The danger of a single story

This TEDGlobal video is one of the most poignant talks I’ve ever viewed. It is by Chimamanda Adichie, an African novelist, who shares some experiences of how encountering a single story of a person, people or country framed the way she viewed them.

Her point is that being exposed to a single story is very dangerous, and that we’ve got to open ourselves up to “balanced stories” in order to really get a grasp on the world around us.

If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with “secondly”. Start the story with the arrows of the Native American Indians and not with the arrival of the British and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African states and not with the colonial creation of the African State and you have an entirely different story.

As I have written before, the heart of narrative therapy is about helping a client identify the “dominant story” they have of their own life, and to create awareness of the “alternative stories” that are present and, if given some prominence, open a doorway to healing and intentional living.

Again, Adichie resonates with this:

Power is not only the ability to tell a single story about a person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.

The single story creates stereotypes. The problem with single stories is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

The power of the single story is it’s ability to deceive. But I also believe the danger of buying into a single story of a person, an organisation, an idea or a country is that it limits the range of possibilities we see on the horizon.

Nassim Taleb, in his book The Black Swan, is well known for his critique of narrative. The problem of narrative, for Taleb, is how it distracts us from seeing the range of possibilities out there … and hence when an event takes place that was outside of the realm of possibility allowed by a particular narrative, it has catastrophic results.

I heard an American say shortly after 9-11 that he did not believe it was possible for the US to be attacked on home soil.

If this belief was widespread, which I suspect it was, it had developed over time into what Adichie would call a “single story”. Taleb would call it a “narrative”. Others may call is a discourse. What ever it was, it allowed people to buy into a dominant view point that left the possible alternatives at bay.

A client recently challenged Sonja and I about our use of narrative in light of Taleb’s critique. I really do agree with Taleb – he highlights the danger of single stories, much the same as Adichie does.

Rather, our viewpoint is around the power of mass narrative. A single story is limiting in seeing the possibilities out there, but capturing mass narrative opens up our eyes to what is possible, especially from a scenario planning perspective.

The issue for me is how we choose to expose ourselves to stories.

We can live life absorbing the stories our families tell us, that the media presents us with, or we can choose to intentionally scan for more “balanced” stories.

In the end, it is up to our own choice to scan for stories that balance out the single stories we get faced with. The down side is that it is much more of a cognitive and emotional load listening to alternative stories. Sadly, it is much easier to buy into a single story of an organisation, a person or an ethnicity.

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