Every day, we are bombarded by advertisements on the street, on the Internet, and in our homes, whether they’re for fast food, new clothes, or better cars. Social media constantly updates itself, produced by us and for us. Opinions, songs, Vines and other miscellaneous memes flood our feeds. We have access to thousands of channels, and hundreds of millions of websites. We can stream movies, play games, and communicate with others from a single device, instantly.
When breaking news bursts onto the scene, it is picked apart relentlessly during a 24-hour news cycle by the mainstream media, and by the countless voices on the Internet, only to be replaced soon after by the latest stories. Although this is all very general, these are experiences that a majority of us face every day—so often that we have learned to tune them out. This is the world we live in, and I’m not saying any of these things are entirely bad. While writing this, my smart phone waits patiently beside me, and Bob’s Burgers streams on Netflix behind me, and I’m paying attention more than I should be. The problem is when we become so consumed by these distractions that we forget to focus on what’s important.
Long story short, we are surrounded by distractions. Our culture whispers in our ears. As a whole, we are influenced by what we produce, and it can be difficult to maintain our individual identities when we are hemmed in on all sides by a rapidly-changing cultural mold.
This is why books, especially novels, are absolutely necessary. They are comprised of people, problems, and resolutions, and contain layers of meaning and identity. Any form of storytelling has these benefits, but reading creates a sustained connection with the ideas. Watching a film or listening to music allows us to be passive, but as readers, we must come alone, armed, and active. A novel may take days or even weeks to finish, (perhaps months if it’s by Tolstoy) meaning we have a much longer period to absorb, ruminate over, and relate to the content. John Steinbeck describes books as “a wedge driven into a man’s personal life.” He speaks of long books in particular as driving in “very slowly,” which “allows the mind to rearrange itself to fit around the wedge.” When the book is finished, the mind cannot return completely to its previous shape; it has been changed by a new way of thinking.
Writing is an individual’s addition to the larger cultural conversation. It’s an opportunity to show there are different ways of living and thinking than what we learn through “passive osmosis of the system’s values,” as Maria Popova puts it in an excellent article about James Baldwin. The article is titled “Change the Narrative, Change Your Destiny” and it explores how Baldwin escaped “his own culturally-imposed narrative of possibility” through reading and writing.
I hesitate to speak politically when I don’t know the full stories, especially coming from a position of privilege, but I’ve been reading the different “narratives” about Freddie Gray (and Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and many others). I have seen a wide cross-section of conversations regarding these tragedies. Some people are quick to side with the police and claim the acts were justified. Others are justifiably outraged, taking to the streets in anger, mourning, and solidarity. There are also those who jeer belligerently from their keyboards, those who have no idea what’s going on, and finally, people like me, who are aware, but don’t quite know what to do or think because they are overwhelmed. These varying (and often extreme) reactions alone are evidence that we need to continue making serious progress toward racial equality in this country.
Police brutality and the ensuing protests are prominent in the national conversation right now, thanks in large part to those protesting voices who would and will not let the tragedies be swept under the rug. This is the power of the people to make change, by focusing attention on issues that need serious, sustained examination. It is often met with resistance. Attention gets diverted and diluted over time. Protestors are vilified for blocking roads and upsetting routines. When riots break out, the violence gets reported and those who are actually relaying peaceful messages of equality are often superseded. Capturing the national attention in today’s world long enough to have a significant discussion is extremely difficult. Achieving concrete changes, even more so. The mainstream media disseminates information, a million mini-outlets on the Internet chime in as well, and soon enough everyone is shouting over each other. The truth falls between the cracks and the conversation tends to fall apart. Look how the Occupy Movement fizzled just a few years back.
We must be vigilant and vocal, now more than ever. It takes critical thinking to wade through the mass of public (mis)information. It takes courage to speak out for equality, perseverance to stand for as long as it takes effect change, and tolerance to understand that everyone has a right to their voices and emotions. Strong reading and writing skills are more necessary than ever, because “real change becomes possible only when we change the cultural narrative.” The Internet levels the playing field by allowing more voices to present their perspectives, which has proved enormously beneficial in keeping the discussion alive, but it can also clog the conversation.
Our cultural narrative is shaped by all of us; we must read and listen to understand its boundaries, and speak and write in order to expand them. As Baldwin eloquently states, “You’re playing the game according to somebody else’s rules, and you can’t win until you understand the rules and step out of that particular game, which is not, after all, worth playing.”
In the end, we’re looking for equality, and for pragmatic ways to achieve it; this is our duty to ourselves and to each other. Along the way, we often get distracted or misled, but each of us has the potential to move our culture forward. If we are informed and aware, we can create the narratives that will help us grow. If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
And if you’re wondering what to do next, here’s a relevant interview with activist Aundrey Jones about race and literature!