The Danger of a Single Story

Stories are critical to our understanding of ourselves and of the world. But stories are not TRUE. The world is chaotic and indifferent. Humans are contradictory and ever changing. Singular events like the migration of a humpback whale or a dance at senior prom or a parking ticket have no real meaning. In order to make sense of ourselves—where we’ve come from and where we’re going—we tell stories. 

Seeing that humpback whale off the coast of Cape Cod may reignite your love of marine biology. Wonderful Tonight may perpetually remind you of your first true love. That parking ticket may be just one of the myriad ways the universe lets you know “the man” is out to get you. This is storytelling, putting the events of our lives into context and using them to shape our identities. 

Some psychologists and anthropologists argue that storytelling is uniquely human, that it is, in fact, what makes us human. That theory may just be another story, but storytelling is certainly a strength. What is “Hamlet” or “the stock market” or “human rights.” You can’t feed a monkey the S&P 500, and yet it’s a critical part of our world. 

Stories, however, can also be dangerous. Stories are not reality. They are not TRUE. Stories simplify things, omit details, take a certain point of view. As psychologist Jerome Bruner said, “To tell a story is inescapably to take a moral stance.” In her Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” novelist Chimamanda Adichie explains the hazards of the stories we tell and the stories we omit. It is worth a listen. I’ll wait.

The danger of a single story is not merely that it limits our understanding of the world or that it limits what we think we are capable of. The biggest danger, I would argue, is that if we only hear one story, we start to think it is TRUE. 

In 2020, we are being asked to re-evaluate many of the stories we have been told for decades, in some cases centuries. These stories address race, gender, patriotism, service, loyalty, victimhood, history, bravery, citizenship, equality, essentiality, responsibility, heroism, and many more things. They address our very identities. Remember, stories, by their very nature, are critical to our understanding of ourselves and the world. This process won’t be comfortable. That’s okay. New stories bring us to a fuller, more colorful understanding of the world. New stories bring us closer to the TRUTH. 

I’d like to leave with this anecdote. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the United States was publicly, virulently white supremacist.

In part to thumb their noses at the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant (WASP) establishment, a Catholic fraternal organization took Christopher Columbus for their patron. By the late 19th century, Americans had been celebrating Columbus as a mythic hero for 100 years. The WASPs liked to tell a story of Christopher Columbus discovering America but conveniently ignored the fact that he was an Italian (Catholic) funded by Spaniards (Catholic). Italian, Irish and other Catholic immigrants wanted to remind WASPs that Catholics played a major role in creating the United States.

A century after the Knights of Columbus were formed, we may question their choice of patron. Here is Kurt Vonnegut’s reflection on Columbus from Breakfast of Champions in 1973:  

“As children we were taught to memorize [1492] with pride and joy as the year people began living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America. Actually, people had been living full and imaginative lives on the continent of North America for hundreds of years before that. 1492 was simply the year sea pirates began to rob, cheat, and kill them.”

What’s the TRUTH? Well, all of it. The world is chaotic. It is not simple and neat. It’s natural for us to associate these stories with our identities. To think that an attack on Columbus is an attack on our selves. But it’s not. It’s just a new perspective. It moves us to a fuller and more interesting understanding of the world. It moves us away from the dangerous, myopic belief in a single story. 

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