Hijacking Narratives

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I finally figured out what I dislike most about fundamentalism, what I find most toxic: it cannot and will not accept other people’s experiences, claims, intentions, motives, explanations, or observations as real.

I found this out, ironically, through observing liberal arguments on Facebook. It’s standard fare. Some poor unsuspecting soul will say something like, “I want safe bathrooms for everybody. I am concerned for trans people. I am concerned for sexual assault victims who might feel unsafe with male anatomy in their bathroom too. Can we come up with a bathroom solution that protects all people?”

The response is — I guarantee it — something like this: “YOU HORRIBLE TRANSPHOBIC HATEFUL PERSON. How dare you. HOW DARE YOU. YOU HATE TRANS PEOPLE. YOU THINK THEY’RE PREDATORS. I am SICKENED by you.”

The unsuspecting soul grovels before them: “I am so sorry I offended you. I do care about trans people. I never said they were predators.”

“YES YOU DID, YOU DISGUSTING EXCUSE FOR A HUMAN BEING. You hate trans people. You spew hate.”

“But I just said I don’t hate trans people.”

“YES YOU DO!”

Et cetera. Another big step forward for LGBT+ rights.

***

I walked away from viewing this cage fight considerably shaken. It reminded me exactly of the fundamentalist mindset: the inability to allow someone who disagrees with you to mean what they say.

Since we’re on the topic, that’s why any sort of dialogue between the LGBT+ community and the conservative Christian community crashed and burned a long time ago. Gay people cannot actually mean that their love is real and healthy; their children cannot actually mean that they grew up just fine with two dads or two moms; their sexual orientation cannot actually be as unchangeable as they claim, because the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination and the heart is deceitful above all things and Rosaria Butterfield changed her sexual orientation, so there you have it.

This line of thinking may or may not be expressed in the manner seen above (i.e., you disgusting excuse for a human being), but it’s equally damaging.

This is not a strictly “conservative problem” or “liberal problem” or “internet problem” or “LGBT+ issues” problem.

It is an all-of-us problem.

***

A friend of mine confronted some friends, once. This friend expressed concern, hurt, and discomfort at the language they used and the jokes they told. At first, the friends were angry and offended; they thought my friend expressed herself poorly; they thought she was just stirring up the pot and throwing around devastating words.

Then — as my friend put it — “they realized the problem was different: I had meant exactly what I said.”

I meant exactly what I said. 

That. That is the realization many of us need to come to in our conversations with those who disagree with us.

It’s so easy, isn’t it, to dismiss somebody’s perspective and experience because of their word choice or their emotional state.

You’re overreacting. You’re on your period, aren’t you? You just want attention. You’re a white, cisgender male. You always were dramatic.

That’s why many Christians cannot accept as factual the feelings and experiences of a black person or a feminist or a Christian who walked away from their faith. And many secular people cannot accept as factual the feelings and experiences of white people or complementarians or religious people.

Generally, we don’t want to hear anything that contradicts our narrative of the world, that disrupts our “us vs. them” ideologies, that challenges our beliefs that we want to believe are universal.

***

I use the word “narrative” because I think it’s more important to know why we believe the things we believe than to know what we believe. Why we believe can divide us just as much as what we believe, and what drives us to believe can unite us with others different from us. Even if we don’t share the conclusion, we share the process, we share the motives, we share the goals.

I think the key to understanding people, to loving them, to making peace between them, is understanding their narratives — and by “understanding,” I mean letting them mean what they say they mean, even if it contradicts your worldview.

As a fundamentalist Christian, I thought I knew everybody’s narratives. There were only three: those who knew God, those who didn’t, and those who “tasted the heavenly gift” and walked away.

If you knew God, it was because he predestined you, because the Holy Spirit enlightened you, because all along, he was what you were searching for.

If you didn’t know God, you were miserably unhappy and sinful, lost, desperate for escape, incapable of morality or self-control or love. There was a God-sized hole in your heart that nothing could fill.

If you walked away, it was because you hardened your heart; you were bitter and angry against God and others; you threw out the baby with the bathwater; you were deceived; you let your hurt blind you to the truth.

Those narratives dominate and subsume all alternative narratives.

