Amid the news reports from Boston last week, a few outlying comments and impressions stood out for me. They didn’t sound like the themes that became dominant as the story unfolded: the evil of terrorism, the fear that it incites, the awe-inspiring heroism of everyday people, the “we are all Boston” solidarity with those who suffer.
A lot has been said and written about those themes, and they deserve the attention. But I don’t want to miss the wisdom in the outliers. Here are some thoughts on one of them:
There is still much we don’t know about the Tsarnaev brothers. But what struck me in these early days was the stubborn refusal of their narrative to fit our usual categories. They committed an act of terrorism but were not Saudi nationals. Their birthplace has spawned terrorism in the past, but they had not lived there for many years. They were fairly well integrated into U.S. society, but their motivations did not match those of other American terrorists, like Timothy McVeigh. They are Muslims, visited jihadist websites, but do not appear connected to al-Qaeda.
As their story unfolds, we might see how they fit into some larger narrative. For now, however, it reminds me of what I do not want to do. I do not want to try stuffing a unique story with unique characters into a prepackaged narrative—like “they’re from Chechnya, so they must be al-Qaeda” or “they practice Islam, so of course they’re violent” or “they’re white, so it must be domestic terrorism.”
This is a crucial lesson for dialogue as well. Our partner in dialogue makes a statement, and it’s tempting to put her in a category. If we hear her out, we might discover that she fits none of our categories, so our categories need an adjustment, if not an overhaul. In the process of adjusting or overhauling them, we get closer to grasping the reality—and the complexity—of the person before us and the issue she raises.
If we don’t hear her out, though, we cut ourselves off from all that. Our categories may even harden, so we are less prepared for the next dialogue.
I was on the receiving end of this dynamic the other day. On Facebook, a friend posted a message that I thought depicted Islam inaccurately. When I raised this, someone else jumped in to ask whether I was apologizing for terrorism. His prepackaged story was clear—Islam = terrorism—a belief he made all too clear with his subsequent comments. If he had lived into the uncertainty, the knowledge that he needed more data to truly understand me, he might have uncovered a much more complex picture of who I am. He might have had to change his thinking: not just about me, but about what I wrote.
Have you had this happen to you? Conversely, have you run across a person or situation that shook up your preconceived notions? What happened? Feel free to share here.