We are a culture obsessed with facts. Or worse – with the truth we believe is hidden within them. We act like facts are a thing to be extracted – carefully framed and selected pieces of historical data, distilled and hardened into raw materials. They are the material we use to build our reality. We pile them up around ourselves.
They are also our weaponry. On every side of every conflict we cling to our facts like stones that we can hurl at each other to justify more violence. I’ve heard “get your facts straight” spit out across arguments and comment sections over and over again – as if the most complex wars could be remedied by correcting a flaw in someone’s quantitative data set.
If we have any stones left we stick them in our ears so we don’t have to listen. And through our soliloquies masquerading as debate, the only thing that becomes clear is that the more of these “facts” we think we have to throw around, the less we value the lives and experiences of others. I can savor my pride and my vengeance while believing you will choke on yours. But our fate will be the same. The Emperor’s new clothes were stitched with the threads of our finest facts.
We build our walls with whatever variety of stones we have at hand that can create the most distance and make us feel safe. With morals, with religion, with nationalism…anything that can divide us so we feel superior to the injustice we witness, as opposed to understanding our part in it. It’s much too terrifying to believe we are a part of it. We work very hard to distance ourselves from violence. We use words like “terrorist” because it means that those who commit violence against us are not like us. Not human. Not worthy of life. They do not have families. They are not someone’s children. They have no story. Nothing made them this way – certainly nothing we were a part of.
It also implies our right to “crush” them because, as the argument goes, the violence they choose gives us no choice. Their violence removes our obligation to understand them. We strip them of their humanity as if it were citizenship (as if we had such power). They are the monster under the bed and out in the darkness. Their destruction will make us safer. Our facts, on every side, confirm this for us.
The trouble is that the more I study, the more I travel, and the more I live – the fewer facts I seem to have piled around me. I thought I’d have more, but they are difficult to travel with. And every time I listen, my remaining stones turn to dust. Even the ones I thought were cemented into place by my own experience and education and pain have begun to crumble.
In their place, I have stories. It was stories that broke the stones. Stories of myself, and the stories of others. So many “others” who are not other at all. Those stories, and the ones I have yet to hear, are the real home of truth. In each of our stories, there is a piece of truth – in it’s authenticity and humanity. That truth is like a puzzle piece, and it is only when we put the pieces together that we begin to see the whole picture. Facts are only the seductive empty promise of a moral certainty that does not exist. Your facts, in the face of my story, are dust. And your story can do the same for me. Empathy is not weakness, it is a necessary wisdom that we’ve discarded at the request of our egos. And everyone’s story is necessary.
Everyone’s story is necessary. Easy to say and hard to hear.
It means there’s a young man in Boko Haram who has a story we need to hear if we ever want to untangle the mess that perpetuates that cycle of violence. A human story. It means there’s a member of Hamas who has a story that a Zionist needs to hear. A human story. It means there’s a member of ISIS who has a story that Americans need to hear. A human story. This list is endless, and ties us all back to each other. It’s excruciatingly difficult, and requires that we entertain the idea that there are things we are wrong about, and things we don’t know. It also requires acknowledging that we are all capable of violence as opposed to somehow above or removed from it. Moral superiority is truly the death of peace.
We need to challenge ourselves to listen to the stories of the people we believe need to die to make us safer. Not their arguments – their stories: their struggle and their love. They are human – that title is not ours to revoke. We must challenge ourselves to put down our stones and listen. It might sound naive (there are facts to confirm it), but it’s an extremely powerful act. Because stories are even more dangerous than facts. They threaten to unite us.
And naive or not, experience shows us that there is nothing more naive than believing that our quest to “kill terrorists” will ever do anything but create more people (yes, people) who believe there is no alternative to turning our own violence back against us. And make no mistake that they will have their own arsenal of facts – bearing the same unmistakable sheen of self-righteousness as our own – to prove it.