Interfaith Insight - 2022

Permanent link for "The danger of a single story in a complex world" by Doug Kindschi on September 6, 2022

We live in a world of stories.  We have family stories, national stories, religious stories. Alasdair MacIntyre, a political and moral philosopher, wrote, “Man is essentially a story-telling animal, but a teller of stories that aspire to truth.” Our religious traditions over the centuries have given us the stories that form our identity, bind us together, and help us aspire to truth.

The variety of our stories helps define who we are as complex human beings with multiple identities.  There is a danger when we think of others, especially those we see as different from us, as having a “single story” that defines them. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussed this topic for her TED talk "The Danger of a Single Story." It was recorded in 2009 and with over 31 million views is one of the most viewed TED talks of all time. You can view it at:

In her talk, Adichie tells of her childhood learning to read at home and beginning to write at age seven. The books available to her were British and American children’s books and so when she began writing her own stories, they were about what she had been reading. As she tells it, “All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.” But she lived in Nigeria where there was no snow, or apples, and they didn’t talk about the weather. Her world of reading was a single story transmitted by the books she had available.

When she discovered African books, she “realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature,” she says. “I started to write about things I recognized.” Literature was no longer a “single story.”

When her mother told her that their new house boy’s family was very poor, that was the only thing she knew about him and felt nothing but pity for him. Later when they visited his village and saw the beautifully patterned baskets that they made, Adiche was startled. She reflects, “All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”

When Adiche came to America for graduate study, her roommate asked how she learned to speak English so quickly and was shocked to learn that English was the official language of Nigeria. The roommate had felt sorry for her even before they met because she had a single story of Africa. “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.”

Adiche continued, “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 and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

In the interfaith context I see a similar situation when we let one story about Muslims as terrorists or one verse in the Qur’an define a whole faith community. Telling a single story is the essence of stereotyping and of discrimination. It leads to seeing and treating Native Americans as ignorant, Blacks as criminal, brown-skinned people as not American. It leads religious communities to see themselves as complex while others are seen through a single one-dimensional story.

As we truly seek to understand our fellow humans, let us engage the complexity of their stories and see the commonality of what we share in our mutual humanity, to help us aspire to truth.

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Posted on Permanent link for "The danger of a single story in a complex world" by Doug Kindschi on September 6, 2022.

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