Who among us doesn’t love a good story? We’ve been telling them and hearing them and learning from them for eons.
That’s what political conventions are all about. Storytelling. Narrators are carefully chosen, each completes a part of the tale, and what emerges is the particular portrait we’re meant to see.
Whatever you think of the merits of our two principal presidential contenders, the Democrats did a better job of telling a story about Hillary Clinton than the Republicans did with Donald Trump. That’s no judgment on whether critical parts of either candidate’s narrative were left out. They were, for both. It’s merely a recognition that we learned more about Clinton than Trump.
If we were disposed to listen.
That’s the thing about stories. You have to hear them, or they become just words in the wind.
I don’t blame anyone for being jaded about political stories. They are meant to manipulate us. That doesn’t mean there’s no truth in them. And the only responsible thing any of us can do is to listen to as many stories as we can, from as many storytellers as possible.
At our best, we hear these different accounts, weigh them and meld them in our minds. At our worst, we reject the ones we find inconvenient. Skepticism is healthy; discarding what’s true is not.
I don’t pretend to know whether the ancients were as skeptical of their storytellers as we are now, whether they scoffed at one teller’s cave art and found a wall of their own on which to draw. Perhaps they did.
But I’m guessing they did not have as many filters on their ears as we do now, filters that act like locks on the doors of receptivity. It starts with political party labels. Is the story from someone on the other side? It’s already suspect. That’s why Democrats trot out Republicans for Hillary, and Republicans tap Democrats for Trump.
Is the story from a narrator who is different in a way that makes us uncomfortable — gay, transgender, black, white, police officer, Muslim, Jew? Those are filters, too, and are quick to make us deaf.
So we end up with simple stories and thinly drawn caricatures, the tales we accept acting like dots we connect in our minds in a simple pencil sketch. And by not listening to everybody’s story, by not forcing ourselves to place new dots on our mental sketch pad and redraw, we never produce the richer and more detailed portraits that more accurately reflect a person’s life in full.
Some of our adages give us cover to do that. Your first thought is your best thought. And we all understand the power of first impressions. But people are complicated, and they evolve. And while it’s true that an evolving story can be a liability for a politician, we do them and us a disservice when we stop listening to that story.
The media sometimes are no help, when TV commentators and contributors of all stripes are unmoved and unchanged by any story that runs counter to their narrative. They’re paid to be that way. We don’t have that excuse.
One of the most powerful pieces of storytelling at either convention was heard Thursday night in Philadelphia. It came from a father whose son was an Army captain who died in the war in Iraq. The father’s anguish was evident. He is Muslim. His story was meant to counter Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims, to show that the son’s religion was no bar to patriotism. But who among us added that to all the other stories that help paint the portrait of Trump, and who threw it out? Who did the same with inconvenient stories about Clinton?
I worry about our inability, or unwillingness, to hold competing stories in our minds and acknowledge that they must be part of the tale. Because it’s only a short step from there to fantasy.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.