Stories versus Tropes

The recent social media blow-ups about Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner have had me thinking about identity politics. Dolezal is a caucasian woman who insists “I identify as black” while Jenner is a record setting (male) decathlete proposing people “Call [her] Caitlyn.” It is noteworthy that each voluntarily adopted a minority identity (“black” for Dolezal, “woman” for Jenner), and their transitions have been met with both criticism and applause. As I read the articles about their transition stories (if that’s an appropriate framework), I kept thinking about the way race or sex influence a person’s social experience, the way one’s skin color or anatomy restricts that person’s story of who they are by creating narratives based on stereotypes instead of basing our assumptions on actual lives. As a veteran, I wondered if there was anything to learn about how war shapes the way society sees the military, and what happens when society gets our stories wrong.

Too often, society often looks at a forest and forgets that it is made up of trees, that in fact the trees make the forest, not the other way around. “Forest” means nothing without the precondition “tree.” In a similar way, “race” or “sex” is incoherent apart from the individual lives by which we can come to know (and oppose) both racism and sexism. Too often, a person with dark skin is seen as dangerous and volatile. Likewise, a person with breasts and a vagina is seen as emotionally disruptive and intellectually inept. These dominant stories overwrite their own actual stories, the narrative shape their lives are allowed to take. ‘Allowed’ because the more energy people spend fighting against stereotypes of themselves, the less time they have to learn what it means to be themselves. What I am left with in thinking about Dolezal and Jenner is how desperately they did not want to be the people they had been, did not want to inhabit the story they were born with.

Race and sex are wrapped up in the relationship between individual and community, in the groups in which people are members. The problem is that groups decide what they (we) think based on troublingly little context. We think we can look at A Something and derive from it certain conclusions, which we claim are logical; ‘tree’ becomes ‘forest.’ What we think is true of one becomes true for them all. The process of drawing these assumptions is stereotyping. Not all stereotypes are bad, but many are. Stereotypes are created and reinforced by a certain genre of stories, called tropes. Individual stereotypes and the tropes that carry them are shorthand, quick reference guides, so conversation partners can skip over them and get to the stuff they want to talk about. A stereotype is a referential object, and a trope is the narrative within which stereotypes fit.

This brings me to what my thoughts about race and sex keep pushing me to, which is a critical examination of what “veteran” means to those using it in America. I have seen “veteran” be used as a stereotype, a way as to discredit, dismiss, and denigrate human beings who fit that category (rarely on purpose). What makes “Veteran” unique is that it can be pejorative, but it can also be a word we use to venerate people, it can cut both ways. Most tropes and stereotypes usually will only vilify or venerate, but rarely do both. There are three basic forms the veteran trope takes and the emotive response they expect from hearers;

  • Victor: pride. We should be proud of these people. They are heroes.
  • Villain: panic. We should be afraid. They have been trained to kill and are volatile.
  • Victim: pity. We should feel sorry for the poor things. They are damaged goods

Tropes are not what people want to talk about, they’re just time savers, reference points, and this is a problem if we want to truly understand veterans (or, for white men like me, African Americans, and/or women). Doing so means they cannot be merely referential objects but must be the conversation partners with whom we are engaging. Unfortunately, their gifts are overlooked and veterans are reduced to stereotypes instead of looked to for their unique skills or expertise. After all, veterans are the subject matter experts at war and foreign policy if those things can mean anything like the actual experience of those things in reality (as opposed to simply the imagination of the policy/decision makers), but they too often are referred to as objects rather than engaged with as dialogue partners.

Conversation happens quickly in our social media saturated culture that we rely on shorthand to get to the fun/cool/relevant part of the conversation. But to understand war and the military, we have to slow down and listen to the members of the martial fraternity. For actual conversation to occur, veterans must not be reduced to mere referent. People with military experience must cease being seen simplistically as “Veteran” and start being acknowledged as human beings with stories that are theirs to narrate in partnership with a community of interpretation.

Tropes are dangerous precisely because they appear completely banal to the casual observer. But for the person to whom a trope refers, the trope or stereotype is unrecognizable. Few African American men will look at a depiction of an Angry Black Man stereotype and see themselves, though many white Americans will not immediately see much issue. In the same way, there will be men who see an iteration of Hysterical Woman and never bat an eye. Likewise with veterans as victor, villain, or victim. Tropes are created by groups trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The trope only seems to fit because it has been made to fit, not because it is appropriate or proper to the people it describes.

I have had to explain (even to close friends) how important it is that people recognize stereotypes for what they are, that the banality of the image they create masks a dangerously simplifying trope that is hard to recognize unless the trope is about oneself. Tropes regurgitate dominant narratives in order to talk about something other than the subject of the trope. Remember, these are shorthand, not long form narrative. To make the most of time and money, people and institutions benefit from having a story already prepared for them. It is not only fast and easy to use tropes, it usually connects viscerally with an audience; they trigger emotions and beliefs people are already accustomed to, rather than inspiring intellectual tenacity and theological adaptability.

A veteran is not a trope or a cliché, they are a human being. They have a story that parallels the stories of other soldiers, an account that reveals a narrative unity over time for those who follow the story closely. That story needs to be told with far greater nuance than you’ll find in scholarly or popular literature. I am trying to help the Church tell that story over at CenturionsGuild.org, and I hope you’ll join me.

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