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. 

O.M.G.

I’ve been busy. You might think that being stuck at home for two months would give me free time to blog. Not so.

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Actual photo of me working, yesterday.

In addition to teaching and learning and writing a novel, I helped organize the website launch of Drexel University’s MFA in Creative Writing program literary journal.

www.drexelpaperdragon.com

Check it out! Submit some of your work!

You can also follow us on Twitter @drexpaperdragon

Between all of that and some pandemic everyone keeps talking about, I haven’t really had time to advance my presidential campaign. You may think this is the point where I officially withdraw, but if you read my previous post… I was never officially running. I guess my point is, you won’t hear my stump speech any time in the near future.

Hopefully, we return to normal (or better) in the near future. In the meantime, I’ll see you online.

2020 Presidential Election

Today, I am officially announcing an exploratory committee to run for the president of the United States in 2020. Is this a joke? No. What’s up with the exploratory committee? I’ll get to that.

As children, we were all told that we could be anything when we grew up, even the president of the United States. This year, I suppose I am a grown up, at least according to the constitution. I am now 35, which is the minimum age you must be in order to become president of the United States. As a citizen, I think it is important to participate in the political process and part of that participation is understanding how the process actually works.

In order for you to “officially” be a candidate for president, or any other office for that matter, you need to meet various requirements. In the case of president, you must raise or spend $5,000 on your campaign. Then you have ten days to file a “Form 2” with the Federal Elections Commission and appoint a campaign committee including a treasurer.

Although it’s a fairly low bar, it is the first of several safeguards from “prank” candidates. It also makes anyone who does not have $5,000 to throw around seriously consider whether this is worth it. That is the first reason for forming an “exploratory committee” rather than “officially” filing to run.

“Ballot access” or actually having your name appear on the ballot for an election is the next hurdle. It varies by state, in some cases by county, and differs between the primary and the  general election. Generally speaking, you can either be appointed your party’s official candidate (however there are limits to what parties appear on a ticket) or you can collect a certain number of signatures. In the case of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, if you belong to one of the major political parties, you need 2,000 signatures from voters registered with that party. If you are not running under a major party, you “must obtain signatures from qualified registered electors of the district in an amount equal to at least 2% of the largest entire vote cast for an elected candidate at the last election within the district.”

Due to the fact that I am currently working 2 jobs and am a grad student, my wife has advised me not to run. However, these initial stages of the exploratory process have already been informative, and I am curious to hear more from readers about their experiences with political campaigns.

I would also like to reassert that I meet the base requirements to be president of the United States. I am a natural born United States citizen. I am 35. And I have lived her for at least the last 14 years. I may not be the most qualified person for the job, but I am certainly not the least. If my “official” candidacy does not pan out, you can always consider me for a write in.

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The Contemporary Samaritan

This Sunday’s gospel reading comes from Luke, chapter 10, verses 23-37. It’s a very well known story, commonly referred to as the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” It contains a powerful, difficult message to help your neighbor, whoever that person may be. Even if you don’t know them. Even if you don’t like them.

Jesus was a storyteller. He could have just said, “Try to be nice to everyone,” but that’s not exactly what came out. Instead he offered a powerful example of how to be nice, what extent you ought to go to, and who frequently falls short. It’s actually an uncomfortable, divisive message. Remember, Jesus was a revolutionary. He wasn’t put to death for telling people to be nice. But somehow I feel that we lost the real power of his message over the millennia.

So on this weekend, when our president is trying to deport as many undocumented immigrants as possible, I thought it might be a good idea to revisit Luke’s gospel with a more contemporary interpretation.

The Contemporary Samaritan

“There was once an entrepreneur and veteran who ran a small coffee shop in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Everyone agreed it was a sound business investment and would  really help increase property values while providing jobs for local residents. One night, after working twenty-three hours straight, he momentarily let his guard down while taking out the trash. Robbers jumped him and forced him to empty the safe at gunpoint.  They beat him up so he couldn’t call for help and left him for dead on the sidewalk.

It so happened that a politician was on his way from a fundraising event in a motorcade with several members of the press. They passed the man lying on the street and one of the reporters asked what the country should do about it. The politician said this was exactly why he promoted a tough-on-crime domestic policy, which he would enact right after the next election. He offered his thoughts and prayers to everyone suffering from the lawlessness that had been enabled by the lax policies of his political rivals. Even though there were six dozen people in the motorcade, no one from the press or the politician’s personal staff stopped to see if the man was okay.

A short while later, a red-blooded, God-fearing American came down the street. He had voted for Hillary in the last election. He didn’t really like the Clintons, but he really didn’t like Trump. He didn’t think his vote mattered anyway. That’s why he didn’t vote in the midterms and never bothered to research who was running for county commissioner or D.A. He saw the man on the sidewalk and briefly thought about giving him some money. He looked like he was in bad shape. But the man would probably just use it on drugs, and his cousin (who had a thing for painkillers) already owed him seven hundred bucks. Hadn’t he given enough to people who couldn’t get their shit together? Besides, he wrote a check to the food bank for $100 every year at tax time.

Shortly after passing the badly beaten entrepreneur, the man thought he should probably call the cops, but then it occurred to him that the cops might want him to stay, and he’d had a long day and really needed a beer. So he kept walking.

At last, a Mexican who had overstayed his work visa came upon the man. The Mexican felt bad because he used to be in a gang, and had bloodied a few people up over the years. He was trying to make up for it, so he decided to stop and help. He gave the man first aid and took him to a hospital. At the hospital, he left his contact information in case man or the police needed to get ahold of him, even though the Mexican realized that if they really wanted, the police would be able to track him down and deport him. After that, the Mexican, even though he had a degree in civil engineering and had spent the last ten hours driving for Uber, went to work his second job as a dishwasher.

And Jesus concluded, ‘I really tried to spell this out for you.'”