When I was a boy preparing to enter high school, there was a story circulating in my neighborhood about a young man who was attending my school. The young man was described as mean and strong, acting old and evil beyond his years. Part of the story described how the young man had killed a neighborhood cat by trapping it inside a propane barbecue grill (use your imagination to fill in the gory details).
The story had a deep and long-lasting effect on me. I did not know the young man in the story well at all, but when I encountered him in the school halls or classrooms, I felt fear and did everything could to avoid him. I may have even perpetuated the story to others.
In subsequent years, however, I heard other stories about the young man, now an adult. The new stories portrayed him in a different light. He had a more complicated existence. In recent years, I have come to know more about him. He is actively engaged in his community and his church and he is a devoted husband and father. He is a bit overweight, mostly bald and has some health problems. He is, by all accounts, a decent human being.
I have come to learn that the first story I heard about him, while it had elements of truth, was, for the most part, a fabrication of the original storyteller. By listening to a single story, I made certain assumptions about a fellow human being and denied myself a connection with him.
A Nigerian author by the name of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has spoken about “The Danger of a Single Story.” In a TED talk by that name she describes how Africa and its various peoples have been stereotyped by a single story.
She states that she believes this single story about Africa comes from Western literature and portrays Africa as “a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
Adichie explains that she had not originally considered herself “an African” per se (i.e. she viewed herself as a Nigerian), but describes how she has been viewed by others as such, and that her American acquaintances had felt sorry for her, explaining that their “default position toward her, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity.”
For example, she explains that when she enrolled in an American university, her “roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”
In truth, this author explains, Africa is a complicated and multi-faceted place, filled with people from many different countries, all with complicated and varied backgrounds, each having their own set of stories.
Adichie referenced other examples of people with less power (e.g. the American Indians and the Palestinians), each being classified and stereotyped through single stories told by those who have positions of greater power. The storytellers “create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.”
One of her conclusions is that stories matter.
“Many stories matter,” she said. “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” Accordingly, she suggests that we should avoid the dangers of a single story, and realize that each of us is a compilation of a multitude of stories that allow us to be part of humanity.
I have appreciated reviewing the presentation about the dangers of a single story as it caused me to reflect upon my own narrow-minded stereotyping.
A similar reflection and accompanying plea was made by author David Brooks, of the New York Times, in his April 2016 column entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” In that column, he referenced Adichie’s TED talk and suggested that “American politics has always been prone to single storyism – candidates reducing complex issues to simple fables.”
Brooks suggests that as we approach this election season we seek to elect people who are capable of holding opposing stories in their heads at the same time, and to reject those who can’t.
Unfortunately, political candidates are not the only ones prone to the dangers of single storyism.
Like my own inability to look past the power of a single story in judging my high school classmate, too often we take rigid stances on issues and pass judgment on people (and politicians) based on too little information. Brooks is correct in that election season provides the best time to observe one-sided storytelling – debates and even elections are won and lost based on the people’s narrow-minded observations of a single story.
Not all of us have time to research every side of every issue, but as candidates begin to address the public in debates and other forums, I invite you to join me in looking past the danger of a single story and delve deeper into the issues and the candidates themselves.
The process of piecing these particular stories together may prove challenging (it just so happens that politicians, in particular, can be downright confusing to figure out), but like many good, complicated stories, this election will take time, effort, and perhaps more than a few snack and bathroom breaks to stop and think before the picture becomes more clear.