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Question The Stories You Tell Yourself About Terror Attacks And Police Shootings


This last week I attended a panel discussion on Islamophobia and my Facebook friends reacted to the news that in North Carolina a black police officer had shot a black man who may have been armed. These might seem unrelated, but they were not. These experiences were really about the exact same thing: the human capacity to form narratives and hold on to them regardless of the evidence.

Let’s start with the panel. Three professors took turns speaking, concluding the narrative many Americans have developed about Arabs and Islam is not accurate. Many people fear Arabs because they’re Muslim. But there are in fact a lot of Christian, Sikh, and even agnostic Arabs.

Many people also often fear Muslims because of all the terrorist attacks. However, you are much more likely to be killed by lightning than by an Islamic extremist. According to one of the lecturers, Islamic extremism has only killed 109 Americans since September 11, 2001. That might sound like a lot, and every life is precious, but if you run the numbers, there is an infinitesimally small chance that you’ll be one of them. Many more people die falling out of bed: that kills 737 Americans annually.

This panel pointed out that often the narratives we develop are inaccurate, and need to be questioned. If we don’t question them, bad things happen—in this case, Islamophobia. Islamophobia has led to violence against Arabs, hate killings, and alienating many American citizens. Although many people struggling with Islamophobia might feel that Muslims and Arabs are attacking their way of life, destabilizing their country, and undoing the social fabric of their community, these feelings don’t make it true. But people typically continue to believe their narratives despite the evidence.

To Wake Others, We Need To Respect Them

Now, people’s feelings still matter even if they don’t reflect the truth of a situation. If people feel this way, we need to address it. We need to talk about it. We need to be open to hear their voices, and offer our own alternative interpretations respectfully, lovingly, and with an open mind.

In other words, we have to be willing to question our own narratives if we want to ask others to question theirs. We need to be open. If we’re not open, it’s very easy to become extreme. That’s the message I took away from the panel.

However, the opposite message filled my newsfeeds the day after Keith Scott was killed. A lot of my friends posted articles about how we need to shut down the hurtful narratives that oppose Black Lives matter. One article went so far as to say if you can’t promote BLM then give the mic away and let someone else speak.

I value the idea of letting someone else speak, but this was not a message of openness. It was a message of restriction, and of doubling down on a single narrative. The idea was that if you don’t agree with this message, shut up. There was no place for an alternative narrative. Of course not everyone feels this way, but apparently a lot of my friends do.

So what’s the problem with just validating someone’s narrative? If they feel that way, shouldn’t that be a good enough reason to validate it? Well, not when it comes to Islamophobia. Instead, when people feel one way, sometimes the most important and healthy response is to lovingly present an alternative narrative.

This is a basic skill for maintaining mental health. It’s the primary skill cognitive behavioral therapists teach to their patients. When people are depressed, it’s often because they have a hard time not interpreting their experiences in a singular way. When someone is anorexic, it can be the result of inaccurate stories he tells himself about food and health. When someone is paranoid, it often comes from false beliefs about the world.

It’s Time to Question Your Own Narrative

Cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t just for people with mental illness. Opening our minds to alternatives helps us all deal with things more intentionally and productively. For example, The New York Times publicized a study conducted by Roland Fryer, a black professor at Harvard University who studies methods of reducing racial achievement gaps. Fryer studied more than 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida, and California. He found police officers were slightly more likely to shoot white individuals than black individuals (his study of course adjusted for all those things like racial density). This surprised Fryer.

When we’re dealing with people being killed, I feel a need to say that a death is always tragic regardless of who the person is, where he is from, or what he has done in his life. Killing someone ends possibility, crushes expectations, and affects many people. Yet if we’re honest, very few people are shot and killed by police officers, and there’s a good chance race may not be a significant deciding factor.

If on average it’s not a racial issue, we can still talk about restricting lethal force, but we would need to start by finding out how much there really is. According to Fryer’s study, there were 1.6 million arrests in Houston over five years and officers only fired their weapons 507 times. That means a gun wasn’t fired during an arrest 99.97 percent of the time. So while we are all more likely to be shot by a police officer than by an Islamic extremist, you’re still pretty safe from both.

If you’re walking down the street scared that an Arab is going to kill you, you need to question your narrative. And if you’re walking down the street fearing the cops are going to shoot you, you also need to question your narrative. So why are people scared of these things? Because our brains are storytelling machines and once you’ve developed a narrative it’s very hard to doubt it. Instead, whenever another bomb goes off or another black man is shot, we add that to our bag of confirmation.

But our ability to confirm our own narratives doesn’t change the facts. The fact remains that you’re pretty safe from cops and Islamic extremists alike.

Keeping an Open Mind Helps You Stay Free

Clinging too tightly to a narrative can cause you to miss the more compelling and honest story. When Fryer allowed himself to question the pervasive narrative, he realized that while lethal force is not very common, nonlethal force is. As a result, he discovered that black people are more likely to be frisked, cuffed, pepper-sprayed, etc. than white people. Rather than reinforcing an old narrative, his openness allowed him to discover something perhaps even more crucial.

So Fryer began to focus on the ways minor acts of force might have a larger effect on black lives. By questioning his narrative, Fryer might have found something more interesting, vital, and ubiquitous. Fryer’s conclusion is that perhaps we should focus on the nonlethal stuff because that happens all the time and leads to black disillusionment.

In his own words: “Who the hell wants to have a police officer put their hand on them or yell and scream at them? It’s an awful experience. Every black man I know has had this experience. Every one of them. It is hard to believe that the world is your oyster if the police can rough you up without punishment. And when I talked to minority youth, almost every single one of them mentions lower-level uses of force as the reason why they believe the world is corrupt.”

So what did the incidents following Scott’s death and the panel discussion at North Carolina State University about Islamophobia have in common? They’re both about humans and narratives. Narratives are like ruts our brains follow. We have to be willing to step out and consider other perspectives if we want to see where we’re going. Questioning our narratives is hard and uncomfortable, and can leave us feeling anchorless. But it can also free us to sail and find new and better moorings.