The danger of the single story



A big theme in my thread on storytelling, and a premise of my forthcoming book, is that certain stories are universal and timeless–or, as Carl Jung might say, archetypal.

But as with everything, there is a way to misunderstand that insight. Yes, there are elements that are common to Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, to the Grimm stories and to Heidi–elements such as a hero who goes on a quest and meets a wise old man and so forth….

But that does not mean that one single story can summarize a life, a person, a place or a country. The opposite is the case. There must be an infinite number of stories, even if they all have something in common.

The attractive Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a great TED talk (below) about exactly this. As a girl in Nigeria she read and loved British and American books and stories and began to write stories herself at the age of 7. But her stories were about … white, blue-eyed girls who played in the snow and ate apples and talked about the weather and whether it might turn nice. Even though she had never left Nigeria!

She eventually realized

how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.

Stories had overpowered her own perception of the world. She assumed that stories could not be about brown people eating mangoes in the sun but had to be about white people eating apples in the rain.

Emancipation occurred when she realized that

people like me … could also exist in literature

But that was only the beginning. She understood that many people have only one single story about Africa (= catastrophe), and that she did not fit into that story. She realized that she herself had only one story about Mexico (= illegal immigrants) which proved woefully inadequate. She realized that some people, such as her American college roommate, had only a single story about her, Adichie from Nigeria (= exotic tribal woman), and that she herself simultaneously had only one single story about her own family servant (= pitiful poor boy), which also proved incomplete. She understood that

power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person but to make it the definitive story of that person,

and that

the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete… It robs people of their dignity.

So consider this a refinement of my views on storytelling. We must be open to many, many, many stories even as we see the common, universal humanity that runs through all of them. Now take 18 minutes and watch:

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5 thoughts on “The danger of the single story

  1. To bring about an America (or any other Anglo-Saxon, English-speaking society), whose denizens see the many stories of those in societies not American or other English-speaking Anglo-Saxon, you would have to change the educational system, particularly the Literature and History syllabuses (syllabi?) from that which produces “nativists” or “patriots”, to that which produces “cosmopolitans”.

    Thus “foreign” literature would comprise half or more of the literature which high-schoolers study. And in History they would, in addition to European and American history, be required to study at least the history of China, and of India, and of the world-wide Islamic empire (which was big in the times we quaintly call “Dark Ages”).

    The current Eurocentric education reflects the political reality of the past three hundred years, which lasted until relatively recently, when it was Europe, and immediately after it, America, which lorded it over the world.

    Since this is no longer quite the case, the Literaure and History which Americans learn, must change, so to reflect the new multi-cultural, multi-polar world.

    Cosmopolitanism must become the only game in town!!

    • I don’t know what the hell happened with the italics.

      It was only the “ least…” bit, before “the history of China……” which I intended to italicise.

      This’ll teach me not to be too clever by half, by engaging in the sophistry of trying to use italics on WordPress.

    • Well, the libertarian in me objects to the prescriptive quota: ““foreign” literature would comprise half or more of the literature which high-schoolers study…”

      But the cosmopolitan in me has lived that way all along, and my kids don’t even have a “foreign” or “native” as such.

  2. “……..the libertarian in me objects to the prescriptive quota……..”

    Does this mean that the libertarian in you objects to anything prescriptive in the education of high-schoolers? If so, you would object if a high-schooler is required to study maths, or Shakespeare, or American history, or any other subject deemed desirable for the high-schooler’s own educational good.

    Since many families in North America, particularly in small rural towns, are not privileged to live in cosmopolitan surroundings, prescriptive quotas of foreign literature for the children of these small towns to study, would arguably be for their long-term good if a cosmopolitan education is considered by the majority of North Americans to be a desirable end.

  3. As it happens, I am currently researching, among other things, a school in Arizona that does it right. So I’ve been talking to them and, for the first time ever, formulated TENTATIVE thoughts on education.

    To answer your question: Yes, the libertarian in me is sceptical that we need laws telling schools what to teach. That is not the same as objecting to standards–in American, for example, the Advanced Placement exams. Standards are fine.

    If you give schools latitude, they can offer anything they like. If they’re good at their job, the kids will learn how to learn and will excel even at standardized test. How they arrived at their knowledge–whether with two modules on Shakespeare and one on Goethe or two on Goethe and one on Shakespeare– does not matter.

    The quota path is dangerous: before you know it we have the usual suspects arguing over whether “gender studies” should get 40% or 90% of the syllabus, whether Namibian literature should be upped to 15% even though we can only find, say, 13.2% worth of Nambian literature worth teaching in Spokane, and so forth.

    Great passionate teachers qualified in their subject can make that decision just fine.

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