When the Narrative Controls Us

“The world is waiting. Good luck. Travel safe. Go!”

If you’re familiar with the globetrotting CBS reality competition The Amazing Race, the above words, spoken by host Phil Keoghan at the starting line each season, might sound familiar.

1801_starting_line-jpegI was about 12 years old when I saw my first season of this show. As someone who couldn’t stand the constant backstabbing and mind games of Survivor, I was immediately drawn in. The idea of a competition where teams of two had to go out into the unknown, travel the world, learn more about various cultures along the way, and go head-to-head in a series of challenges while avoiding elimination to ultimately win a million dollars was refreshing. And yet, the baser elements of human nature found a way to participate in the Race as well. Even at that, the show was fun, colorful, and focused enough on the challenges and locations that the unsavory characters and tactics were not a complete wet blanket.

But something funny began to happen across The Amazing Race’s fan base. Social media was still coming into its own as a communication medium, but that didn’t stop fans from going online and sharing live photos they took of teams wearing their Race-tagged gear and running through the cities on the route for a given season. Viewers on spoiler forums started to piece together the order of who was eliminated based on who was seen where and when.

One of the consequences of knowing the possible results of the competition was an altered view of the events shown on TV. Fans began to pick up on how the producers edited the footage in order to paint certain teams in a favorable light while painting other teams as scheming and villainous. Not surprisingly, some viewers used these editing tendencies to decipher who could be receiving the “winner’s edit,” in which the team that ultimately won was typically shown as likeable, hard-working, and possibly even an underdog. In contrast, a team that would receive the “villain edit” was more than likely not going to win. After all, the winners had to overcome the odds to triumph over someone unlikeable.

This became even more apparent when teams were interviewed by online publications about their experiences and interactions with each other, with some claiming that the “villains” were nowhere near as consistently nasty as they were shown to be on TV. Regardless, this didn’t stop most of the viewing public from acting on bias built up over reinforcement through the power of editing. A quick scan of The Amazing Race’s Facebook page activity today reveals just how much viewers pick their favorites early, even using the teams’ occupations and perceived income levels as indicators of whether or not they’d be worthy of support even before a season actually starts.

Why do I bring all this up? Because reality television and the producers behind it are masters at crafting a narrative. And as much as we enjoy a well-spun yarn, I can’t help but wonder just how much we allow narratives in our everyday lives to control us, perhaps even subconsciously.

daredevilIn a world full of injustices, we long to escape. We want to retreat to places where good triumphs over evil, and the underdog wins out over the oppressor. However, when we seek out stories to latch onto, we also want something that’s relatable enough that we can see shades of ourselves, our struggles, our passions, and our victories. A part of us longs for a hero who represents more than our shortcomings but is still an everyman to whom we can relate. Another part of us wants to see a world where the protagonists face much of the same plight we face in our own lives while being distant enough that the ultimate victory is still believable.

In many respects, I think this is why science fiction (and for that matter, speculative fiction) has endured over the decades. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer position their antagonists to represent actual struggles young people face, while books like Fahrenheit 451 paint chilling, dystopian visions of the future to warn us against giving into our baser instincts societally. Today, we use superheroes, vampires, zombies, and other fantastical elements to construct worlds where these issues can be dissected.

And yet, despite so many rich stories from which we can glean insights, we have to carve out time to live in the real world, which unfortunately, isn’t so cut-and-dry. Conflicts can’t be resolved in a mere 43 minutes. Society won’t dramatically transform for the better in a few days after seeing a band of heroes overcome the impossible and inspire everyone. And as much as we sometimes hope our normal, mundane lives are interrupted by apocalyptic events that would challenge the status quo and shift everyone’s priorities toward cooperation and away from bickering, we have to face the reality of our lives. Every single day. In some ways, our entertainment has begun to reflect the reality of our lives more than we may care to admit. Serialized story arcs with drawn-out resolutions have largely eclipsed one-off episodic tales in popularity, while large, interconnected franchises have endured by pointing to the cyclical nature of the battles we fight.

I think there is a significant part of us that longs for something greater – to be a part of an epic metanarrative. As a Christian, I believe that we are, and that we play key roles in a grand story of redemption. Recently, I saw a video of theologian Timothy Keller speaking about the impact of culture – the practice of taking raw materials and fashioning something greater from them – and why we participate in building it for better or worse, whether we want to or not. Our stories reflect the values we live by. No matter what differences may divide us, and what those values may be, there’s a part of each and every one of us that is captivated by themes like sacrifice and redemption that reflect the ultimate metanarrative.

But in a society where immediacy is prized, we want to be a part of a narrative that’s quick and easy – even though that part of us cries out, knowing it won’t work. Yet we aren’t easily deterred. It’s easy to build our own boogeymen and do all we can to be positioned as the heroes. It’s easy to take people who don’t share our priorities and demonize them, all the while hoping that we’ll come out victorious or be remembered in a positive light by those who pen our history. Just looking at this election season, countless dollars have been spent in the service of building up candidates and political parties while also tearing down the opposition.

Our desire for quick and easy villainization hasn’t gone unnoticed by cable news networks and internet bloggers who thrive on negativity and fear of those on “the other side” gaining traction. I recently read an article postulating that with enough reinforcement, a person can be so biased that being presented with objective evidence to the contrary actually further reinforces their opinions. This isn’t a statement on the veracity of the evidence, but rather just how narratively driven the opinions are. And it’s so true. It’s not uncommon these days to gaslight those who disagree to the point where any resource outside those within the vacuum chamber of reinforcement is painted as untrustworthy or unscrupulous. More than likely, the reality is that we all possess some degree of fallibility and choose to focus on the flaws that build us up while painting those we distrust in as negative a light as possible.

teen-dramaI’ve struggled with this tendency in my own life too. When I was little, I grew up among a circle of people who believed that the best response to the troubles of the world was to cloister themselves from it. No one on the outside was to be trusted. We were even trained to make value judgments about people based on externally visible qualities, not what was on the inside. As the years went by, and I moved on to other circles of friends, all those warnings I had heard began to be subverted. People “on the outside” were not as simple as a disagreeable opinion that I had conflated to represent their entire being. They were so much more than the boogeymen I had constructed in the narrative in my mind, and in many ways, they understood more than I could have ever imagined. Those who were Christians inspired me to re-examine my faith and discover more about who Jesus is.

Although we may never overcome all our differences in this life and achieve total peace on this earth, we have the ability – the responsibility – to approach others as more than just easily understood edits on a reality TV show. As I learned from the very people I was taught to fear, I began to understand that their value wasn’t tied to what political party with which they aligned, or what set of opinions they held. Their value was inherent as people made in the image of God.

And that’s as good a place to start as any.

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