The Danger of a Single Story
Last week, I noticed this Tweet from a local Christian celebrity:
“I like guns, sports, red meat, cage fighting and yelling. It’s called being a man. Deal with it Seattle.”
Honestly, it annoyed me. Why?
Because it’s a reduced, overly-simplified, single story of what being a real man is all about – and it implies that Seattle-area males fit into a different single story (they’re vegan pansies).
I resist this type of single story because I know it does not represent the whole truth. Not even for the guy tweeting it. I believe he also has a gentle, romantic, peaceful, kind, and compassionate side – that is just as fully “man” as his testosterone-laden self-description.
Here’s how I scored on the 5 things you’re supposed to like in order to be called a man:
2 of them, I definitely like.
1 of them, I sometimes like.
2 of them, I really don’t like at all. In fact, I avoid them.
If this yelling, fighting, red meat-eating, sports-playing, gun-toting, man-tweeter happened to see me walk into Nordstrom Rack sipping on a vanilla rooibos tea latte, what would I be called?
The thing is, stories are powerful. They reveal where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and who we are. And the more simple the story, the more it sticks.
But, unfortunately, when people and places are reduced to a single story, dignity is stripped away and they are painted as a caricature. Notice the definition of caricature:
“A picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.”
Interesting. The point of caricaturizing is to create a comic or grotesque effect – to make people laugh at or be disgusted with the caricature.
That’s what a single story does. It elevates the single-story teller, while diminishing the object of the single story.
Think about it. How often do we give a single story, a caricaturization, to…
People on food stamps
It’s super easy to do. Just go through the list, look for people you disagree with or dislike – and immediately you have that single story of them running through your mind…
“The rich are greedy.”
“People on food stamps are lazy.”
“Southern Baptists are angry.”
The single story serves to elevate the story-teller and diminish the object of the story. As Christians, this should never be our aim.
Paul wrote, “Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.” —Philippians 2.3, 4 NLT
I believe taking “an interest in others, too” requires a willingness to hear many stories, not just the single story about them.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has given a truly remarkable TED Talk on The Danger of a Single Story. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it.
In her talk, she describes the experience of leaving her home country of Nigeria to attend university in the United States:
“My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My 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.”
“I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place or person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of their dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” — Chimamanda Adichie
This is something we Christians must care about – engaging with all the stories of people – so that we are able to genuinely care for them as children of God, not caricatures in a dark, scary world.
I think our tendency to caricaturize others, giving them a single story, is rooted in fear, pride, self-preservation, and competitiveness. Let me be even more clear: I think it’s sin.
And when we resist this tendency, when we listen and learn, when we acknowledge we don’t have all the information, when we actually care – we become more like Jesus, who halted the stoning of the woman who had been given a single story (Adulterer) by her religious judges.
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” — Chimamanda Adichie
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
How have you been affected by the single story? When are you tempted to caricaturize and give a single story to people or places?
This is part 3 of a 3-part series on Better Stories. Check out yesterday’s “The Science of Why Stories are so Powerful,” and Tuesday’s “Stories With Mischief and Little Bits of Trouble.”
13 Comments to The Danger of a Single Story
I know I have done the same thing the author talks about- Having traveled to Africa I’ve seen some people in desperate situations. Now when I meet people from Africa I think of all the things they’ve (possibly) had to overcome to become an educated person living in America. Even though it’s rooted in wanting to be proud of people and to celebrate their successes- it probably is a discrimination and lumping everyone in the same socioeconomic status. I’m sure that just as in America, not all African people have the same resources or experiences. Stories like these are good Brian, because they help me think broader in the world and I really like that. Thanks!
I made a comment on another one of your blogs where I mentioned sin-specific sermons, and what you’ve said today helps me have a better understanding about why I might cringe listening to those types of sermons.
