By Brandon S. Brown
Everywhere we turn there seems to be division in the world. Most people, if not all, are able to identify some group of “us” to engage in conflict with a group of “them.” Maybe this labeling is related to something insignificant and minor, or maybe it arises during a situation of protracted violence, but we all seem to have preconceived notions about some groups of people, perhaps ingrained in our social psyche, without even realizing it. These “hidden transcripts,” as Cobb (2013) references, cause us to “live in narratives that we tell but that we did not make” (pg. 23).
Until recently, I never realized just how ingrained these kinds of identity frames had become even in myself. Perhaps for the 10 years that I have been in prison, my psychological walls have become so fortified that I couldn’t even see how I grouped others. It had just become a part of my narrative.
But I had to confront this reality during the first week of my studies at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at Mason. I was reviewing the student introduction posts for my online CONF 600 course when time stopped completely.
Oh no, I thought to myself. There’s a cop in my class.
In that moment, I questioned what on Earth I was doing, thinking I could study conflict while incarcerated.
How could I possibly be in the same class as a police officer? We are never going to be able to agree on anything, and this woman is going to judge me without knowing anything about me, my negative thoughts continued.
How ironic it was that I was convincing myself that she would judge me, someone studying conflict from a prison cell, while I was effectively judging her without even realizing it. Fear took over. Ten years of incarceration and conflict with those in uniform flooded my mind. I had flash backs of being arrested, jailed, prosecuted, and imprisoned. All of my life’s experiences, coupled with my experience watching televised police shootings of unarmed civilians, instantaneously formulated opinions and images of who this person was in my mind. The truth that I knew nothing about her began to fade away, and I braced for a semester of conflict.
The Narrative Drivers of Conflict
The narratives humans tell have separated people since time immemorial; the development of language gave us the ability to put names to what was different about one person from the other, one group from another, and this nation from that one. Narrative plays a role in every kind of conflict; after all, for us to disagree on something, we have to have a story to tell, with a point of divergence where I see something different than you do. When we harm one another, the narrative we tell reveals the emotions that the harm created, and we begin to identify people as “other” based on narratives of why they are bad, which means we must be good. Inevitably, conflict ensues.
We live in a world full of division, especially in Trump’s America. Turn on your TV and you are guaranteed to see conflict on every news channel. Democrats refuse to extend the olive branch to Republicans in order to make necessary progress; debates over “the wall” rage on; gun control divides people into groups of “us” and “them”—the pre-requisite label necessary to engage in conflict. Some groups have experienced protracted conflict for so long that most people have grown to accept the belief that resolution is unobtainable. They may think, “Those people are never going to change their opinions or beliefs, so what’s the use in trying?” According to these narratives, some groups are just not meant to get along: Republicans and Democrats, Muslims and Jews, cops and robbers—you get the point.
The impacts of narrative theory on conflict are far reaching. Narratives can be peeled back layer by layer towards resolution and reconciliation. This is an important step towards addressing conflicts of all kinds.
How do we get opposing parties to be willing to put their narratives on pause for long enough to weave a new thread into the overarching story, one which looks towards the future by acknowledging the past—which creates an understanding that conflict is simply perpetuating harm? This is a question that I was very interested in exploring as I considered the possibility of studying at S-CAR. How could I ever have known that in the first week of my graduate studies, I would be forced to confront my own narrative, stereotypes, and opinions in a major way?
Forming a Bridge
Thinking back to my first course as an S-CAR student, it is comical to picture my anxiety-ridden face at the realization that a “cop” and a “con” would be sharing a virtual classroom together. My initial reaction wasn’t to point out the obvious commonalities that we shared, such as that we both found ourselves beginning our grad studies together at the same university, in the same class, studying the same field. Instead, I defensively adopted the tragically ingrained narrative that says some groups are incapable of getting along. I became a kind of unwilling party to a conflict that really had no personal foundation, but it had a pre-established narrative that I adopted based on expectations, not knowledge. There was no “narrative bridge” (Cobb, 2013, pg. 30) for me to attempt to cross at this point; my storyline was completely separate from hers simply because of the hidden transcripts that pervaded my own story.
All of this self-dialogue happened while reading the first couple of sentences of my classmate’s introduction. It is frightening to understand how fast a destructive narrative takes place in our individual minds when confronted with an emotion such as fear. Despite my temporary, fear-induced paralysis, I read on. It was only a few sentences later when the entire narrative I had constructed was flipped, shaken, and dumped right on the floor. It only took a moment of objectivity, one moment of me putting my narrative on pause, in order for a bridging narrative to begin its formation.
My new classmate expressed her frustration at being categorized by the social narrative that police officers in America are facing. I could feel the weight of her words, and without ever speaking to her, I could hear the strain of her voice describing the pain that must penetrate directly through her uniform and into her heart when someone assumes that she is a racist, a bad cop, or any of the other hurtful assumptions that she may have endured in her honorable position as a protector of society. The actions of a select few had categorized her in a way that likely made the uniform feel heavier than the protective body armor that she likely covers it with each day.
