A Nation of Unreliable Narrators

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This morning, NPR aired an interview with author Adam Benforado, an expert on how “camera-perspective bias” can misrepresent a broader reality or context. He was speaking about the now-infamous showdown between the Covington Catholic students and Native American activist Nathan Phillips at the Lincoln Memorial. In his discussion, Benforado introduced the concept of “cultural cognition,” a phenomenon in which individuals filter experiences through “our backgrounds, our experiences, and our identities.” Listening to Benforado, it occurred to me that we ourselves—and the camera angles we use—are, to borrow a literary term, unreliable narrators. As unreliable as we are, though, we judge each other with a startlingly smug righteousness.

I’ll admit it: When I saw the first video to emerge of Nick Sandmann apparently smirking at the drum-pounding Phillips, my blood boiled. As a left-leaning Independent, I assumed the worst about the kid with the MAGA hat. Then more video emerged, showing other perspectives and introducing subtle new facts and complications. The situation was fraught from the start: A group of Black Israelites taunts the Covington Catholic students; the students counter with provocative school cheers; and the Native American activists weigh in to calm everyone down. Then the iPhones start recording. Talk about a powder keg.

What astonishes me about the scene is that this encounter between complete strangers is so unbelievably hostile. Distrust and contempt seem to be our departure point for interaction these days. I thought we’d made progress as a nation; but now hatred and racial tension seem to have bloomed darkly in our collective American soul—and what a tormented soul it has become. My cynical side tells me the torment has always been there, deep inside our national consciousness—like an infection that keeps coming back, each recurrence destroying a little more healthy tissue. Maybe Obama’s hopeful rhetoric was merely that—talk of a compassionate national identity to which only some aspire.

Three days after the melee at the Indigenous Peoples March, we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his life to dress the wounds of a nation bloodied by racial hatred. I wonder if the same people who hurled insults at each other in Washington, DC, on Friday dutifully parroted King’s words the following Monday, unaware of their own hypocrisy. Here’s what might be the scariest thing about cultural cognition: The psychological filters through which we regard our own bad behavior render it innocuous to those who share our cultural perspective. That we—and the nation we constitute—are so dissociated from this truth makes me fear for our future.

Coming to terms with our own contempt for each other—our unreliability as the narrators of our own truth—will demand a national reckoning the likes of which I can scarcely imagine. But, at this point, imagining is all we have.

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