Tag Archives: backstories

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In Defense of “Context”

In general, dullards think in binaries; trained experts will be far more interested in contextual variables.

It made good congressional theater to nail three Ivy League college presidents on a question of how they would manage verbal threats against Jews. The standard response now is that they prevaricated when they should have been unequivocal. Asked during the hearing whether suggesting the genocide of Jews was against their policies prohibiting harassment, Harvard’s Claudine Gay replied, “It can be, depending on the context.” But as she later noted, she should have returned to her “guiding truth, which is that calls for violence against our Jewish community — threats to our Jewish students — have no place at Harvard and will never go unchallenged.”

Gay missed the opportunity to make a clearer definitive statement against racism. But the presidents were not wrong to explicitly suggest the need for defining the contexts in which threats against others are spoken. There is a long tradition in the United States to treat overheated rhetoric against another group as unfortunate but mostly tolerated. We tolerate blather but not violent behavior. Courts in the country have rarely agreed on what constitutes “fighting words,” and whether they are legally actionable. In each case that has come before a federal court context mattered.

Peer societies like France have more stringent norms against “inciting hatred” that would have muzzled rhetorical provocateurs like Donald Trump years ago. His constant efforts to incite violence against reporters, election officials and politicians opposing him would have crossed the line. But Americans have tolerated Trump’s rhetoric because many view his taunts as the mostly harmless ravings of a man-child.  In some ways his abusive rhetoric is treated with the same kind of indifference American legislators have shown toward gun laws.

The three Ivy League presidents put on the hot seat by a New York Congresswoman were doing what academics are trained to do by trying to deconstruct a broad and panoramic question by considering contextual variables. For example, it is a credit to our culture and campuses that we usually do not send in goon squads to arrest a fiery orator. On my own campus I’ve seen visiting Christian evangelists single out and taunt a single Muslim woman in a hijab, with no interruption from the authorities on site. Should the campus police have stopped the hurtful hurangues of the speakers? Maybe. But I’m glad they let the crowd react with suitable anger.

Context Matters.

The same process is replicated by any trained specialist that is ready to face the messy externals that make any bald claim inaccurate. For example, the description of a dreaded disease to a hapless patient should come with a whole range of scenarios based on the particulars of a person’s case and recent past. A weather prediction similarly comes with a backstory that includes the specific meteorological conditions that are shaping what may happen. And it is obvious that a good biography of a key figure will always include carefully researched details that makes some authors rethink their initial  infatuation with their subject.

Too many members of Congress have perfected the “gotcha question.” But it is inconceivable that a scholar would not have an extended trail of qualifiers to amend a simple panoramic judgment. Their impulse would be to “unpack” the assumptions embedded in a question and wonder if there is a better formulation.  Nitpicking?  Not at all.  Any query suggesting a blanket prohibition of speech needs to be carefully considered.

To be sure, we clearly like the theater of take-no-prisoners questions. That is how television’s Perry Mason kept us riveted for over a decade. But life is complex. Even moral assertions have their limits. If we bother to notice, behaviors are usually more nuanced than our utterances about them. And so, it should not surprise us that the three academics wanted to explain themselves as if they were in a seminar. To be sure, they clearly picked the wrong “universe of discourse” for the setting they were in. They paid the price of having their thoughts reduced to soundbites that made them look equivocal. But it is useful to remember that all of this unfolded in what has become an alien place: a tarnished institution that has abandoned honest curiosity for the  low arts of deprecation and vituperation. It is clear that academics often have a higher standard of discourse that requires amendments, exceptions, genuine questions, and a willingness to hold two conflicting thoughts at the same time.

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Intrusive Counternarratives

[The brutal war that Russia is waging against Ukraine is a reminder that, even with obvious atrocities, the victims never have exclusive rights to tell their own authentic narrative.  Most of us are aghast at the falsehoods Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin are passing off about the nature of the conflict.  But their counternarrative to the West’s descriptions of wanton aggression clearly has consequences.  Not only do many Russians buy these dubious justifications about “de-Nazification,” but the same narrative has helped to buy the silence of Russian partners like India, Israel and China.  It is the peculiar and sometimes disturbing nature of human thought that groups can so easily entertain views that could be disproved by what is happening on the ground.]

We think that our most precious possessions are the things we have acquired or the relationships we have.  But for many people, the “right” to tell their own story looms just as large.  Narratives of our personal or tribal lives may be the keys to understanding who we are and where we came from.  But in fact they are not exclusively ours to tell.  We don’t have proprietary rights to our own personal histories.

This is both self-evident and enormously consequential. For the moment, forget the well-known fantasist narratives of Donald Trump.  We can’t even agree even about the foundational stories about our collective past.  What Christopher Columbus or Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln actually achieved will always involve contentious narratives. We can also be unpleasantly surprised by accounts of our own actions that offered by those we know.

It’s apparent that anyone can write someone else’s biography.  Even biographers who are out of favor with their subjects or never met them are frequently eager to weigh in with their own versions.  For example, we were recently surrounded by multiple narratives of the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.  There’s Walter Isaacson’s 2011 best-selling biography (Steve Jobs, 2011) and the Aaron Sorkin film based on it.  Both recognize Job’s  vision for turning computing into a necessary life skill.  And both portray a garage innovator with both a knack for ingenious design and also an inability to acknowledge his co-visionaries.  Then there’s Alex Gibney’s very different documentary (Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, 2015) detailing a single-minded marketing genius reluctant to engage with the unpleasant facts surrounding the Chinese factories that produce Apple products.  Amazon currently lists about ten books on Jobs. The point is that we can count on each version to offer a different person to readers.

The same is true for groups that seek power or legitimacy in the larger culture by presenting what are sometimes very different accounts about their pasts and their aspirations.  What’s the story of Scientology? It depends on who you ask. How has the institutional life of Catholicism evolved since revelations of widespread child abuse were widely reported at the beginning of the new century?  Skeptics and admirers routinely compete for attention to relay their stories.  In many ways the fissures that are spread across the culture deepen over time, often expanding into complete fault lines as interested parties vie for media access to “get their story out.”

There’s a whole lexicon of useful terms to represent these divisions.  We talk not only about “narratives,” but also “contested narratives,”  “counter-narratives,” “preferred narratives,” “backstories,” “storylines,” “myths,” “legends,” “lore,” “rumors” and “histories” that are disputed as “more fiction than fact.”  Facebook champions an individual’s own preferred narrative: a kind of carefully constructed window display of one’s life. Most other digital outlets focusing on the culture of celebrity capture readers by taking a very different turn:  favoring counter-narratives and backstories.  Sometimes they are even true.

Novelists who would seem to have the advantage of exclusive use of the products of their imagination are inclined to end up in tangles of their own making when readers find possible connections to known events. Readers can also be unforgiving if a scribe borrows another’s particularly traumatic narrative.  A few years ago the prolific Joyce Carol Oates came under criticism in New Jersey for embellishing on a news story about a college student found dead in a campus garbage container. The short story, Landfill, was published in the New Yorker, to the chagrin of the student’s family and others in the region.

For all of our hope that our stories can be communicated in ways that bring us credit, the fact is that we can never claim rights to exclusivity. Ask anyone who has recently been in the news how well their views have been represented or how they were characterized. You are apt to get a response of mild frustration.  What we see in ourselves is probably not what those who retell our stories are going to report.  For individuals or groups without power this is sad to witness. Groups lose something basic when they lack the means to communicate their preferred history.  The rest of us battle on, occasionally discovering a narrative that gives us more credit than we deserve.