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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Controlling the Narrative: A Case Study within Baltimore

We interrupt your regularly scheduled post about writing to bring you a late breaking post about what it means to be a writer. Also the Baltimore protests. 

In what seems like a past life I bought one of those DVD multi-packs from Costco–the kind with ten "award winning" movies in them for a phenomenally good price ($20 for the lot if I recall). Unfortunately a better name for this multi-pack would have been, "Ten movies that gave some actor an academy award, but you will probably only watch once." (Don't get me wrong, I like I am Sam, but when I've got to clean the house and it's that or The Matrix, it's not a tough choice.) Turns out, the reason Costco could have such a good deal is that the DVDs were all defective in some minor way. Some had no labels printed on them. Most were in cheap paper cases that fell apart. Some had no menu screen and just jumped right to the movie.

A couple of them had been printed on older disks–the kind with a front and a back, and so like the old laser disks, about half way through the movie, you had to turn the CD over. I put one in once, not knowing this, and watched a very strange movie.

This movie was about a coalition of men who seemed bent on annihilating these other men...for no real good reason. They were assassinating their character, getting them into trouble with the mob, trumping up charges with which to take them to court. This entire movie seems to be swirling around a spur-of-the-moment murder. They were basically destroying these people in any way they could, and they wouldn't really even explain why. It was petty. It was cruel. And they didn't seem like relatable protagonists at all–just these random sociopaths who didn't have any moral compunction doing whatever it took to harm others. They were horrible, immoral, and sadistic. In the end I felt sorry for the poor people they completely obliterated. It was an incredibly difficult movie to watch–fortunately, it was over in only an hour.

Wait....what? An hour long movie?

Well, eventually I realized that I had put the second half of Sleepers in and watched it before the first. Not knowing that these children ended up being sexually molested night after night by guards in a broken system. Not knowing that this was basically part of systematic routine the guards at this facility put all the kids through. That they were traumatized by their childhood and wanted some kind of retribution. Once I'd seen the first half, it was still a fucked up story with no happy endings, but at least the catharsis of these adults getting back at their childhood abusers had a certain relatable protagonist motivation. Sleepers suddenly made a lot more sense.

Exactly why have I gone on for four paragraphs about Sleepers in a post about Baltimore? Because I want you to understand the greatest power there is, not just in situations like this, but in any situation you can imagine. That is the ability to start and stop the story wherever you want. It's called "framing the narrative" and it's not just a catchy buzz phrase that the token black interviewee says when they get asked about a racial incident or that lets a writing blogger shoehorn in the occasional commentary on current events.

Remember that prank the kid pulled where he edited a disk of Toy Story three so that his mom though the last frame of the movie was them falling into the incinerator?  I'm not going to embed the video here because it's seven minutes, but you can find it here. [Toy Story 3 spoilers, obvs.] All he did was leave out the very end of the story. A few details. Everything she saw was FACTUAL, but by ending where he decided to, she got the TRUTH he wanted her to see. In her world, those toys died, and that was one fucked up story. Sure, it was just a goofy prank, but by framing the narrative the way he wanted to, he could show her nothing but facts, and still represent only his truth.

A lot of people are going to blog about Baltimore in the next few days. A lot already have. (We're writers; when shit works us up, we write it out.) Most of them are going to do a much better job cataloguing the injustices that led to the powder keg of anger or pointing out the breaking news. Many will attempt to draw the focus towards the thousands protesting peacefully. Some will share poignant images of a community that is grieving, and calling for justice. Some will point out that it was drunk sports fans who sparked the initial violence.

And of course others will try to frame the narrative in a different way. They don't want you to see that stuff above. They want to frame this story for you by starting and stopping it where it suits them (at best because peaceful protests "aren't news," but some due to an agenda to validate their bigotry). They will point their cameras only when they see violence. They will ignore any calls for non-violence or attempts by protestors to calm flash points. They will clutch their pearls at the horrible treasonous image of protesters throwing rocks at riot police, but edit out the part where riot police provoked them by throwing rocks first. They will ignore police brutality. They will ignore what started that violence and chalk their analysis up to "lack of education," "lack of leadership," or among the less charitable, "'those people' are just thugs and animals."

Mostly though they will start the story half way through, like I did with the Sleepers DVD. They will frame the narrative in an incomplete way so that the story you get is of random sociopaths striking out against the innocent for no particular reason. They will start the story with a riot. Or if they're "balanced" they will start the story with Freddie Gray and what was almost certainly a nickel ride that killed him and provoked a protest that became a riot.

But even these narratives are framed in a way that disregards the background that led to the powder keg, and insinuate that destruction is happening in a contextual vacuum. They ignore the top down violence that has been going on for decades (for centuries, really) where on a horrifyingly regular basis, unarmed black people are extrajudicially killed by agents of the state in a way that simply does NOT happen to whites with such statistical regularity. They ignore Baltimore's particularly egregious history with police brutality that is disproportionally doled out on Blacks. They ignore the eighteen months of cell phone camera coverage of blacks being shot in the back despite holding BB guns, shot within seconds of police arriving, despite being a child with a toy, shot in the back while running away, choked to death while begging to breathe, and an avalanche of police reports that turn out to be completely false when video footage surfaces.

