We humans have a relentless desire to create narratives. We do so out of the random material of our daily lives. As the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner noted many years ago, this storytelling impulse pervades our daily existence.
And yet, most of the time we barely notice ourselves shaping the story of our experience as we live it.
It is only under particular conditions that we do: One such condition is when the story does not seem to make sense, and the other is when there is urgency in the events at hand. We feel that urgency when the event relates deeply to who we are and to what we believe about ourselves.
Both of these characteristics are true of the events of June 12th in Orlando, Florida. A 29-year old man named Omar Mateen, not just a U.S. citizen, but born in the United States as well, opened fire in a crowded nightclub, murdering 49 people and injuring 53.
The scale of the death toll makes this the largest single shooting attack in U.S. history (excluding battlefield massacres).
Are we seeking “the truth”?
In the hours since that attack, people all over the world have sought to piece together the story of what happened and what it means.
Our rational Enlightenment heritage means that we experience our effort as quasi-scientific. We seek evidence, and to locate the truth we are certain is lurking within it.
Hypotheses are developed:
- It was violent religious extremism.
- No, it was homophobia.
- No, Mateen had personally violent tendencies.
Each of these hypotheses is extended with the hope, ultimately, that there will be one grand or total narrative into which all the available evidence will neatly fall.
Shaping a story
The real facts, however, are unlikely to be so neat. Like all human events, Orlando — and Mateen’s motivations — will be more complex, less comprehensible and possibly less satisfying, more mysterious and grueling, than any simplifying lens we could apply to them.
Messy facts that don’t fit will squeeze out the sides. It won’t all hang together because human events never in reality do.
Nevertheless, it is good and important to have a coherent story of what happened. We should continue our sense-making efforts. It is also useful to recognize the distinction between uncovering the facts and creating a narrative.
The police work to uncover the facts. We, the many communities for whom the story of what happened is consequential — from the local LGBTQ community that was the target, to all Americans, to the world — are interpreting the facts in service of our deeper collective truth, the one that goes beyond the facts.
The narrative drives resources and actions
It is critical that we understand that there are options in how we interpret Orlando because the way the story gets told, and who has the power to tell it, will drive resources and next steps.
You can see this in the fact that various institutions or interests claim those stories that most neatly fit in with their interests or worldview. In this case, the Islamic State has an interest in claiming what happened as a product of its global propaganda.
And for very different reasons, NATO, Donald Trump and many news outlets have also found the story of religious extremism a persuasive and compelling cause on which to hang the narrative.
The vexed status of gun ownership in the United States is another potential storyline playing out. The ability of individuals to own guns such as the automatic assault weapon that Mateen owned legally enable the other narratives.
For some, including President Obama, it is this crucial element that should and could shape our focus. For some of us, Sandy Hook, not Paris was a preceding chapter of this tale.
Our global social media has created an astonishing new kind of page on which the entire world can write – Twitter, Facebook, interactive news outlets, and many more.
There, the complexity and nuance of this story is unfolding. In these spaces, there are arguments and accusations as well as a great deal of ugliness that is spilling out in search of an audience.
But there is also beauty in the collective narrative effort — the sum of millions of people seeking to make sense of what is happening with and on behalf of each other. What is happening is the opposite of Big Data; it is the massive particularity of millions of bits of human data.
Recognizing that we shaping the story of what happened is critical because it reminds us we have choices in how we interpret the meaning of events.
These interpretations offer us a tiny humanizing opportunity in an otherwise horrible event. They give us an opportunity to decide what we want it to mean, and how we want it to serve a future in which events like this do not happen.
Let’s not tell the story of extremist propagandists for them. Let’s tell a better story.
ISIS would like the story of what happened on Saturday night in Orlando to be about them. To assume that it is could be profoundly counterproductive.
This is not to deny the facts — it seems Mateen did declare his allegiance to the Islamic State and more facts may unfold that tie him to Al Qaeda or ISIS or other individuals. But no matter what else surfaces about him, his decision to act was his own.
To weave a story of Orlando as only the latest in a series of terrorist attacks linked by perpetrators eager to affiliate themselves with violent extremists is to do IS propagandists’ work for them. We end up in the position of telling the story that they – the terrorists — would like told.
Directing resources effectively
In sharp contrast to turning ourselves into a pliable tool, we have the opportunity to position the facts in a way that holds meaning for us. That, in turn, allows us to direct resources and attention where we would like it to be put.
This effort is profoundly future-directed. It might go toward:
- education that supports tolerance for the LGBTQ community;
- education toward a society that does not tolerate violence;
- education of citizens so that they do not crave military-grade weapons intended solely to kill people;
- embracing a world in which we celebrate everyone’s right to a bit of joy on a Saturday night.