Narrative and Complexity

NOTE: I wrote this on November 11th, 2016, and then let it rot in my drafts folder. I’m publishing it now because, well, why not?

Please excuse this self-indulgence. I’m a well-off white man who lives in Canada who has a great family, a great fiancee, and all of the privilege that comes with those things. If you want to dismiss this for any of those reasons, go right ahead. It’s also worth noting that nearly none of these thoughts are my own – This is merely the attempt I am making to fit them together.

Obviously, a momentous thing happened this week. And since it has happened I have been hit by a kind of wave that is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. First, I felt my own reaction, which was entirely terror and stress. Setting that aside, I was then privy to the reactions of those whose voices I have come to value, particularly as I consumed (just way too much) media in the leadup to the 2016 US presidential election.

I was hit by a lot. Genuine fear from those who felt this was a complete and total rejection by their own neighbours. Unabashed humility from those who laughed at Donald Trump. Cautious, if forced, optimism from #NeverTrump Republicans. Elation from moderate Trump supporters who believe he will bring about positive change. The voice I most identified with was that of model ally Travis McElroy.

Probably the single best thing I have read/watched/listened to was David Axelrod’s interview with Van Jones. I could only diminish what he said by trying to summarize it, so I can only strongly recommend it.

But all of this came to a head for me as I continued to try to make sense of what happened, and what it means, while also listening to others attempt to do the same. I remembered one of my professors in University, who was explaining a concept from a philosopher whose name I forget. The concept was simple – The truth is like a gigantic sphere in the sky. And all we have is our flashlights. When we point our individual lights at the truth, what we see is the truth. We do not see it all, but what we see is true. And it seems to me, as it seems to Van Jones, that we have perhaps forgotten that to be the case.

This bleeds into what I think is occurring right now. People are trying, desperately, to understand why this has happened. There is subjective truth, like those who feel that this is a repudiation of everything the socially progressive left has worked for 8 years.

Multiple things can be true at once, even if they seem to run contrary to one another. It can be true that this election result is a firm rejection of minorities. That when Trump says “Make America Great Again”,  people cheered because that means returning to a time when black people had to sit at the back of the bus, and abortions had to be done in secret. It can also be true that when Trump says “Make America Great Again”, people cheered because the middle class has been crushed by globalization, and that the future, with its automation and specialization, is a very scary place for working class white people in the Rust Belt.

One of my favourite creators is Kirby Ferguson. He created the sublime Everything is a Remix, but more pertinently he is currently making This is Not a Conspiracy Theory. The thesis of this work is that conspiracy theories are an attempt by the human brain to project human characteristics onto non-human systems. What I have experienced over the days since Donald Trump won is that writ large.

People like stories for a number of reasons, but most of all because we can understand them. So we try to fit reality into a story, even if it hardly ever should.

It can be true that this result is a rejection of all of the progress achieved by the social left, while also being true that more people voted for Hillary Clinton than people voted for Donald Trump.

That is to say that in the age of being subjected to a non-stop deluge of voices similar to your own – from chatting with like-minded friends to reading newspapers that endorse candidates you vote for to listening to radio stations whose hosts say things that make you nod your head – we should just start listening to each other more.

Empathy is the most noble trait I know of, and I think it’s needed now more than ever.


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