I think I might hate the sin-specific sermons because of their wild usage of single stories, and stereotypical characters who can personify the Sin. The “token” prostitute (adultery), the “token” high school student (disobedience to parents), the “token” Christian in their workplace (failing to share the Gospel), the “token” homeless wanderer (sloth, drug abuse, gluttony) … The characters are so one-dimensional.. They are like straw men who can be beat up and put down, and inaccurately portrayed just to make a point about why we shouldn’t be like them… And most of us aren’t even like them to begin with..
The single story infers that everyone who appears to do the same thing, must be doing it with the same motive, the same reasons. I don’t know why it has to be that way, because it doesn’t seem to be supported by the stories I hear from real people.
In my real life, ministering to homeless folks for example, I have been able to see how each person has a very long, unique, and complicated story.
They might differ from each other in what they value, and in how much they are able to live by their values at any given STAGE in their life- but they still have values.
They all share a common characteristic of being homeless, but they don’t have the same mind, heart, or beliefs.
Maybe a lot of them are on drugs, maybe some are simply ill, maybe they are destitute from a broken heart, perhaps they chose a street life over mainstream society for personal reasons, or maybe misfortune robbed them of the position they once held.. Despite their their visible similarity and “homeless” label, their is no single story which can accommodate all of their various experiences.
Yet, they are still viewed through the same lens, which truly does Deny them of their unique God-given history, and may exclude them from the dignity automatically given to someone in a different category, such as “Executive Director” “billionaire” or “home owner.”
I wonder how much of the things we think about ourselves, and how much of our feelings about our flaws & Sin’s, have been directly influenced by our willingness to believe that a single story could summarize our own unique history. Maybe we’ve never even begun to fit the label we wear. Maybe we are also misunderstood, and we are ministering to a world which we do not fully understand. Theres a lot more grey area than a single story can capture, and I wonder what stories I tell myself that allow me to judge people who I don’t Truly know or understand…. Lots of ways this concept applies to the real world, and lots to think about!!! Thank you PB!
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. (Quote by – F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Are Christians functioning? I see some weak knees and quick defenses. Are we scared to think outside the box?
Is integrity lost, or intelligence gained by discouraging believers from entertaining opposing ideas?
This is a fun one for me. On the vast majority of days you would think I just stepped out of a coffee shop where I was doing graphic design for a non-profit in Africa because I wear skinny, camp-colored jeans with a demin shirt buttoned to the top, thick-rimmed glasses and wing-tip boots.
What people don’t know is I’m a hick. A certified redneck. My wing-tips are steel toed because I drive a fork lift on a regular basis. I had an aunt that raised goats and I have helped those goats give birth and in the complicated births I have reached in and pulled them out. Most of the houses I grew up in had barns. We once lived on a chicken farm and we butchered chicken. We had a ’77 Chevy 3/4 ton truck affectionately named “Big Jake.” I learned how to drive when I was 11 so I could haul stuff around in that truck. 99% of the time, I’m packing a gun. I hunt and fish. I love living in a town where I can get stuck behind a tractor.
And I have a lot more stories than that…
I like to draw, in particular people. My favorite thing about drawing a person is try and make them look like them even if includes:
Gaps in Teeth
Pushed back hairlines
Because if I don’t record those unique elements ultimately the image does not even resemble them. I feel like this is similar to our personal stories, knowing the warts, wrinkles and blemishes makes the relationships more real and we then actually know each other, and that’s pretty awesome.
Oh wow, this type of comment like the tweet you quoted is something that really gets my blood boiling for some reason. I can’t count the number of times I see this type of thing on a facebook post or whatever and I get so angry because it really is often so over-generalized, disrespectful, and furthermore untrue to make a blanket statement about a group of people, or really any person for that matter…..we don’t really know them or their whole story, so why do we feel the need to make assumptions and judge people in this way? It makes me sad.
I keep seeing “1 comment” or “10 comments”, but then when I count the comments there are less than what it says at the top. Is that a website error or something?