The words you pick are another way to control the narrative.
They ignore whatever doesn't suit their narrative.

I hope if I've taught you nothing else on this blog, it is that controlling the narrative is power. It is absolute power. You decide who is good, who is bad, who's off the rails, and who is being noble. You get to decide who is "reasonable" and who is "too angry." That is the power to shape reality. It's why publishing is whitewashed. It's why e-publishing is so exciting. Facts and truth are entirely different creatures and you can decide what truth you want people to see by disseminating facts with discretion.

So watch closely in the coming weeks as attempts to control the narrative unfurl in their typical modus operandi.

Narrative:  "The 'proper' way to protest is non-violently." Let's forget for a second that most of the protesters ARE protesting non-violently. The problem with those at the top of an oppressive system demanding respectability politics is that "proper" is almost always synonymous with "easy to ignore." Christ, people get pissed off if a protest blocks traffic and they're late for dinner (and why should that matter more than black lives?) because the only proper protests seem to be the invisible ones.

Quick! Think of all the non-violent protests you can name and what they were about? Chances are, unless you were IN those protests, your list is pretty short. Now try to name a few riots you know of....

Let me be absolutely clear. I wish no one harm–to their body or livelihood. I really really don't. But the narrative that a broken window is an atrocity is only even plausible to advance if you leave out the part about the broken spine.

Further, this narrative is among the most absurd because it doesn't just ignore, but absolutely obfuscates the fact that every reasonable attempt to affect change HAS been made. The Black community wasn't just sitting around basking for the last 60 years in the post-racial utopia that is the United states when all of a sudden because of this ONE thing, they just forwent all the normal attempts at redress and skipped right to rioting.

Narrative: "All violence is always wrong." This is such a disingenuous narrative. It literally relies on ignoring some violence (and usually top down violence which has a far more destructive aggregate effect) but not others. Like going to a salad bar of Violence In History™ and just taking what you like and ignoring the rest. It relies on ignoring the violence of the police, both during their extrajudicial murders and as a response to those upset by them. And it is conspicuously absent when others describe what they would do to defend their store fronts if they were there, or what sort of vigilantism they would engage in if they were a cop. When "please don't be violent" only goes one way, it looks a lot like "stand there and let us shoot you."

You should probably not be in this country if you think violence is always wrong. You certainly shouldn't ever buy property or anything that runs on electricity or gas. The US was founded on violence, expanded by violence, is prosperous by violence, and has not been in a war for about seventeen of its 239 years. It's pretty much here on a legacy of violence. But, of course, that is like the edamame at a Sizzler salad bar–let's just ignore it and pretend it doesn't exist.

Look, is there anyone here who watches Star Wars and thinks the rebels should just fucking obey the law. Or (among Americans) who thinks they wouldn't have been a revolutionary during the colonial revolt? (You do know we didn't just reasonably protest until King George let us be our own country, right?) Or who watches The Hunger Games or Divergent and thinks that if they were there, they would just quietly be respecting the proper authorities? The only way to think violence is always wrong is to suggest that America is always completely just. And that is demonstrably untrue.

Plus...wake the fuck up. You live in a country where the right to violently revolt if you don't like your government is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. At least that's what you say every time someone suggests an assault rifle is not really a hunting weapon.

People will always call for peace when what they really mean is silence.

Narrative: "It's not about race. It's about culture/education/leadership/upbringing/those people's morality..." This narrative is just wrong, and it takes stone-cold willful ignorance to stick with it. It's about race. The United States has a huge race problem. Our ten biggest riots in this country have all been racially motivated. White people seem to get that racism exists at a cerebral level, but always want to declare each specific instance not actually racism THIS time. The only time this country isn't talking about race is when people of color's "tone" is respectable enough that they can be successfully ignored.

Narrative: "ALL lives matter." The problem with this narrative is that we're not having a problem putting a value on ALL lives. No one is arguing that white lives don't matter. No systematic injustice is demonstrating that white lives don't matter. No one is gunning down unarmed white people in the back on cell phone cameras every other week. (Hell they still show up in Walmart with their assault rifles.) Our culture does not need to be reminded that white lives matter or that all lives matter. It needs to be reminded that Black lives matter.

Narrative: "Why don't they just trust the system?" Have you watched the news in the last...oh thirty years? This narrative relies on absolute cognitive dissonance. "They" don't trust the system because the system works to fuck them over every chance it gets. How many innocent verdicts and failures to even indict have to come down before this is abundantly clear. As a general rule, cops don't face criminal justice punishment for killing black people. This shit is so common, people talking about them are getting the events confused.

Why in the literal fuck would anyone trust this system?

