Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The story we need to hear

A few years ago I was at the bar with a group of friends, and another of the regulars at this particular bar came over to our table and told us a far-fetched, self-aggrandizing story. As he walked away afterward, there was much eye-rolling and irritated head-shaking, but I just shrugged and said "we all tell the stories we need to hear." And that stuck and became a much-quoted line we'd use after listening to the stories people tell at the bar.

I think this little statement has application beyond the self-aggrandizing anecdotes so common in situations like that one. I think in a broader sense, we all really do tell the story we need to hear, all the time. The problem is, we don't realize that we're not telling it with words. Sure, what we say is a part of it, but it's a very small part. What we do, how we respond to the actions of others, which events we take to be significant... all of these do much more to weave together the narrative of who we are than anything we might say. And when that broader narrative is in conflict with the story we're verbally telling about ourselves, there's a problem.

I mentioned in my last post that the fact that Americans are celebrating Osama bin Laden's death (and calling for the release of photos of his corpse) is problematic. It's problematic because of the story it tells about us - to ourselves and to the world. Since I posted that yesterday afternoon I've received a bunch of angry emails. In addition, the administration has announced that the photos will not be released, and I've gotten some preemptive (I assume) emails about that too. Instead of replying to the individual emails, which would be exhausting and time-consuming and probably unproductive, or just ignoring them, I've decided to reply to them here. So here we go:

aBob (and 2 others) says that "wussy liberal types" (like me, apparently) lack a basic understanding of what we're dealing with in al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. His claim is that "these types" don't understand anything except violence, and they would be the first to release gruesome photos of dead US soldiers or citizens given the chance.

I say that it's not about being wussy or liberal. Arguments that center around what kind of person bin Laden was are not going to get anywhere with me, because they miss the point. This is not about bin Laden; it's about us.

I think the story of Achilles and Hector illustrates this better than anything I can say. When I read through the Illiad in Greek a few years ago, it struck me how English translations just don't do justice to Hector. When you read the Illiad in Greek, you realize that Hector is the most compelling character in the book, while Achilles is basically a boorish, whiny, self-centered brat. And the scene where Achilles defeats Hector (only with a ton of help from the gods, not through his own personal prowess), and then drags his body around behind his chariot, is a perfect example of this. What does this scene tell us about Hector? Nothing. Hector was on the losing side by birth, and he paid for it with his life. Being physically mutilated after his death simply doesn't reflect on Hector at all. But it tells us a whole heck of a lot about Achilles.

In our case, celebrating bin Laden's death, and releasing photos of his body, are the equivalent of Achilles dragging Hector's body around. This is not about bin Laden or terrorism or 9/11. It's about who we are.

In another email, PJ says that I ought to apply my own argument about transparency and having nothing to hide to this situation. In a recent post I argued that laws prohibiting taking and distributing photos and video of farming practices are problematic in that it simply reveals that there is a heckuva lot wrong with the way we do agriculture in our country. So, rather than seeking to stop the flow of information, we should alter our practices so that we have nothing to hide. PJs claim is that not releasing the photos suggests either that we have something to hide and are in some way ashamed of our actions, or that it didn't really happen, and this is just a fictional event that the Obama administration is making up to boost it's numbers.

The thing is, there's a difference in what these photos say about us. Photos of abusive farming practices are an important tool in educating the public about the realities behind our agricultural system so that we can bring about real change. They're an example of a portion of our story that we need to be informed about, so that we can change it. Publishing photos of our enemies after we've killed them does nothing to bring about change, and only serves to demonstrate that we're barbarous and bloodthirsty people.

Incidentally, this response also applies to the claim that "wussy liberal types" didn't object to the Abu Ghraib photos but have a different standard regarding the bin Laden photos. Yes, there is a different standard - for good reason.

As to the conspiracy theory problem... posting an official legal copy of Obama's birth certificate has done nothing to curb the birther conspiracy theory. Among these types, photos of bin Laden would be dismissed as photoshop fakes before they even hit the press.

Finally, Mr. M claims that this is a great example of "feminine thinking." My objection to our celebrating bin Laden's death and publishing the photos is based in a "feminine" shrinking from violence and a wish to be in denial about the hard realities of "what the world is really like." He adds that I'm probably worried that my kids would see the photos, and I just want to shield them from this kind of thing. By doing so, I'm doing them a disservice, and producing another generation of people who can't face reality.

I most certainly agree with Mr. M that I don't want my kids to see these photos, or any others like them. In fact, I'll take it a step further and say that I don't want my kids to live in a world where these kinds of photos are publicized and gawked at and celebrated. But it's not because my lady-parts render me incapable of facing the hard realities of this violent world we live in. In fact, if "feminine" here means passive and dainty and weak, then I think Mr. M's line of reasoning is "feminine." You just resign yourself to living in a world where tragedies unfold and nobody tries to stop it, and instead escalates the violence through short-sighted, irrational knee-jerk reactions? And this is somehow bold and admirable and "masculine?" It seems brutish and unintelligent to me. But maybe that's just because my feeble lady-brain can't wrap itself around your mysterious logic.

There are good reasons why we no longer hold public executions or display the severed heads of executed criminals on spikes in the town square. It's all tied up with civilization and who we are and who we take ourselves to be and who we aspire to be. We're weaving a narrative here, and there's a particular version of that story we really need to hear. As they say, the whole world is watching.


  1. I don't agree with Mr.M that not wanting to see the photos is "feminine" thinking, but so what if it was?

  2. Anonymous5/04/2011

    This is a wonderful explanation of why this "celebration" has made me so uncomfortable. Thanks for your insight.

  3. Thank you for posting this as well as the previous post. There are a number of things that perplex and discomfort me about this issue. Not the least of which is the connection between justice, violence, and death. You are right, though, this continues to say a lot about us as a society...just another in a long line of things these days that I find flabbergasting.

  4. justaguy5/05/2011

    I'm one of those who raised the Abu Ghraib point, and I don't see how you've really answered that one. We knew that publishing those photos would cause an increase in anti-American sentiment, but liberal media outlets did it anyway. That endangered our troops and fed terrorist groups with more psychological fuel.

  5. I concur. You have a wise outlook on the situation. This whole experience shows much more who "we" as a culture, society, and country have become than it shows about anything else. This is not the America of my dreams either, it's more like a nightmare.

  6. Claire,

    I agree with you, but I think the "feminine thinking" point is important because it's a way to dismiss my arguments and delegitimize my position. If you can attribute my response to emotions or any other non-rational source, then you don't have to take up my argument and respond to it in a meaningful way. It's a cheap trick really, and the lazy way out.

  7. justaguy,

    There are significant differences between the two situations. In the case of the Abu Ghraib photos, there were some pretty serious abuses going on in the name of the American people, and that is something we need to know about and respond to. Many people would not have believed it, or wouldn't have had as strong of a reaction against it, without the photos. But there's no similar function for photos of bin Laden. There's no wrong to be fixed. Then there's the fact that it's tied up with issues of dignity and how we treat prisoners of war and how we treat the dead that, as I said, say more about us and who we are than about him.