In the quirkier corners of internet literature, there is a writer who coins words to describe the multitude of complex feelings a person experiences, but language fails to describe - the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. A few years back, one of his creations caught my eye and stuck with me:

Sonder; n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as one’s own.

At first, I thought of the word’s meaning as interesting enough itself, but the fact of its existence as an obscure sorrow came to haunt me. For all the empathy we humans tout ourselves to have, we still find it a profound--and not obvious--idea that people are more than names, faces, impressions, and just characters in a story.

Our systems of perception are fine-tuned to make the most out of less and to create a sense of awareness out of limited tools and assets. Although we have blind spots in our field of view, our brains fill them in as if they did not exist to “complete” our vision, so that they don’t bother us.

A parallel phenomenon happens in our daily routines. Because our minds cannot process all available information effectively, we summarize what happens. We imbue everyday life with narrative. We tell schematic stories to compress information and make sense of it. Hayden White of the University of Chicago tells us that “narrativization is...‘the central function of the human mind’... that is productive of meaning by its imposition of a certain formal coherence on a virtual chaos of ‘events,’ which in themselves cannot be said to possess any particular form at all.” [1]

Unfortunately, this tendency to simplify becomes problematic when facts do not fit conveniently into the narratives we are used to. Because we need to observe patterns, our minds will cut corners to insist on them even without substantial evidence. We too often overuse a narrative lens that doesn’t accommodate the full range of possible conclusions that evidence can serve, and the mismatched prescription distorts our worldview instead of focusing it. A number of destructive implications can stem from this behavior.

Firstly, nuance is easily abandoned: narratives that are engaging and easily told typically involve an injustice thrust upon a victim by some perpetrator, or some hero vanquishing a villain and saving a damsel. One might notice that all of these require a “good” and an “evil”, which quickly become absolutes. When such narratives--sort of advanced pattern perceptions--are imposed on the world, whether onto history, politics, or personal drama, they establish expectations that we inevitably try to satisfy. We categorically impose heroic or villainous labels onto others, whether they may reflect the truth of their character or nature, and expect or perceive them to consistently play along.

In our framing of history for example, White emphasizes that the narrativization of figures reduces realities- and in the same breath, moralizes them. For example, Gandhi led the movement for Indian independence through civil disobedience, for which many regard him as a hero who dismantled colonial oppression and racial discrimination. However, modern historians note that this common perception of Gandhi discards the inconvenient facts that he promoted anti-black racism [2] and perpetuated the caste system [3][4]. He was undeniably influential and important in Indian independence from the restrictive imperial rule but is also a reminder that when we need our heroes, we forget that they were human and that they had flaws. This is common in many other cases where the positive image of a central figure (e.g. socio-political movements with an iconic leader, dictatorships with a cult of personality) is necessary for the promotion of some narrative.

Such emotionally-loaded, one-dimensional labels are also rampantly popular in politics - even the words “Democrat” and “Republican” carry expectations and connotations. This year, presidential candidate Joe Biden told African American radio host Lenard McKlevy on “The Breakfast Club”, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black”. Besides the concern of voter intimidation from the self-proclaimed god of melanin, the implication is clear: Biden believes the expectation that “Black people vote Democrat”. This idea is common in electoral analysis: statistically, the Black demographic is indeed mostly Democrat, and the Black vote for POTUS has been for Democrats by the 80-90% range since 1964 [5]. However, Biden let slip a simplified and presumptive version of it. When said with the absolute “[if you don’t adhere to the expectation] you ain’t black”, the expectation becomes ignorant of the exception, demonstrating how easy it is for unchecked pattern recognition to grow into assumption and generalization without an understanding of complexity.

Biden’s gaffe was relatively innocuous, but make these expectations and narratives antagonistic and it immediately becomes clear that this line of thought has dangerous potential. In President Trump’s campaign launch speech in 2016, he referred to Mexican-“sent” immigrants coming through the US’s southern border as “people that have lots of problems... They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Albeit he recognized the other “some” to his prediction, he clearly presented the idea that the aforementioned southern immigrants by the rule are undesirable - an unfounded assumption derived from the common perception of underprivileged immigrants as barbaric and uncivilized. In the same year, Hillary Clinton called all of Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables”. Did she evaluate the moral legitimacy of each and every one of those Americans, or did she say that because she simply expected it of her opponents? Does it account for those who decided he was a better choice, though they may disagree with him? We categorize people we favor and disdain into baskets of heroes and deplorables, incognizant of their individual complexity, because we were taught that every story has knights in shining armor and wretched villains - black and white archetypes that we reduce people into. This is the human mind’s key function of categorization, behind not only political generalization but also the prejudice of race, ethnicity, religion, or any other identifiable line of grouping that leads to the mistreatment of others.

This function produces a subconscious contention, and our innate desire to be correct reinforces it. When presented with information that may affirm or contradict stereotypical notions, the vast majority of people selectively choose to process and use the information that fits in the hypothesis they believe in [6] [7], a property known as confirmation bias, or cherry-picking. This may partly explain the increasing ideological uniformity and political polarization that we see today [8]: people pick a narrative that drives their partisanship, and eventually over time the exceptions to that narrative are erased due to a desire for confirmation, leading to generalizations and antagonism against the “outsiders” of the echo chamber.

So what happens when these expectations are inevitably not met or the assumptions are proven wrong? The second consequence of narratives rears its head: an adverse response to the exception. If the expectations are not met in some way, we may pick a route of “coping”: denial, willful ignorance, anger, etc.

