THREE STORIES WE GOT WRONG

We all know that Columbine was about the trench coat mafia and bullying and misfits and classroom violence or a lost generation of kids that fell through the gaps­ except that it was not about any of that at all­that this was the story we made up to explain and respond to a tragedy that had nothing to do with misfits or outcasts or bullies. Nothing. But once the story is told once, the second telling can never remake that first emotional impression that imprints facts as truly felt, not truly researched and confirmed. And we go on to make public policy by anecdote and gossip­distorting the reality even further. We got it way wrong. We all know the terrible Mathew Sheppard case, the gay hate crime bill that came about because of his parents and because of the outrage of this hideous crucifixion. But it was not a hate crime and it was not a gay crime at all. It was a drug deal gone wrong, and one of the murderers was also gay, and had had a relationship with Matt. Huh??? How can that be a gay hate crime? It never was that, but the story locked it into public memory where it was deeply felt as true and therefore has stayed. Nothing will change it, and at least one of the assailants may well be a victim because his story would overturn all the assumptions about the event that made it so compelling. We all know that Pat Tillman, great footballer, great hero, died in Afghanistan and his death was made into a recruiting poster, after it was learned that he died trying to save his team from a terrorist ambush. The highest brass in the army signed on to the heroization of Pat­ until the family got suspicious and after unbelievable persistence, discovered that Pat was killed by friendly fire, in a total botch of command and control. The story was a cover up, and created by some of the best storytellers out there. And there was no apology and no retraction. Our stories about stories need serious scrutiny, need an overdue moral revision, need some reality testing. We are engaged in teaching people how to tell better stories, which we thought was an all innocent endeavor. Then we discover that perhaps the greatest skill we can be teaching is how to resist stories, how to tell when a story is propaganda, how to decide from the story itself whether it is an ethical act or not. That might be the new role that our profession might embrace, as if we are Paul turning back into Saul, from being the story creeds greatest proponent into the faith’s greatest opponent, because we have seen the damage of a naive story­ism that has become an ideology. Maybe its time we stopped pretending that stories were innocent. What if we taught instead that stories are too dangerous to handle without a hazard warning, and without an emergency radioactivity kit for when a story leaks like water from a nuclear plant, or gets contaminated, or gets out of hand, and takes us to war or torture or voting for criminals, or hate. We might realize that we are part of the problem and its time to switch sides and become part of the solution.

Now that is a story revolution if ever I saw one.