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By Joshua Dietz
Dr. Walter Fisher, esteemed philosopher of the 20th century, and Professor Emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communication, famously noted that we are not nearly as rational as we would imagine. One may be forgiven for finding this hypothesis shocking; we are raised, educated, and employed by a world that expects us to attend to facts, and to be persuaded by logic. Dr. Fisher instead made the claim that humans are natural born storytellers rather than empiricists, and as such, perceive the world as a series of competing narratives. This reconceptualizing of how we process information was quite influential, and has since changed the way we view communication. The acceptance of irrationality has shifted the psychological battlefield from the deployment of cold, hard, empirical truths, to that of the emotionally captivating story. This is particularly true in the political arena, as evidenced by the following interview given by British-born Pakistani actor, Riz Ahmed.
Best known for his roles in the Star Wars and Jason Bourne films, actor Riz Ahmed recently delivered a lecture opining the lack of diversity in television and cinema. Broadcasted by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4, Ahmed had this to say about the necessity for racial representation in entertainment, “If we fail to represent, we are in danger of losing people to extremism,” he said, adding it would lead those from minority backgrounds to “switch off and retreat to fringe narratives, to bubbles online and sometimes even off to Syria.”
Further elaborating this point, Ahmed added, “If we don’t step up and tell a representative story … we are going to start losing British teenagers to the story that the next chapter in their lives is written with ISIS in Syria,” he told Parliament. “We are going to see the murder of more [members of parliament] like Jo Cox because we’ve been mis-sold a story that is so narrow about who we are and who we should be.”
As they would say in the universities, there’s quite a bit to unpack here. While Ahmed may have had a noble goal in mind when delivering this speech, the keen observer is left with some troubling questions. Chief among them, what minorities is Riz talking about? Why don’t ethnic minorities write, direct, and act in their own productions? Why is the lack of opportunity in the entertainment industry enough to drive young ethnic men into psychotic violence? What are we saying about the maturity of young ethnic minorities like Riz Ahmed? And, perhaps most importantly, what kind of narrative is being put forth about the conditions facing these communities? Curiously, these questions may all run together. But more on that later.
As an actor and writer, Riz ought to be keenly aware of the influential power of narrative. How we infer cause and effect, upon whom we place responsibility, what is meaningful in this world – these are vitally important questions that can be answered through storytelling. To properly tell a story, we must decide what to include and what to omit. We evaluate the utility of information according to how it serves the story and how it resonates with the audience. A strong narrative gives man purpose, and emboldens him toward action. It is not necessary for a narrative to reflect an objective truth, but for it to help its audience achieve some end. Narratives are employed to bring the unseen into view. But they can also be used to obfuscate that which would otherwise rest in plain sight.
Let’s try on a scientific narrative: The average IQ of the most prevalent ethnic minorities (hailing from Africa, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan) in London is about 81. It has been widely established that many of these countries engage in inbreeding and that this practice follows immigrants when they resettle. A few things we know about children of in-breeding: they are prone to irrational spasms of violence, struggle to defer gratification, and are more susceptible to religious fervor. It is doubtful that a leading role in the next Transformers film would solve these problems, even if they could achieve that goal. Suddenly the question of why there is less demographic representation in entertainment seems a whole lot less relevant. The benefit of the Ahmed-Hollywood narrative here is that it sidesteps the cultural and genetic problems and replaces them with diversity problems.
There of course is another narrative we could examine – conquest. It could be argued that Western guilt caused by military predation over the underdeveloped parts of the world is being mined by people from those oppressed nations. By appealing to the penitence of Westerners and playing on their desire to be seen as ‘doing good’, the bounty of Western culture suddenly becomes a negotiable prize. In framing the problems of economic catastrophe, death and cultural displacement as “we want to be in movies too, y’all” the message is much more readily receipted. Riz Ahmed would have us believe that such people are justified in their violence, having no other recourse given their circumstance. This very line of thinking is behind such legislation as the recent anti-Islamophobia bill that was passed in Canada. The implicit message here is, “give us what we want, or else.”
Like all other psychological phenomena, narrative is self-serving. Our ability to manage the environment and its demands are aided by this cognitive tool, which in some ways detracts from its ability to accurately reflect reality. We require little more than that which aids in our survival and makes us more sexually successful. Buffered by a trillion-dollar entertainment industry, the influential narratives of the day have created a schism between people based on their preferred interpretation of reality.
I write this, not as a refutation of the narrative theory of communication but to point out its inadequacies and to inject some element of objectivity and reality back into discourse. Without an external metric, how can we be certain our conclusions mean anything? How are we to empathize and connect with others if we’re trapped in our own experiential ghettos? What is the value of truth, if everyone is permitted a monopoly on revelation? These are difficult questions to be certain; while the narrative theory offers us much in understanding the human condition, it provides no meaningful answer to such existential quandaries. Worse yet, it may prohibit us from finding the solutions to such timeless problems.