Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Who is my Neighbor? Understand the Narrative

Imagine a world where everyone but you knows for a fact that hamsters are vicious monsters.

It's not something that's up for debate. Every time your child goes to school, she has to sit next to someone whose father everyone knows died in a hamster attack. At work, the woman in the next cubicle tells you of the horrible experience she had at the park when a hamster attacked her without warning, sinking its teeth into her face over and over again until her boyfriend was able to drive it away.

You might not want to believe her, but the scars are on her face. You noticed them the first day, and although you didn't want to ask what had happened, she saw you staring and answered your unasked question.

“A hamster did this,” she said.

All around you people live in fear of hamsters. Pet stores have been banned from carrying them, ever since a father yielded to his daughter's pleading and bought her one. One night when the little girl accidentally left the cage door unlatched after feeding her little pet, the hamster left its wheel, climbed out of the cage and attacked the girl in her bed while she slept.

“Hamsters aren't like that,” you would argue. “They're herbivores and don't eat meat!”

A few zoologists would agree with you, but who's going to listen to them? Everyone knows that hamsters are a menace. It's a fact. Hamsters constantly gnaw at anything they can because their teeth, which can chew right through the shell of a peanut, never stop growing. Imagine what teeth like that can do if the hamster starts gnawing on your throat.

“They're tiny rodents,” you try to tell people. “They're no more dangerous than gerbils.” (You will give up that argument once people start viewing gerbils with suspicion as well.)

You watch helplessly every day as anti-hamster views spread. Signs appear in parks warning of wild hamster populations and advising hikers to avoid certain trails, to minimize the risk of being mauled. News commentators on Fox and CNN start talking about the threat hamsters pose to the security of America's wildlife and ecosystems, and before long there's talk of efforts to eradicate the hamster menace once and for all.

What no one knows is that you have a hamster of your own. He's a small puffball named Hooper and he weighs only a few ounces. After sleeping all day, Hooper runs around on his wheel at night, drinks from a water bottle and eats seed from a small plastic dish that you fill every night.

Hooper is your little secret, one you haven't told anyone about, because you know how your neighbors and your friends are going to react if they find out you have been harboring a hamster.

It's crazy. There's no basis to it, but this is the narrative that has stuck to hamsters, and nothing you say or do can alter that narrative. Hamsters are a menace to our children, and to our very way of life. Everyone knows this.

One day, you go to put Hooper in his exercise ball while you change the litter in his cage, and he bites you. How do you think you're likely to react?

That's the danger of narratives. They don't allow facts to shape them; they force the facts to fit them. The more we repeat them, the stronger those narratives become, until they become unassailable. These narratives influence our actions and our attitudes, even when we know better.

It's not just hamsters. We hear and we tell misleading narratives all the time, about other people, other races and other religions.

It's possible to replace the narrative with one more accurate, but more information isn't enough for that. For us to really change the story, we need to get to know the people in it.

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Minx McCloud said...

Nicely stated, although the message will be lost on some -- most likely those who need to see it the most.

PS. I had a hamster once, but he died in an unfortunate encounter with one of those crazy, vicious cats. However, I saw no violent tendencies in the hamster for the year that I owned him.

David Learn said...

My brother Steve had a hamster named (wait for it) Hooper, after a stuntman Burt Reynolds had played in a movie we saw on HBO.

Hooper wasn't dangerous, but he was adventurous and hardy. He rolled his exercise ball down the stairs three times, and survived; and once Steve dropped him on the driveway. He survived that too.

Hooper lived to the ripen old age of 3 years old, if I recall correctly. We had a number of hamsters growing up, none of which was vicious, but the only other one whose name I can remember is Heimie. Heimie was an albino who got stuck behind the hamster wheel once and walked oddly the rest of his life.