Single Narratives About Terrorist Attacks And Police Shootings


This last week two things coincided: I attended a panel discussion on islamophobia and my facebook friends reacted to the news of Keith Scott being shot by a police officer. These might seem unrelated, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these experiences were really about the exact same thing: the human capacity to form narratives and hold on to them. Let’s start with the panel.

Three professors took turns speaking. Their point was that the narrative people have developed about Arabs and Islam is not accurate. People fear Arabs because they’re Muslim. But this is often not the case. There are a lot of Christians, Sikhs, and even agnostic Arabs. And people 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 11th 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. More people die falling out of bed. A lot more: it kills 737 Americans annually.

So what was the point of this panel? The point was that often times the narratives we develop are inflated, inaccurate, and need to be question. If we don’t question them, bad things happen: in this case islamophobia. Islamophobia has led to violence against Arabs, hate killings, and the alienation of a large group of American citizens. And though people struggling with islamophobia might actually feel like 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 will continues to believe their narratives despite the evidence.  

Let me be the first to admit that whether or not a person’s feelings seem to be accurate, they still matter. 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. Which is to say, we have to be willing to question our own narratives if we want to ask someone else to question theirs. But 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 BLM. One article went so far as to say if you can’t promote BLM then give the mic away, let someone else speak. I value the idea of letting someone else speak, but it was not a message of openness. It was a restriction and 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, no, at least 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 someone’s 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 they tell themselves about food and health. And when someone is paranoid, it often comes from unsubstantial beliefs about about the world around them. But 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 there was a Harvard study well publicized by the New York Times conducted by Roland Fryer, a black professor at Harvard who studies methods of reducing racial achievement gaps in our country. Fryer studied over 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. What he found was that white individuals were slightly more likely than black individuals to be shot by police officers (this is of course adjusted for all those things like racial density). This surprised Fryer.

When we’re dealing with people being killed, I feel I need to say that a death is always tragic regardless of who the person is, where they’re from, or what they’ve done in their life. Killing someone ends possibility, crushes expectations, and impacts a large net of people. But if we’re honest, very few people are shot and killed by police officers and there’s a good chance race might not be a significant deciding factor. If 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 99.97% of the time a gun wasn’t even fired.

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 questions 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 story telling 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, you’re pretty safe from cops and Islamic extremists alike.

The danger of clinging too tightly to a narrative is that it 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. And 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. And when Fryer questioned his narrative, he began to focus on the ways minor acts of force might have a much larger effect on black lives.  Fryer’s conclusion is that perhaps we should be focusing 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.”

By questioning his narrative, Fryer might have found something more interesting, more vital, and far more ubiquitous. So what did the incidents following Keith Scott’s death and the panel discussion at NCSU about islamophobia have in common? They’re both about humans and narratives. Narratives are like ruts our brains follow and 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 also free to sail and find new and better moorings.


*You can read The Federalist version here.

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