Because of the narrative of those who know God, it’s difficult to be a Christian with doubt, a Christian with the testimony that God doesn’t show up when you need him and that your spiritual life is a source of struggle, not comfort.

Because of the narrative of those who don’t know God, it’s difficult to believe unbelievers who claim to be happy or good without God. “Do you feel like you’re missing anything by not believing in God?” I asked my nonreligious friend. “No,” she said. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. (I didn’t know what to make of that.)

Because of the narrative of those who walk away from God or Christianity, it’s difficult to take them seriously; it’s difficult to see how droves of Christians are abandoning ship for legitimate reasons; it’s difficult to understand how they could have been unhappy within Christianity and how they could be happier elsewhere.

So we resort to shutdown tactics: “You’re deceived. You’re not seeing the full picture. You’re overreacting. You’re just bitter. You’ll come back to the truth eventually.”

And if your worldview requires that your worldview always be right, you have to resort to shutdown tactics. You have to reimagine somebody else’s narrative. You must, or your whole worldview will crumble around your feet.

***

I did a lot of explaining away as a fundamentalist Christian. Lots of it.

I call that explaining away “hijacking narratives.”

When atheists help the local poor, Christians report how amazing it is that God can work through unbelievers. Hijacked narrative.

When a Christian tries to ask an honest, well-meaning question about homosexuality, secular people report how amazing it is that Christians can be so bigoted and heartless. Hijacked narrative.

When you claim that egalitarianism is a more faithful, Biblical reading than complementarianism, people jump all over you for disrespecting the inerrancy of Scripture. Hijacked narrative.

When you claim to be abused, people roll their eyes at the self-centered victimization going on in today’s youth. Hijacked narrative. 

We’re not going to get anywhere with anybody if we cannot allow people to mean what they say.

***

Of course, this is not a simple path to truth.

People say things all the time that they don’t mean. Not everybody is self-aware. People can be deceived, duped, swayed, and manipulated into believing things that harm themselves and others. And even when people mean something, meaning something doesn’t make it true.

I say this as someone who thought for my whole life the truth was one thing and then realized I was lying to myself. I am hyper-aware of my own ability to deceive myself, my frequent inability to be honest with myself — this, as a someone who prides herself on self-awareness, empathy, and sensitivity.

I hijacked my own narrative. That’s the worst part of fundamentalism, for me — it trains you to doubt your own observations, thoughts, and feelings on the empirical fact that we could all be wrong. And when you’ve hijacked your own narrative to keep it in line with the “truth,” it’s incredibly difficult not to hijack the narrative of somebody who grew up with different experiences or observations. It’s hard not to jump to conclusions or have concerns or questions.

This is why I beg for grace, understanding, and patience for everybody — including fundamentalist, religious, cisgender, straight, white, middle-class people, including secular, atheist, transgender, gay, colored, poor people. I beg everyone to listen. I beg everyone to allow people to mean what they say they mean. I beg everyone to meet people where they are — even if their idea of “love” includes elements of bigotry, even if their idea of “truth” includes elements of narrowmindedness, even if their sincere meaning seems out of touch with reality.

Everybody, on all sides: Give people the dignity to know their own thoughts and motives best, even if there’s evidence they don’t.

No more hijacking narratives.

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18 thoughts on “Hijacking Narratives

  1. korie

    I like this. I have talked about something similar as “respecting their glasses.” We ALL have lenses through which we see things that shape and color and influence our interpretation of life. This is why I refuse to argue (or “discuss”) scripture with people. Rather, making comments and observations and asking questions that reveal the glasses people have on or make them aware that they are wearing glasses seems to be more effective in producing productive dialogue.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      That’s a great way of putting it, and it gets to the heart of the issue. I don’t feel comfortable talking about Scripture or any controversial subject without both of us realizing we have those “glasses” and knowing what those glasses specifically do to each of our perspectives. Otherwise the conversation ends up less than fruitful.

      Like

  2. leannrene

    Wow. You’ve put into words everything that I hope we, as the human race, can learn to do. How many problems would be solved? How much anger and bitterness would disappear?

    It can be scary, keeping yourself open to other’s worldviews while maintaining your own sense of identity, especially when you’ve been raised in or surrounded by the fundamentalist mind-set (on both sides).

