Booker T. Washington told this story in 1895: “A ship lost at sea for many days suddenly sighted a friendly vessel. From the mast of the unfortunate vessel was seen a signal: ‘Water, water. We die of thirst.‘ The answer from the friendly vessel at once came back: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.‘ A second time, the signal, ‘Water, send us water!‘ went up from the distressed vessel. And was answered: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.‘ A third and fourth signal for water was answered: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.‘ The captain of the distressed vessel, at last heeding the injunction, cast down his bucket and it came up full of fresh, sparkling water from the mouth of the Amazon River.
“To those of my race who depend on bettering their condition in a foreign land, or who underestimate the importance of preserving friendly relations with the southern white man who is their next door neighbor, I would say: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.’ Cast it down, making friends in every manly way of the people of all races, by whom you are surrounded. To those of the white race who look to the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits for the prosperity of the South, were I permitted, I would repeat what I have said to my own race: ‘Cast down your bucket where you are.‘ Cast it down among the eight millions of Negroes whose habits you know, whose fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant the ruin of your fireside. Cast down your bucket among these people who have without strikes and labor wars tilled your fields, cleared your forests, builded your railroads and cities, brought forth treasures from the bowels of the earth, just to make possible this magnificent representation of the progress of the South.“
This is indeed strange that Mr. Washington uses the phrase “fidelity and love you have tested in days when to have proved treacherous meant ruin…” He was a slave and the son of slaves of the south. How could he talk of fidelity and love with the white race? He was actually talking about blacks who were loyal to the South in the Civil War. What kind of counter narrative is this, that of a race traitor? I thought the other narrative, the one of enmity between the races was the only one. Just maybe, there were white individuals who did not fit the narrative and whose relationship with former slaves was that of friendship rather than enmity. In fact, popular narratives are rarely about individuals or relationships. Why not? To answer that question, we must explore the question, what is the purpose of social narratives?
Some generalizations about social narratives are mostly true: they are about behavior of groups towards other groups; they assume a cause-effect relationship between behavior of some individuals within one group and the average outcomes of another group; they use individual stories to get emotions engaged and then generalize individual stories to the group as a whole. The two most common social narratives are about either justifying the status quo or effecting social change. For the latter, the moral of the narrative is almost always about a more powerful group abusing their power to oppress a less powerful group; for the former, the lesson is usually about how the behavior of individuals in the less powerful group justifies not trusting the group as a whole. Oh yeah, the other thing about both narratives: they don’t have to be true, and often are not. An example of what I mean is an organization dedicated to crafting narratives for “human rights” activists.
Change the Story: Harnessing the power of narrative for social change
From New Tactics in Human Rights website: “People and communities use stories to understand the world and our place in it. These stories are embedded with power – the power to explain and justify the status quo as well as the power to make change imaginable and urgent. A narrative analysis of power encourages us to ask: Which stories define cultural norms? Where did these stories come from? Whose stories were ignored or erased to create these norms? And, most urgently, what new stories can we tell to help create the world we desire?”
That last sentence is self explanatory, and explains the motivation behind many social narratives. Do you want some examples? The United States expanded the definition of hate crimes to include “crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or disability” in 1969, after the gruesome murder of Matthew Shepard. The attack on Shepard was widely reported–which became the narrative–to be motivated by his homosexuality, and he became sort of a “patron saint” of homosexual victims. Recently, a book was published based on testimony from people who knew both the victim and his killers, stating the narrative was false, that the killers were fellow meth dealers who wanted it to look like a homosexual motivated crime so they could get away with stealing his meth supply. The author of the book is homosexual, and at least one of the killers was a former sex partner of Shepard. Once rumors about this book to be published started circulating, the narrative protection machine went into overdrive. All those who had a vested interest in the original Shepard narrative–his family, the foundation bearing his name, homosexual activists–condemned the new narrative, the author, his sources and anyone who tried to defend the book’s conclusion. Since the murder happened 49 years ago, the full truth is unlikely to be known. However, the author and his sources have no vested interest in making Shepard look bad, while defenders of the original narrative have built an entire legacy on it being true. Draw your own conclusions.
Another common narrative was that black quarterbacks could never get their teams to the NFL championship. How wrong that was. Doug Williams was the first, and the list includes Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, Colin Kaepernick. Warren Moon might have been the best of all, though his teams didn’t get to the championship, but he was first into the NFL Hall of Fame, and that’s not too shabby. Fortunately for football fans, the narrative protection machine was pretty feeble for that narrative, and now I get to watch DeShaun Watson, Pat Mahomes, and Dak Prescott, as well as Wilson and Newton. Another sports narrative does seem to be more true than not, whites are slower than blacks. All the top 40 yard dash NFL combine times for years have been black athletes, and the fastest players at every position, except offensive line, are black.
Women, minorities and the poor are more likely to be taken advantage of or exploited than, say, white wealthier males, and that disgusts me, but that is individual behavior. Turning it into a narrative doesn’t get more justice. There are social narratives, and narrative protection machines, and watch out for your safety and your reputation if you challenge a narrative for change. Many former status quo narratives have fallen, and rightly so. Their defenders are more the result of ignorance than vested interest. But social change narratives are more about vested interests, and therefore more aggressive in their defense. The so-called social justice warriors like to disparage status quo narratives as though they are about protecting vested interests, but logical analysis asks the question, “if a group is wealthier and more powerful, and that wealth is the result of raising the standard of the majority, as it usually is, how can the wealthy and powerful group have a vested interest in keeping everyone else poor? Jeff Bezos is the wealthiest person in the world, due to the value of his Amazon stock. But why is Amazon stock worth so much? Primarily because lots of people want it and buy it, thus bidding the price up. The more people who can afford to do that, the wealthier every owner, including Bezos, of the stock becomes. Why would they want people not to be able to afford it?
Whether it’s race, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender equality or abortion, the defenders of those narratives have a lot to lose if their narratives are challenged. If you take that on, you’d better have a thick skin, a good disguise and an updated home alarm system.