, processing their experience in real time.  Data is helpful, but collated data is incomplete without stories that help us make meaning of it.   For instance, I belong to some startups, and we are constantly surveyed for feedback.  Nevertheless, the interpretation of that data often seems to have failed to capture the overwhelming sentiment of most stakeholders.

It is easy to dismiss anecdotes as incomplete, simple snapshots that do not tell the whole story.  However, Bezos and other innovative leaders know the value of anecdotes to understand one’s experience.  There is a reason we read reviews of books, movies or purchased items, even though we see the starred rating.  The comments of others give us context for the starred reviews.   They help us understand and consider the source.

In an age of daily polls measuring optimism, disappointment, or approval, I’d like to urge us to take time to hear each other’s stories.  Polls and data support binaries, forcing us to either approve of or dismiss others.  Stories, on the other hand, allow us to listen for nuance, to recognize that we can support an idea while also being frustrated with parts of it.  We can endorse a candidate without loving every aspect of their behavior or actions.  We can belong to a community and struggle joyfully in it.  Stories allow us to tell our own narrative in the context of others.  When dividing ourselves into us and them is instinctive, telling a story about my experience with others carries with it a level of accountability to describe other people as people. 

Stories teach us how and why we belong. 

I am a follower of Christ, and according to eyewitness accounts, he was an obsessive storyteller.  Ninety percent of his time was spent walking around rural Galilee, chatting with random people, listening to and healing hurting people, and teaching crowds who loved the way he talked about God and others.  Jesus loved a good story, but more than that, he knew that the narrative arts offer a fantastic way to illustrate human frailty and hope.  Stories helped hearers find meaning in choices they faced, helped them understand people in their community, and forced them to investigate their own way of being in the world.

One of my favorite things about Jesus is also his most infuriating characteristic.  When people ask him questions, he responds with a story.  Like the character Raymond Reddington on NBC’s The Blacklist, Jesus appears to have never been in a hurry, nor to think understanding is best reached in a linear fashion.  Instead, he would tell a story that clearly or not-so-clearly illustrated his thoughts on the posed question.  I suspect he developed this habit for a few reasons. One, he rejected transactional relationships resolutely.  Two, he knew truth is often stumbled into, rather than logically arrived at.

Person: Hey Jesus, I’ve heard you know things (or think you’re important, or are saying things that make my power feel unstable). If you really know so much then answer this….

Jesus: [I see what’s going on here. You want to catch me in a morally compromising position, or you want a simple fix for your frustrating life, but that’s not how life works.  Morality is not to be weaponized or formulaic, but should encourage compassion and interdependence.  Besides, I’d rather chat with you for a while about other things that interest me. Let’s dream together about how the world is and what it could be.] Let me tell you about a guy I know….

Person: Oh I get it! I’d like to follow you around now; I think I need more of this! (or Oh! Wait….what? or Oh…hard pass, I’m out)

Maybe the point of life is not to efficiently convey facts or collect opinions for a pie chart.  Maybe the point is to swap stories about how the world works, about a community we could form together.

My favorite type of literature indulges in magical realism.  The idea is that sometimes truth is illustrated best through images or ideas that technically defy logic.  A feeling can be best conveyed through a fantastic story that might stretch the bounds of possibility.  Sure, a list of bullet points can get an idea across at Amazon, but a story illustrating the same idea can lodge itself into hearts and minds, creating a shared moment that builds community in the process.  Aren’t we all desperate for community?

In my own habits, I am trying to hold myself to a higher standard.  If I can’t get a thought across without a personal anecdote or a shared story, then maybe that point is better left not made. Data without context is incomplete.  Collect the data, complete the surveys, project your powerpoint, but don’t forget that we are people sharing our space and passion with other people, all telling stories.  Listen.

look for a helper: from mr. rogers to parkland

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, a children’s TV show.  Mr. Rogers celebrated neighboring and used his imagination to explore new ways of being connected to one another. Two of my favorite thinkers in Nashville—David Dark and Russ Ramsey—have mentioned Mr. Rogers in the past few weeks.  They argue, and I agree, that we can learn a lot from his neighborhood. 