Narrative: "They are hurting their own cause/They're just making things worse./They are shooting themselves in the foot/This is no way to get what they want." This narrative is based on what people who value stability over justice want to be true. It has no actual basis in lived experience or historical knowledge. How do you know they're hurting their own cause? How do you know they won't be better off in two or ten years or maybe their kids' lives might be a little different by moving a national dialogue? How do you know that by forcing the issue they haven't overcome the inequities of systematically being made invisible? Is it your extensive experience in being a person without privilege who is flat out of options for affecting change? Is it your rich history in racial activism and all those peaceful protests you've been in that did a lot of good? Is it your robust knowledge of how, historically, social change has been achieved in the past? Or did you just pull that one out of your ass because it sounds like something a group who is absolutely in power over another might say?

Narrative: "Something something something Martin Luther King something something." White people fucking LOVE this narrative, don't they. MLK, man. I have a dream, man. Don't judge people by their color, man. Peace and love, man. He would teach these people to be non-violent if he were here.

We're talking about the same guy, right?
You mean the guy who said he couldn't really condemn rioters because a riot was the language of the unheard? The guy who broke the law all the fucking time and didn't give a flying shit about white people's feelings? The guy who got up in white people's faces pointing out injustice that they swore was no big deal until they ASSASSINATED him? The guy who died an enemy of the state? The guy the FBI blackmailed? Arrested 30 times in a relatively brief ministry? Railed against capitalism? The guy who called the peace and stability loving "northern moderate" worse than the southern racists? Is that the guy we're talking about?

Because if your narrative is that he was a teddy bear who would just hug all this shit out, please open a history book and stop remembering him from the video you were shown on the Friday before the three day weekend...in third grade.

And just so we're clear, when you're invoking Ghandi and MLK as the reason no one should ever be violent, let me remind you that these protests were very, VERY violent. It was just one side doing it.

Narrative: "I would be just as upset if white people were doing it!" The trouble with this narrative is that it is so often demonstrably untrue. I can't speak for every single person to utter these words, but some of them have been the same people–not the same type of people, mind you, but the EXACT SAME PEOPLE–who weren't quite so apoplectic when white people put federal agents in sniper crosshairs for stealing some cows (rather than breaking windows as a response to the loss of human lives). I seem to remember a different reaction when white people rioted over pumpkins and sports; the nuance brigade showed up to talk about mob psychology and diffusion of responsibility.

Human beings are a species of storytellers. That is literally (pun not intended) how we contextualize everything. It is how we self identify. It is how we talk about who we are and what we want to do. It is how we understand each other. It is how we pass on our culture to our children. It is how we talk to people. We tell long and short stories. One of our greatest cognitive strengths is to examine facts and infer a story that puts them together. Our stories are the most important parts of who we are. We try to get people to listen to our culture's stories or ignore others' stories. We try to get our story in first, loudest, most often. Our entire existence is a mosaic of stories that are woven together to define ourselves and the world around us. They are, in a fundamental way, literally our reality. Stopping and starting those stories where they do one side of an issue the most good, and marginalizing the narratives that seek to tell backstory (or enter another character's point of view) is phenomenal cosmic power when it comes to manipulating humans.

As storytellers, writers have this power in particular, and while I can't tell you what to do with it, I hope that at least, you respect it.

Baltimore is going to be a veritable shit storm of attempts to control the narrative. You could play along with the narrative you want to be true and ignore others, but I hope that whatever your feelings about inequality, racial injustice, violence, or police brutality, you pay close attention to who is trying to frame that narrative for their own ends and try to see the much bigger picture that is beyond the edges of the story one side is putting in front of you. It seems as if people are rioting over nothing (or maybe one narcotics dealer who was treated poorly). It seems as if everyone was happy as a clam in our post-racial utopia, when suddenly "those people" bypassed every reasonable course of redress and skipped right to the riots. Neither of those things is even remotely true.

Like Sleepers, if you go back and watch the first half of this story, the catharsis of destruction is still fucked up, but it makes a lot more sense.


  1. Beautifully written, as always. (Also, it's amazing how typos magically disappear as I'm reading!)

    1. Yes, my friends magically say "Uh...did you mean 'ever when you'?" And I say "SHIT!!!" and run for the edit button.

    2. Though...does it edit in real time? You don't have to refresh?

    3. I do refresh, just to see if they have been corrected since I read it, and behold, they have.

    4. Yeah, I really need to slow down but it was post it or wait several hours until the baby went down for a nap.

  2. Damn you, Autocorrect! It is sentient and it hates me. It sneaks up after I have proofread twice and have published and changes things to gibberish. Then it LAUGHS. Chris, what you say about framing news stories is true, and very relevant to the Baltimore story and other stories of civil unrest in the USA. It's also true that we as fiction writers frame our stories to best serve the story as a whole and tell the story we want to tell. I've been told several times, "Your story starts HERE," and the editor is pointing to page 46. And that editor has been right.

  3. Thanks for writing this post. It was on point and covered a lot of the crap pearl clutchers like to drag out during protests involving black people.

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