Some thoughts on normalization, narratives, and the importance of reality-testing

"This may not seem ordinary to you right now. But after a time it will."

                 - The Handmaid's Tale



I just started watching The Handmaid's Tale on Hulu. It's based on a book by Margaret Atwood that I remember reading in high school. It's a profound allegory of religious and government control and the parallels to our current political climate are fascinating.

Over the past few months, I have also read two novels that tell stories of the lives of African slaves in the United States. One book was Homegoing, the other was The Underground Railroad. I will admit, it is hard to wrap my brain around the realities involved in the lives of slaves . .. the atrocities performed against them and the pure inhumanity of their treatment boggles my mind. But what is even more profound and difficult to understand is the complicit agreement of an entire society that this kind of treatment towards other human beings was okay. That this went on for so long with the approval of most white citizens of our country. It is a reminder to me of a scary truth of humanity: we can be convinced of almost anything when we create and believe a narrative that fits our agenda. Human beings are absolutely adept at normalizing the mistreatment of others. False narratives, groupthink, white supremacy, patriarchy, and government control have been used time and again to normalize horrible behavior, laws, and regimes.


(A collection of dirt from the lynching sites in Alabama on display at the Equal Justice Initiative. Public lynchings were held as community events to normalize the mistreatment of black people, and were treated as a public spectacle that people brought their families out to watch.)


It's easy to think that injustices are performed by evil villains. It's harder to come to terms with the fact that sometimes, injustices are performed by entire societies. It's easy to read a book about slavery and think that I would have been one of the few white people to risk my life by assisting in rescue missions . . . it's harder to come to terms with the truth that I might have been complicit. had I grown up in that society that trained children from birth to think a certain way about others.

This week, I've really been asking myself if there are ways I've slipped into injustice because it has been normalized. Buying clothing from companies that use and abuse children, turning a blind eye to poverty in my own community, or rationalizing my own privilege . .. these are just some of the convictions I've felt.

I've also been mindful of the human tendency to create narratives that excuse our bad behavior - which just might be at the root of most injustice. I've been trying to catch myself when I create a selfish narrative to excuse myself for even small things, and I notice how often I create stories that minimize or excuse my own selfishness. (I also notice my kids doing this, as kids are prone to do. I want to make sure I'm modeling some reality testing for them.) One tool I've found useful is asking myself, "Is this excuse true, or is it self-serving?"

Integrity is like an onion. Just when you think you've gotten it down, another layer reveals itself. I'm taking a hard look at the lies I tell myself to feel better about my own behavior, because I see how that small tendency can lead to systemic abuse when not kept in check.



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