Mr. Rogers’ love of imagination is evidenced by the prominent role given to The Neighborhood of Make-Believe on his show.  What if we thought of ourselves as people who share a neighborhood, instead of as defenders of a specific point of view?  What if we allowed our imaginations to fuel relational creativity, rather than giving in to social patterns worn out by despair? Walter Brueggemann talks about our need to subvert relational norms so we can find ways to live together in abundance and shared flourishing. To imagine a world where your success does not threaten mine.  Where we might grow best together.  This is the stuff of Make-Believe.

Fred Rogers recalls growing up in a world that frightened him at times.  Sound familiar? According to Russ, who recently relayed this story, his mother reassured him that when he felt frightened he need only look for Helpers.  She gave her son confidence that no matter how scary the world seemed, there were Helpers everywhere.  What a beautiful shift in perspective she provides: Yes, the world is scary, but there are always people willing to help if only we would look.  Maybe Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe needs to influence our neighborhoods today.

They have begun to believe that the way we neighbor is more powerful than what we acquire. 

In mourning the prevalence and power of guns to hurt kids in our country, I have been frightened, and despaired.  This month there was a shooting at a school I love in Nashville. The staff is phenomenal, and they did everything they could to keep kids safe.  They have grieved and cried and found hope together in the last 10 days, and students feel safe and loved in their school community.  In the words of Mr. Rogers’ mom, these students found Helpers, and help they have.  And yet, the staff are living in the tension of clinging to hope even as they know school shootings, crushing poverty and violent despair are far too powerful for a school faculty to stop.  We adults, who feel exhausted and powerless, we need to find Helpers as well.

I find Helpers in the students of Douglass High School in Parkland, FL. They are challenging the power of the status quo, shaking us awake and helping us believe again that change can come through their #neveragain movement.  The Parkland students are effective because we are predisposed to accept them as part of our “us.”  They are not jaded activists or entrenched interests; they are not pontificating with no skin in the game.  These are innocent kids offering first hand accounts of the ways in which they are victims of a society increasingly based on fear and violent defensiveness.  These are brave teenagers who don’t know the “rules”, and so they continually break them.  Like Mr. Rogers and Brueggemann, they are imagining a different way of relating to each other.  They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that a school shooting should be interpreted in a political context, rather than a human-loss-of-life context.  They don’t know that we have somehow agreed that even though the vast majority of Americans want stricter gun laws, we are powerless to change anything.  True to Generation Bruh, they see the obvious best path forward, understand instinctively that the adults around them are stuck in old paradigms, and fully, passionately believe that they can improve our norms. 

They are subverting the way we have taught them to live—in fear and despair, with a fixed amount of power—and have somehow imagined a world in which fear does not dominate, power is not hoarded by those who fund campaigns, and where the despairing world around them is only a starting point.  As in the neighborhood of Mr. Rogers, the imaginary world found its way into our perceived world, and they have begun to believe the impossible.  They have begun to believe that the way we neighbor is more powerful than what we acquire.  The reality we created burst, unwelcome, into their world through a broken and dangerous kid with a military-grade weapon; in return they are turning our world upside down by imagining a new world in which we listen to one another and act on each other’s behalf.

We are slowly edging into a new way of imagining our connections to one another. 

We find ourselves listening to them because their voices have an imaginary ring to them.  Could a kid really be speaking this kind of truth to power? Are the rules to which we adhere not rules at all, but just old ways of respecting hollow power? Could we the people actually have the power to change the way we relate to each other?  Whether we agree with their demands or not, can we be refreshed by the idea that we are not stuck in a world of defensive powerlessness?

We live in fraught times, but change is afoot because Helpers abound.  Look around and see the impact of protest, notice the subtle shifts in public discourse.  We are slowly edging into this new way of imagining our connections to one another.  From Black Lives Matter to #metoo to #neveragain, public voices are teaching us to listen to one another in order to become better neighbors.  Subtle or overt, at the very least we might notice that protest is not a vain screaming into the wind; it often offers a path forward.  If you find yourself listening to these students with an open heart, notice what it takes for you to decide to reject their perspective, clinging to the old rules you know will never work.  These voices are not political noise; they are organized counter narratives openly lamenting what is wrong and pointing out ways to change our “normal” from destructive to healthy.  These voices are changing the way we do life in America, and they lend courage to all of us who reject despair.  Imagine that these Parkland students echo Mr. Rogers, pleading with us all, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”