“We live in a world dominated by narrative,” writes UB School of Law Prof. Steven Grossman in a Jan. 20 Baltimore Sun op-ed. They are useful as a kind of shorthand by “taking the specific and generalizing it” into a tale from which we can learn important lessons, he writes. He uses the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements as examples of narratives that shed light on longstanding patterns of injustice.
Where narratives can be unproductive, he continues, is when the general is the enemy of the specific, when we rush to view events through the lens of a preconceived narrative. “While treating crimes as narratives can contribute significantly to our understanding of why some crimes happen, doing so can also lead to false assumptions and unfortunate reactions about the perpetrators.”
A recent example of this occurred in the tragic Dec. 30, 2018 fatal shooting of 7-year-old Jazmine Barnes in Houston, TX. “Initial descriptions of the shooter identified him as a white male,” Prof. Grossman writes, “leading [some] to label the shooting a ‘hate crime.’ ” When two African-American men eventually were arrested for the slaying, it upended prevailing narratives about race and crime.
“We should resist the temptation to use narratives as the primary determinant of how society approaches the question of who committed a certain crime,” Prof. Grossman concludes, “and we must prevent at all costs a narrative from becoming the basis of how a jury ultimately determines guilt or innocence.”