We Only See the Story We Want to See

I’m writing this to the pedestrian who took the photo of my license plate.

I am disappointed in you. You made assumptions, framed me, and if this were a situation that mattered, you could have done great harm to an innocent person.

If you had taken a few seconds and made the effort to collect data and inquire into the series of events that occurred before you walked in and out of a still snapshot of a scene – you would have found your indignation completely misplaced. If you had simply asked a question, you would have learned that the car in front of me committed a traffic violation, which forced me, and the rest of the people in the intersection, into a dangerous situation. If you looked at the physical evidence you walked into for more than just the details that fit the story you wanted to see, you would have observed physical data that would have placed your initial assumed storyline into question, which should have triggered the thought that perhaps you are not currently privy to all of the data, and therefore that perhaps you should consider potential alternative storylines of how the situation unfolded to the moment where you entered the scene.

Maybe, pedestrian, you have never been in a situation where your assumed storyline proved to be so inaccurate that it made you conscientiously wary of the first assumptions that pop into your head. I once witnessed, more audibly than visually, physical violence and verbal threats of more. I made an assumption that did prove to be accurate, that there may even be guns around. The rest of us around the violence, all strangers, were zipped up in our tents. Fearing for my, my brother’s and his girlfriend’s safety, I reported the violent incident and threats to the national park camp host. Both parties (a family and a couple) had left the scene but the campfire was still going, tent up, trailer still parked; the involved parties were very likely going to return. The rangers came. They confiscated a gun from the couple that returned to the site. The rangers went around trying to collect stories from witnesses. My assumption of domestic violence was completely wrong (at least by the account the victim gave the rangers). The family that left and did not return had a father in it, and it was that man who had struck and threatened more to the woman in the couple. I often tend to pick up more details of a situation than those I am with, yet it was in this moment that I personally learned the limitations of my own abilities to witness and assess when my personal observation or interaction with a context is severely reduced in scope. I saw how easy the path is towards faulty assumptions and getting a storyline completely wrong. It was this incident that disturbingly showed me the damage my assumptions could create for others, particularly innocent others.

Pedestrian, if this were an incident that mattered – let us say you came in late to a murder scene, it is all over and you just see the aftermath – your assumptions and statements, if like what I observed of you here, could do great harm to the innocent. You witnessed the final scene, not the story.

My request of you is this: Collect data. Thoughtfully analyze that data. From that data analysis, generate different potential storylines that could all have led to the scene you briefly walked through. You will find this exercise points to how much is unknown to us. Yes, it takes effort to do this. It takes time. It may take acknowledging you were wrong in your thought process. But at least you would be closer to a more accurate story.

My question for you is: are you willing to see a story you do not want to see? That takes more courage than whipping out your iPhone to frame someone in a photo filled with faulty assumptions.