Opinions Versus Narratives: The Story Of Who We Are

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In a world where personal opinion is quickly gaining more traction than verifiable fact and painstaking science, the United States features a social polarization that has escalated so quickly and dangerously, there may be little time left for the hope of common ground.

For example, if I state the verifiable fact that suburban communities have a far higher carbon footprint than densely populated urban communities, someone who disagrees with me might say “well that’s your opinion,” even though it’s not. It’s literally backed by research that has been examined critically and repeated. But that doesn’t matter, because we lay claim to our beliefs and our statements based on where we garner our information.

Fox News delivers a completely different story than CNN. The New York Post and New York Times could not be more at odds with regard to perspective. The rural farmer and the urban tech worker battle in the anonymous ether of social media, claiming their “source” for information proves their opinion is the correct one and the other is “fake news.”

Ultimately the only opportunity we have to mend the decimated social fabric of our society is through dialogue, which seems next to impossible at times. There are days when a friend of mine on the right calls me a “crazy commie“ while a friend on the left refers to me as a “gutless centrist” or worse. Whoever wants to call me what, I really don’t care… I won’t give up hope that we can have a constructive dialogue.

Here’s how we accomplish that. When someone has a different viewpoint than you, stop labeling it as “their opinion.” Instead, start acknowledging it as “their narrative.”

Let me explain why narrative is different than opinion. First step… turn on any reality TV show. The Voice, American Ninja Warrior, American Idol… these are perfect examples. When these shows feature a performer or participant, the show artfully depicts their backstory in an effort to connect you to the person in question. “I grew up on the streets…” “My Dad died when I was 13…” “My son has Autism…” The list is endless. Today’s media thrives on the ability to showcase the human story of perseverance, strength and determination. We fall in love with the story of these heroes, identifying with their experiences and connecting with their transcendent journeys.

We relate so much to these stories because we construct our own “narratives” based on what we have been told, what we have seen and what we have experienced. Our personal narrative is the sum total of the lessons we have learned from our family, our community and the experiences we have had for ourselves. It is our story, played out as if we were on a TV show, convincing the public to love us and admire our strength and inner beauty. Wanna hear mine? Ok here goes…

I am an only child, raised by a poor single mother who worked as hard as anyone could to ensure that I could stand on her shoulders. Even when I was diagnosed with Childhood Leukemia at age 8, my mother remained strong and single-handedly provided the strength and love I needed to survive. I could have been a statistic but because of my mother, my experience and my desire to appreciate the daily gifts of life, I am a relatively successful engine in my community today.

While that’s all true and then some, it is far from unique. Millions of kids grow up in situations like mine or worse. My mother and I went through a lot when I was growing up but by no means was our experience unique or special. Instead I am grateful for the chances I have had in life, and while my lifetime of ups and downs has made me ultimately stronger, I believe everyone has times that test us and force us to grow… some more than others.

But if you want to look at my narrative critically, it’s easy to do so. I am a white male, which instantly gives me a leg up in our gender and racially stratified society. My mother was born into a middle class family who lived in a suburban community, received a quality college education and was given the ability to maximize her talent and hard work as a classical violist.

If you know my narrative, you may understand why I have some of the perspectives I do. Maybe you won’t agree with those perspectives, but you might just say “you know what? I can see why he thinks the way he does.” This is a far more constructive statement than calling someone a divisive name based on little or no knowledge of where someone is coming from.

Let’s look at examples of where we are politically today. Urban black America and rural white America share many of the same narratives in today’s society. Many in both camps believe the government will never truly acknowledge them. Both tend to mistrust words like “progress” and “reform,” and for good reason. Both have a narrative that, while in different ways, explains how they have been left behind and brushed under the rug. Saturday Night Live artfully depicted this construct in a 2017 skit.

Let’s get something straight… Black Americans have suffered through hundreds of years of slavery, disenfranchisement, racism, economic exclusivity, legal and cultural warfare and civil rights abominations. Rural white Americans have struggled against changing economic and political tides over the past 50 years or so. There is no comparison with regard to the barriers that these populations have endured. But both populations have a narrative that drives their ideals, social desires and political agendas. Understanding these narratives helps us take the small steps toward understanding, again, even if we don’t wholeheartedly agree.

Narratives are as dependent on what we don’t see as much as what we do. For example, while I was born in the Windy City of Chicago, I grew up in a small outer suburb of Rochester, New York called Victor. The narrative there was that the city was a war zone and places like Victor were communities that were just “better.” Later in life I learned that suburban living and wealth creation was heavily subsidized and economically enabled by car-centric development. As poor as my mother and I were, we were able to live in an environment that purposefully excluded the poorest and most disenfranchised citizens. As a result, I saw places like Victor as the “ideal” community through my early 20s.

But as friends introduced me to the splendors of Rochester, I started to see that this sleepy city could employ elements of the things I loved about Chicago. I started to read about cities and urban design, and I very much realized where my former definition of “ideal” was misinformed. The more I learned about race, socioeconomic stratification and car-based community design, I changed my tune to the one you know today.

Narratives are the stories we tell ourselves and others based on all that we’ve seen, been told and absorbed. Knowing someone’s narrative can give tremendous insight on their approach to the world. Opinions can be written off as narrow-minded adoptions of an uneducated ideal. Narratives blend the persona story with the backdrop of the history and experience of people who are like us. Think of a narrative as an opinion with a context, telling the listener that I don’t just have an opinion, I have formed this opinion for a reason.

When engaging those in our rural communities today, don’t consider their political “opinions” as the final communication. Try to understand the personal, experiential-based narrative that forms their viewpoint. When engaging those in our urban communities, let’s listen to the culturally unique stories about life that form the way they interpret and act on the world. For example, the book Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance gives an eye opening account of the real-world struggles in today’s rural Appalachian and Rust Belt towns. Job loss, hopelessness, the opioid epidemic and dozens of other factors have pummeled the course of small communities in these states, and the subsequent effect on quality of life and upward mobility is daunting.

Similarly, a recent experience of participating in a stakeholder committee for a development project in my home city brought to light the intense damage that had been done by the creation of an urban expressway just a handful of decades before. Black neighborhoods were torn apart as families were displaced by a moat of asphalt in the name of progress and “Urban Renewal.” This one project was a base for the narrative that black people in our city (and every city) will always be at the mercy of whatever wealthy white people want at any given moment.

When we accept or deny “opinions,” we accept or deny a viewpoint without context. When we endeavor to take a step further and listen to the “narrative” of a people, a community or an individual with an open mind, we can usually gather enough information to understand why these groups or individuals are the way they are. Even if our own life experience conflicts with this narrative, it enhances our ability to try to understand and generate a meaningful dialogue in the hopes of seeing eye-to-eye.

How does this apply to urbanism? The answer is simply, it is the root of urbanism. Balancing the transformation of our downtowns from vacant to vibrant while minimizing the paralyzing effects of gentrification, rent increase and displacement is one of the most difficult constructs we face in urban America today. Ensuring that we continue to build inclusivity and upward mobility into our cities of tomorrow is essential. Empowering formally marginalized populations and listening to narratives of those who have called our city home despite the social, political and economic barriers must be a standard going forward. Indeed, listening to and acknowledging “narratives” is key to guiding our cities of tomorrow into a future that sheds the shackles of generations before.

Let’s listen. No matter where you come from or what you believe, we can all understand one another if we simply take the time to listen to the narrative of communities and individuals.