Storytelling Against Mutual Genocide
Stories aren’t just stories. Because we humans tend to act out the ones we know best, we need to hear, understand, and tell a variety of stories that are adequately nuanced and humanizing. Otherwise, we are doomed to perpetuating cycles of violence. We also need shared stories to help hold us together and to provide some common points of reference. On numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed groups of people born before 1990 find sudden solidarity around a mutual commitment to having “more cowbell.”
Several weeks back, I spent the day at Costco. My laptop brimmed with grading and drafts in need of revision, so I camped out in the café while I waited for my tires. By lunchtime, the other tables had filled, so when an older gentleman asked if he could join me, I gladly obliged. I asked him about the aircraft carrier on his hat and he swelled with pride as he spoke of cramped quarters, duty, honor, Custer’s Last Stand (family vacation), and Vietnam (his war). The landscapes of the western U.S. and the vast expanse of the Pacific spread before us.
Then we came to the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, suspended over the battleship-turned-tomb in Pearl Harbor. My conversation partner leaned in and whispered, “I saw a group of Orientals chattering away there and I wanted to ask, ‘Does anyone here have a gun?’” (Subtext: he would have gladly used one on them.) He added, “They’re buying up all the land in Hawaii, you know.” At a loss for words, I sat back and wondered what I could possibly say to redeem the conversation and my neighbor. I wonder still.
Why would someone expand “the enemy” of his own war to include civilians from an entire continent? Surely part of the answer lies in the kinds of stories we tell. It has long been standard fare in wartime (viz. pre-war, preemptively aggressive) rhetoric for governments to weaponize the fear of their own populace against the civilian populations of enemy states, not merely their governments, as a tool for justifying and soliciting support for violence.
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