25 July 2011

Norway: when the news doesn't fit the narrative

When confronted with events like what happened in Norway last week - events that shock the system and leave people yearning for answers and explanations that will likely never come - many people often rush to the familiar albeit profoundly disturbing memories that help us come to terms.  So to many Americans, this event had elements of some of our worst and all-too-real nightmares: Columbine, Oklahoma City, and 9/11.  This is the experiential lens through which many Americans view domestic and global terror.

But this isn't Columbine.  It isn't Oklahoma City or 9/11.  This tragedy is unique.  And while many Americans (and others) may have some understanding of the grief and anguish many Norwegians are feeling today, we must resist the urge to define this event simply in the terms we understand - and we must also resist the urge to define the perpetrator of this horrible crime in terms that suit our ideology or political interests.

We haven't done very well with that lately.

When Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Federal Judge John Roll and 17 other people were shot at a supermarket in Arizona in January, within hours people were suggesting that the gunman was motivated by conservative political rhetoric, including Governor Palin's now-infamous graphic of the Congresswoman's district in a gun's crosshairs.  As facts emerged, it became more evident that the alleged assassin was motivated more from illness than ideology.  The facts didn't prevent the discussion about rhetoric from spiraling out of control - the attacks on Governor Palin and her poorly-chosen words in response to the criticism only entrenched interests further.  We are now to the point where she can misspeak about something as innocent as the story of Paul Revere's "midnight ride" and her supporters flock to wikipedia, attempting to "correct the record" by including her obvious misstatements as fact.

Now of course we have the lightning-fast editorializing (and actual coverage) wrongly tying the Norway attacks to Islamic extremists. Ujala Sehgal at The Atlantic Wire has a thorough description of how quickly so many of our top publications embraced the "Muslims did it" narrative and how they even took steps to maintain that narrative once the facts came to light.  One notable offender was the Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin who quickly asserted the "jihadist" link, only to walk it back a day later, but still insisting that "there are many more jihadists than blonde Norwegians out to kill Americans" and this is really about a domestic political fight between conservatives and liberals over spending priorities.   As if this somehow matters to grieving parents in Oslo.

Now information is beginning to emerge that suggests the alleged killer in Norway may be the type of right-wing ideologue swayed by violent political rhetoric that people were too quick to assert was at work in Arizona.  Let the blame game begin again.

To me, the real culprit is (again) homophily - the phenomenon that we describe sometimes with the cliche "birds of a feather flock together."  Increasingly, we only read the news sources that reflect our interests and ideology.  We only speak with people of the same ilk. There's a growing body of research that discusses this - for example, the British Psychological Society recently reported a study that we even choose to sit next to people who look like us. In PR we call this community of people who just agree with and repeat each other it the "echo chamber," and its effects are intensified through online social media.  

As I wrote last week, our common experiences enrich our lives but they also limit our perspectives if we fail to explore. We develop deeper relationships with the people who share our values and our interests, but we grow more polarized in our politics and our consuming behavior.   Homophily manifests itself through our unwillingness or inability to compromise on important issues.  It results in litmus tests - religious or otherwise - for our political leaders.  It leads some to define those who are different as somehow less human.  We combat homophily by meeting new people, different people.  As we get to know different people more, we accept them and tend to support their basic rights, and we grow more tolerant and creative and we solve more problems.  For example, even polls dating back to 2005 and earlier suggest the more gay people we know the more supportive of their civil rights we become and the more likely we are to solve the unique issues facing gay families. 

So to those whose voices are amplified because their names sit next to headlines or because they currently reside in seats of power, I have some simple advice: you need to get out more