    Thank you for the post, it was an uplifting start to my morning :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      Yes! I think it’s a mark of bravery to recognize the power and necessity of understanding people where they are — it really threatens your own comfortable bubble. But if you seriously care about solving big problems, like you said, you’ve got to deal with this issue sooner or later.

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  3. villemezbrown

    I think this is incredibly insightful and mature and needed. I also know I personally fail at this more often than I succeed. In fact, reading this, I was already formulating my “Yeah, but . . . ” comment before I even finished. I am not going to post that comment. I am simply going to say “Thank you for the articulate and thoughtful reminder to err on the side of empathy and compassion rather than offense and anger.”

    Adele

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  4. Gov. Pappy

    Ha! I echo Adele – I found myself thinking the “yeah, but” several times, but then there’d be another paragraph. You covered it well and it’s a needed caution.

    Frankly it’s hard to listen to so much of my old perspective, when I see it coming from others. I have to remind myself that while many are indeed willfully blind, toxic people (fundamentalism can really attract some characters, especially in leadership), few genuinely choose it over better options. They’re often born into it, or captured by it (folks with rough pasts taking a lifeline, etc), and it’s all they know. Just like I was. So many folks were patient with me.

    I’m finding out how hard that is. Genuinely listening and trying to find the heart in people, while some of the things they’re saying is just painful to here, or even triggering. It’s not for the faint of heart. Most days I just can’t.

    I just wrote something in a similar vein the other day: https://govpappy.wordpress.com/2017/02/28/show-your-steps/

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    • Bailey Steger

      I feel the same way, about listening to my old perspective. It sounds so different when you’re an outsider than an insider, so I think I’m realizing for the first time how audacious or odd or horrible some of my old beliefs were. It’s hard to show grace when you’re staggered by those beliefs. And honestly, I find myself having to retreat more and more from the old perspective just to maintain sanity and graciousness. It’s too much, many times.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. fergysun

    I literally don’t know what to say… other than I love this piece… But in the spirit of knowing why, let me say the following…I have been struggling to find a way to cope with our political climate .. before I read your post I drew three bubbles on a notepad. On the left I wrote “I care a lot” and on the right the word “I’m apathetic” …the middle bubble was left blank. I was trying to find a position that would shield me from the constant point-counterpoint …need to be right dogma. This blog helped me fill in the blank bubble and re-focus. Know what and why we truly believe and be ok with it. Brilliant Thanks

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      The image of three bubbles (I imagined it as a Venn diagram when I first read your comment) and how you labeled those bubbles makes a lot of sense. I am, a lot of times, trying to find ground between caring a lot and apathy.

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  6. Olivia

    Yes yes yes! I have been thinking about this very thing for a while lately. I grew up with a learning disability and I spent so much of my childhood trying to tell people what was going on, only to be met with “you’re not even trying. Stop making excuses. Stop lying. You chose not to follow directions. You chose not to listen.” I heard that over and over again; I think it’s maybe the central memory that I have of being a kid. I was honestly struggling in school and elsewhere but according to the adults in my life, I was just being a brat– at least until I got a diagnosis and everything started to make sense. That experience made me hair-trigger sensitive to any accusation that I was arguing in bad faith, or more broadly, any statement along the lines of “you don’t know/ can’t say what your own life is really like. I know and I’m going to tell you.”

    I think that’s a big part of the reason I’m no longer Catholic, actually. I heard so much BS about the “culture of death” and how anyone who doesn’t abide by this or that rule is just a hollow shell of a person, lost and miserable, living only for selfish momentary pleasures, and lying to themselves if they say otherwise. I spent too long trying to convince people that no, my life really is three-dimensional and human, and I really do have a moral compass, I just don’t– and it all felt too much like trying to convince teachers and counselors that I hadn’t misplaced my math homework on purpose. Right now I’m not interested in any philosophy that thinks it can predict how a person will feel or why we behave the way we do. I’m just trying to be okay with the idea that humans are all kinds of ways and I won’t always be able to understand it all.

    Sorry for the wall of text. This one is a sore spot for me, as you can tell!

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      As a teacher, that just breaks my heart…especially since it defined your whole childhood experience. And it’s fascinating how similar Catholic culture is to evangelical culture. No wonder you walked away! I’m with you with wanting to just “be okay with the idea that humans are all kinds of ways.”

      Like

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