Monday, 16 January 2017

The single story is not the whole story

Barbara Chapman              Sydney Morning Herald              January 11 2017

In 2009, Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered a TED talk called "The danger of the single story". It has been viewed more than 11 million times. "Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become," Chimamanda said. Irrespective of its accuracy, the single story becomes the definitive account of a person, group, country or continent simply through repetition. Plausible falsehoods become accepted as truth if repeated often enough.

Stories are immensely powerful – look at the longevity and sway of religions founded entirely on narratives. Power itself also determines how a story is told and what the broader agenda is. Truth may have little to do with it. An old African proverb encapsulates this power: "The hunter is glorified because the lion doesn't have a storyteller." Thus the single-story genre will always do great harm to the relatively voiceless while barely touching the powerful.

The single story can also reveal a great deal about the teller(s), often more than it reveals about the intended subject. Consider Faysal Ishak Ahmed, who was detained at Manus Island and died just before Christmas. Faysal was/is routinely described as an asylum seeker, which is now a loaded term. But he was much more than that. He was a son, husband, father and friend. All of those roles defined him and fleshed out his life far more accurately than the term "asylum seeker".

The single story stereotypes and truncates because it artificially narrows the frame of vision. It is particularly dangerous because of its power to over-simplify complex entities, from an individual person to an entire continent. I taught a large migrant English class of some 30 adults, with many strong personalities. The class was about 60 per cent male, mainly well-educated and of widely differing ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. The students had to elect a leader to represent them at management forums. The unanimous choice was "Mariam".*

Forthright, sincere, witty, strong, unassuming and intelligent, she represented her classmates with alacrity. Mariam took on a notoriously rude official and resolved the problem painlessly, with no hard feelings. A born leader, her management skills were second to none and would have been an asset to any business. Yet, she had no highfalutin CV. Limiting people like Mariam to the usual single story of young wife and mother, or refugee, shears off a wealth of human capital.

At what point can a person stop being a refugee and become a born leader? The former is temporary circumstance; the latter is innate talent, much needed by the society. My grandmother travelled the world by ocean liner in an era when – we are now told – all married women were shackled to domesticity. "But that's an exception," counters the teller of the single story.

Although individual lives are complex and multifaceted, they are constantly being homogenised into an all-A powerful but erroneous single narrative, depending on the viewpoint of opinion leaders. For women, especially, this leads to exceptional personal ability and achievement being frequently eclipsed. The public domain is peppered with terms such as bleeding heart, disgruntled employee, victimhood, loser and the gamut of political pejoratives. They are vectors of the single story, deeming those people not worth listening to and unworthy of being shown humanity, fairness and respect.

In the aftermath of World War II, Hannah Arendt wrote that moral imagination requires the broadest possible frames for decision-making, including dissenting opinion, to preserve a society's ethical standards and safety. We need to hear the voices that demur and to hear from individuals who are commentated on but never able to directly respond and put their point of view across.

As US writer Andrew Solomon said: "It is nearly impossible to hate anyone whose story you know." The single story, and the prejudicial impulses it taps, keeps alive forces of dehumanisation that have underwritten extraordinary cruelty throughout history. Yet, it occurs all around us, in the public domain, and social, work and other contexts. To counter such polarisation, we need stories that present the variety, depth and complexity of individual human beings throughout the public domain. This encourages empathy and understanding, even across deep philosophical divides. * Not her real name. [Abbrev.]

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