In The Cost of Hope, Journalist Amanda Bennett recounts her husband Terence’s fight against cancer. One particular moment in it glared at me: when Terence’s condition reached a terminal stage, they felt a withdrawal of support from the cancer community. She tells us that, because the narrative for cancer is so fixated on recovery as the “happy ending”, there is no heroic or desirable narrative for the uncomfortable reality of death [9]. Hence, when death shows itself as imminent, the group, held together by the death-incompatible narrative, refuses to treat it as legitimate. They turn a blind eye and choose to “see no evil”. Institutions display a similar behavior: the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation trademarked the phrase “for the cure” and yet only 16% of their funds in 2011 went towards research; a lesser fraction of that went to support and research into terminal cancer. The funds were largely spent on “public education” that promoted mammograms for “raising the survival rate”. British Medical Journal author Steve Woloshin explains the problem with this: “Because screening finds cancers earlier, comparing [the duration of] survival [from diagnosis to death] between screened and unscreened women is hopelessly biased" [10]. The narrative of “being cancer-conscientious and hence surviving” became so important to the image and purpose of the foundation that it became the audience for 52.1% of their funds in 2011 [11].

If charities are so clearly predisposed to this human condition, then we can only imagine what governments and political institutions will do for it. For instance, in 1945, upon the Soviet seizure of Berlin during the end of WWII, a famous photo depicting soldiers raising a Soviet flag over the Reichstag was taken, and in Soviet-style, was doctored to raise its propaganda value. Larger aspects such as contrast and smoke were edited for drama, but so was a tiny detail: a second watch was omitted from a soldier’s wrist, which would’ve suggested looting [12]. The rapes, civilian murders, and looting that occurred with the USSR’s victories later on in the war were an important part of the historical significance, but they didn’t fit the narrative of virtuous Soviet heroes and glory. These inconvenient truths are still a taboo topic in Russia today. In an effort to enhance the meaning of an event, ostensibly inconsequential nuances and details are omitted, in effect trading reality for coherence with the narrative.

This illusion of making sense permeates every way we see the world, from broad political ideals to historical understanding and to our judgment of others’ character. When something fails to fit the narrative we tell, we try to escape the inconvenience of truth with denial, so that it works with the theory and doesn’t set the pieces out of the places we’ve put them in. This leads to common “no true Scotsman” fallacies as we attempt to say “that’s not a real exception”, or whataboutisms as we try to divert the conversation away. Especially when we have a negative impression of someone, or wish to antagonize them, it’s overwhelmingly common to fall into the trap of dismissing who they really are so we have a punchable, deplorable, caricaturistic strawman. We lie to ourselves so we can sleep at night having satisfied the desire to be right without needing to think.

Narratives are only human - of course, we’re tempted to artificially impose structure for things to make sense. The undisturbed sounds of nature, after all, are not nearly as catchy as your manufactured pop song - but they have beauty in their chaotic candor nonetheless, that we only understand a vague semblance of. Perhaps humanity can never really make sense of the bigger picture. Perhaps, in a tragically Icarian twist of irony, the farthest our human capacity for reason can take us is the realization that said capacity is incomplete. But is being human enough with what’s at stake? When we try and write about the uncomfortable as simple for the sake of our rhetoric, we inevitably trivialize issues, deny ourselves discourse, and dehumanize others.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of the power of stories: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Although we are the protagonist of our own story, the validity and nuance of others’ unfamiliar experiences and unpalatable propositions are no less, regardless of how we choose to simplify them.

We aren’t made to be perfect, but at the very least, we can recognize our limits: that reality has no obligation to affirm our facile interpretations; that the diversity and complexity of others, especially groups, must be recognized; that disagreement in ideas need not create animosity. Maybe you can’t read all the stories in your lifetime, or you don’t have the breath to tell one holistically, but you can understand that yours isn’t the only one, and you can seek to augment yours with a broader perspective. Through examining the reality of ideas past the false dichotomies our antagonisms provide, we can learn, we can find compromise, and we can discover an ever-closer inch to the truth. Even if I am your sworn enemy, surely we can agree on one thing: that the world stretches far beyond our minuscule horizon.



Works Cited


[1] https://www.jstor.org/stable/1343152
[2] https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny
[3] Jaffrelot, C. (2005). Dr. Ambedkar and untouchability: Fighting the Indian caste system. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.
[4] Mondal, P. (2014, April 29). Mahatma Gandhi Views on Caste System. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from https://www.yourarticlelibrary.com/caste/mahatma-gandhi-views-on-caste-system/38494
[5] https://blackdemographics.com/culture/black-politics/
[6] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1037/1089-2680.2.2.175
[7] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17470216008416717
[8] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2014/06/12/political-polarization-in-the-american-public/ - Median political values of both parties have dramatically shifted between 1994 and 2014; only 16% and 17% of democrats and republicans respectively found the other party highly unfavorable in 1994, while those numbers more than doubled in 2014; the minority of those who hold consistently democrat or republican ideas grew, especially those on the left.
[9] https://www.npr.org/2016/01/29/464431544/do-we-need-a-new-narrative-for-death
[10] https://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e5132.full?ijkey=WqUqgA.EgJq76&keytype=ref&siteid=bmjjournals%2520
[11] http://butterbeliever.com/i-will-not-be-pinkwashed-why-i-do-not-support-susan-g-komen-for-the-cure/
[12] https://www.vox.com/videos/2018/10/2/17928052/soviets-doctored-wwii-photo-reichstag-iwo-jima-world-war-ii



*The author does not claim to represent all the opinions of all the members of the Postpartisan in this essay.