Whether we are aware of it or not, most of us have certain expectations when we enter into social situations. These expectations are typically the result of lived experiences or (un)spoken rules set forth by some sort of social paradigm or setting (a classroom, someone else’s home, a place of worship, etc.). Our expectations are shaped by our moral and intellectual framework, which serves as a sort of script for our social narrative, providing boundaries and, to a certain extent, a sense of social order.
Even the best professional actors have (intentionally or unintentionally) gone off script at least once in their careers, causing others around them to react to this shift in the “order” of the scene. Likewise, as humans interacting with one another on a daily basis, at times we (willingly or unwillingly) go off script or disturb the expected social narrative. When this happens, even our most predictable counterparts have a way of surprising us with unexpected reactions.
These moments are simultaneously scary and liberating. They hold within them the power to disturb the social paradigm (whether profoundly or at a surface level). They force us to react differently, and sometimes to rewrite the script. They also open up the potential for change.
To some, the script provides comfort. To others, it is viewed as a restriction. In our society, when individuals go off script “too often” or for “too long,” they are labeled crazy. Likewise, a single bold unscripted statement can land an individual in the crazy camp forever.
Indeed, this is how most of us view the individuals who have supported the burning of the Koran. For compassionate and critical thinkers, this behavior (and the reaction of the media—I’ll get to that in a moment) is preposterous. Often, we view these types of actions and statements as existing totally off the script of human decency, an extremist “aside” if you will. Gail Collins’ article on the 5 Percent Doctrine unpacks this reaction quite well.
I’ve come to realize that though this type of behavior (and the underlying philosophies that inform it) seems like a radical form of improvisation to me, it is written into the script that many Americans have chosen to follow. When one is performing a script shaped by bigotry, hierarchical religious judgment, or ignorance, these “Koran burning” moments are not unscripted blips, they are an integral part of the narrative.
How are our scripts established? What elements play into our perceptions and expectations? These are incredibly complex questions, and not ones that can be answered in the confines of a short blog post. Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling:
1) Religion plays a large role in shaping personal narratives, frequently so much so that when others don’t meet certain moral expectations (or are simply part of a different faith), they are shunned or judged. Other followers of organized religion view their religious beliefs as a starting point for their script, but recognize the importance of taking into account other narratives, other ways of perceiving the world, and end up creating a more inclusive script (which leads to more realistic expectations). Moreover, the scripts of those who do not follow a specific religion are perhaps shaped by another philosophy, a humanistic or secular view of the world.
2) How much do we allow the media to shape our scripts? Jason Linkins does a wonderful job of describing how 3 unrelated events have become conflated in the minds of the American public as a result of irresponsible media coverage. Sure, the media reported flat out lies regarding the “mosque” near Ground Zero and the supposed meeting between the Koran burner and the Imam heading up the Park 51 project, but is it the media’s fault that this information creeps into our personal scripts and taints our views of reality?
Yes and no…mostly no. At the end of the day, we are responsible for writing our own scripts. Like a good playwright, we must do the research to make sure our scripts are accurate and that our expectations are at least founded in reality (whether or not they are met is an entirely different story, and depends on the scripts of those around us). Like a seasoned actor, we must allow ourselves the liberty to go off script from time to time, to try out new words and new ways of thinking. These unscripted moments can help us to re-evaluate the scene, and perhaps cause us to change our script altogether.
3) Parents and educators have an especially big job. Not only do their words inform the scripts of kids and students (perhaps more than they will ever know), they give them the skills to find the correct information and to continue building their own narratives as they grow into adults. It is for this reason that I am led to believe that this young man has some pretty wise adults in his life.
Whether they manifest in the form of David Mamet’s Realism or Eugene Ionesco’s Theater of the Absurd (or somewhere in between), our scripts our unmistakably ours. It is our responsibility (and hopefully our pleasure) to cultivate them, to edit them, and ultimately, to perform them…because the show must go on.