My walls came crumbling down, obliterated by a few sentences, as I was overcome with guilt that I, too, had categorized her out of fear that she would do the same to me. I also know what it feels like to be the victim of harmful assumptions (the difference being that my actions as a young man prompted the assumptions that I will endure, likely for as long as I live).
As I read my classmate’s—Shannon’s—brave words, I felt compelled to put my fear aside and respond to her post, telling her how much we had in common.
“I am interested in how you feel about the stereotypes that currently surround police officers…Do you feel you are still categorized in those ways?” I inquired. “I know how it feels to be stereotyped, and it is a difficult thing to come to terms with,” I explained.
Shannon responded, “I totally relate to the stereotypes that are so prevalent today, and they completely break my heart. I know the world doesn’t exist in absolutes, and I know not every cop out there comes to this job pure of heart. But I’ve just never met the police officer I’m described to be.”
This response resonated with me in a way that exists beyond words. However, I did my best to convey my thoughts: “I think the issues that seem so damaging to you as a police officer regarding being grouped with such an extreme minority of ‘bad cops’ is an emotion that so many people feel but we forget that it is a common ground between us.”
Here I was, relating to a cop, taking a chance and having no idea if this woman thought I was crazy or was judging me. It was just one simple conversation on Blackboard, but this small act, this momentary recognition that my own narrative was shutting me off from the world in ways that only I could change by confronting my assumptions and the harmful nature of them, became the spark that would ignite an unexpected friendship that has added an indescribable value to my life. All it took was a slight peeling back of layers.
A few weeks later, after a series of small exchanges and comments regarding each other’s discussion threads, a Blackboard-generated email appeared in my inbox. As I began to read, I was frozen with a similar fear I had experienced before, as this same classmate politely, but directly, challenged my opinions on restorative justice, and questioned me about my journey to incarceration, my views about the system of retributive justice, and some of my statements and opinions about our class assignments.
If it had not been for that small exchange in the first couple of weeks of class—if not for that narrative-flipping moment that I had experienced—I am not sure that I would have been brave enough to answer her questions. But I no longer viewed her as “the cop”, and in many ways, I stopped viewing myself as “the con,” a stereotype that I partially adopted because of the hopelessness I had felt after 10 years of it being forced onto me from myriad surrounding forces.
Instead, I took her questions for what they were: an inquiry from a fellow student in my new community at S-CAR, and an opportunity for more narrative deconstruction and possible shifting of assumptions. And who knows, maybe I could somehow convince her that restorative justice was a better way of addressing crime and harms (I chuckled as I took on this seemingly monumental task).
Over the next couple of months, we exchanged emails weekly. We dialogued about our experiences with justice; we learned about one another’s lives and journeys; and we let the conversation evolve organically as we tossed ideas back and forth regarding our schoolwork and our plans for the future as CAR practitioners. And we continued to discuss restorative justice—on which I believe I might just have shifted her perspective a bit.
The point is that we were both willing to put aside whatever narratives and assumptions that may have previously prevented us from acknowledging each other’s humanity, and through recognizing the things that connected us as opposed to the blatantly obvious things that separated us, a lasting friendship was formed.
Shannon is now someone that I eagerly await communicating with; her emails are both enlightening and refreshing. We weren’t in any classes together this past semester, but our communications continue as we discuss theory, class experiences, life experiences, complaints, triumphs, and all things between. I walk the yard of the maximum security prison where I have lived for nearly a decade, and I tell the story of how I found a friend in a police officer who lives literally in the opposite corner of the country (myself in Maine, her in Northern California). I get hilarious looks and a nasty comment from time-to-time, but then I begin my preliminary work as a practitioner of peace, helping others deconstruct their narrative in the same way I had to nine months ago, assisting them in realizing that we only hold ourselves back when we unconsciously accept the narrative of “the other,” or adopt expectations that are placed on us as “the other.”
The thing that I learned in my first thirty minutes as a student at S-CAR is that, all too often, conflict is a construct of unquestioned narratives that thrive when we are unwilling to go through the temporary discomfort of challenging ourselves to imagine what connects us rather than recognizing what doesn’t. As students of peace, we may convince ourselves that we don’t subscribe to any narratives of “the other,” but in all likelihood, we will discover that until we do the necessary work to genuinely question ourselves, we will be unable to challenge our destructive assumptions when they arise unexpectedly.
I challenge each of us to reach out to the student in our classes who at surface value seems to have the least in common with us. Show genuine interest in who they are as a person, and what has brought them to our great community at Mason. You never know what you’ll learn from a single conversation
You never know what an incredible friend you might be looking right past because of the little things that seem to separate you on the surface.
Cobb, Sara. 2013. Speaking of Violence: The Politics and Poetics of Narrative in Conflict Resolution. Oxford University Press. New York, NY.