Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Power of a Story

I love fiction.  I especially love fantasy.  Throughout the beginning of the "Harry Potter" craze... for me it lasted from when I was 11 to 15...I wanted Harry Potter to be true.  I think we all did.  I didn't care a bit about being Harry Potter himself, but I wanted to end up in Madam Pomfrey's hospital with my arm and leg fixed.  The physical therapy I endured then hurt.  Around 15, I left Harry Potter and became involved in deeper fiction.

Now let's turn to non-fiction.  The world we see every day.

I have many stories about my life.  I find the stories of other people's lives fascinating.  Here's the catch, however--non-fiction can become fiction, even if we mean it in the best way.  We've watched the fall of Brian Williams, but he knowingly told lies.  We don't always do the same.

A lot of this, I think, has to do with the fact that we don't want the full honest truth.  We want half-truths-- enough to make a story that suits us.

Let's take an example of a distorted story-- the story that has become the story of Hurricane Katrina.   In making a story about the tragedy, the media expanded and exaggerated the story and focused on the fact that the poor working class African American neighbourhood of the lower ninth ward was destroyed. That slanted the story around Katrina into the tale that it mostly affected and destroyed poor African Americans within New Orleans and that everyone else was not as hurt.  That story isn't true. Why do I know this?  I lived it.  I spent my Christmas Eve in 2005 tramping through the destroyed lower ninth ward. From the 26th of August through the 30th of August this past year,  I had many flashbacks to exactly what I was doing nine years ago, even with the six hour time gap.

I rarely encounter this story today because it's nine and a half years since the hurricane hit New Orleans. I'm sure it will be told once more dramatically this August. But I recently ran into a man, Russell, who got in my face talking about Katrina.  He said I was on a high pedestal talking about it because I am white. I became afraid that he would get into a fight with me about it.  As I heard this story once again told to me from a black Scottish man, I thought about the poor working class white district of Chalmette, whose population decreased by half, and the poor working class Vietnamese community in the New Orleans East.  I thought about how the flooding destroyed the mid-city white and black communities. I thought about how it destroyed Broadmoor.  It hit everyone.  One of the wealthiest suburbs, Old Metairie, has many empty lots today because the ruined buildings have been torn down and many people have decided to let these lots remain empty.  It didn't mostly affect African Americans.  It destroyed everybody.  I'm sure, however, that when the BBC presents the tenth year anniversary of Katrina, Russell will be told the same lie.  It will go down in history as that lie.

Brian Williams lied knowingly.  I'm not sure the media who first reported the story of how Katrina affected New Orleans knew they were lying.  They bought into the narrative that the poor African American community was the community hit the hardest completely.  They didn't need to mention Chalmette.  Their take on the disaster is a familiar and powerful story, it's a tale we all know well, it's a tale many of us want to hear, and it's true that much of the African American community was destroyed and needed to rebuild.  Their story of Katrina is also, inconveniently, a lie.

George Orwell wrote an essay called "Politics and the English Language."  I encourage you to read it. I'll put the link at the bottom of this essay.  He warns against such things as the use of stale metaphors and cliches, making language to complicated to understand, and making language vague to avoid too specific and brutal arguments or phrases (I'm LAME, not differently-abled).  I would go further.  The story that has become Hurricane Katrina is itself a cliche tale.  It was easy for journalists to buy into the story because they knew the story by heart already and so they didn't have to look deeper into the trauma it caused all of us.  It just took a few half truths to make it perfect.

This is the power of a story.  We all have great stories to tell that have come from our lives, but sometimes those stories help us avoid the reality that is there.