Nine years ago novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave what remains one of the most viewed TED talks of all time. Her topic was the danger of a single story. The single story refers to a dominant narrative we tell about a group of people or a place. Using examples from her own life and in popular culture, the talk it is both comic and tragic, simple and profound.
Most likely, each of us has fallen victim to promulgating the single story. It is not, a left/right phenomenon, but a human one.
As a test, have you ever used a phrase that followed this construction?
(A group of people or a place) is/are ________. Topical examples might include:
- Trump voters are _____.
- Politicians are _______.
- Immigrants are _______.
- The Middle East is _______.
- The media is _______
- Russia is _____.
- America/Americans are _____.
- The 1% are _____.
- Poor people are ______.
Chances are if you consciously or subconsciously filled in any of those blanks with just a few words, you’re telling a single story.
If these phrases contain an air of familiarity it is because the “single story”, despite Adichie’s warnings, seems to dominate our culture now more than ever.
In our news, politics, music, movements, social media, art, dinner conversations, it has become easier to tell “the single story” than embrace the idea put forth by the poet Walt Whitman – “Very well then, I contradict myself, I contain multitudes.”
And therein lies the issue with “the single story.” As Adichie says, “it is not that stereotypes are wrong, it is that they are incomplete.”
When we tell the single story, we flatten the lives and experiences of entire peoples and places. In making them easier to digest, they lose their rich taste and texture. In this flattening, we lose opportunities to see the connections between these stories and our own.
The next time you catch yourself telling a single story or hearing one – I hope you pause and question it. Perhaps instead searching for the multitudes and connections it contains.