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Danger of the Single Story

Consider the danger of the single story…

In 2009, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED Talk on the “danger of a single story.” It has become one of the most watched TED Talks in history with over 35 million views. Adichie grew up on the campus of a Nigerian University where her father was a professor and her mother a university administrator. At the age of 19 she moved to Philadelphia to study at Drexel University. She went on to study at Princeton and Radcliff and earned a master’s degree from Yale. In the TED Talk, Adichie described her introduction to her first roommate at Drexel. Her roommate wanted to know how she spoke such good English and was surprised to learn that English is the official language of Nigeria. The roommate wanted to hear some of Adichie’s ‘tribal music’ and was very disappointed when she produced a tape of Mariah Carey. The roommate was even surprised that Adichie knew how to use a stove. The roommate had a story in her head about Africa… a single story… in which Africa was a ‘country’ not a complex continent, a place of negatives, that was poor, defined by the ravages of AIDS, and in need of a white savior. That story missed the beautiful reality that is the life of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Adichie argues that a single story creates stereotypes that may not be untrue but are always incomplete. A single story flattens reality into a single dimension that often emphasizes how different we are rather than allowing for the exploration of similarities in the nuances of life. Those in power can use their power not just to tell another person’s story, but to make it the definitive story of that person. Thus, a single story can be used to rob a people of dignity. A single story can dispossess and malign. But Adichie argues that stories can also empower and humanize. Stories can repair dignity. Stories can enrich our human conversation, allowing us to see each other. As Christians, we understand the importance of the story, because we know the core of our faith through the stories of Scripture. We meet our Savior through His stories in Scripture. We understand our faith journey through learning the stories of those who have gone before us. Stories can be life-giving and graceful, or as Adichie describes, they can be used to destroy.

On January 19th, Jonathan Zimmerman wrote an Op Ed for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the danger of the single story. Perhaps you are a Zimmerman enthusiast, or perhaps you avoid his commentaries because of his politics. I find him thought provoking. In this particular op ed, he explored how political talking heads have tried to narrow the story in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Consider the story from each side… The Israeli narrative describes the triumphant birth of the new state of Israel in 1948 following the murder of six million Jews during the holocaust. The Palestinian narrative calls that same event the nakba- the catastrophe- that displaced over 700,000 Arabs living in Palestine from their homes and communities. The Israeli narrative describes the Six-Day War in 1967 as the heroic defeat of three Arab armies bent on Israel’s destruction. The Palestinian narrative calls that same moment in history the beginning of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli narrative points to Gaza’s election of Hamas in 2006 as their embrace of that terrorist organization. The Palestinian narrative tells of a poor people who voted for the promises Hamas made to Gazans- education for their children, food for their families, and work for their young men. Since 2007, when Hamas violently transformed a Parliamentary democracy into an autocratic state, the people of Gaza have had no say in their government, and no opportunity to change their government.

The single stories tell only a part, each offering the potential of essential truth to the whole story. In Israel-Palestine, both peoples have suffered deep trauma. Both have legitimate historic claim to the land. Both have the human right to dignity and selfdetermination. The complexity of the story makes the solution hard to find, but without considering the complexities, no just solution is possible. The same challenge faces so many other human concerns in our modern society- immigration, education, environment, economics, abortion. Our politicians do not want us to think about the nuances. They do not want us to see the face of the other. They offer us soundbites that advance their political agendas. In like manner, our news media offer their filtered view of the world served up in two minutes before the next commercial. In this environment of the single story, we must choose to think. Read from right to left. Flip the TV channels to hear the news from different perspectives. Challenge the simple narrative. Question the facts given. Check sources. Avoid conspiracy theories- they are rarely true (my own bias.) Talk to people who think differently than you- share your thoughts and then listen well to theirs. As Americans, we have a responsibility to be educated participants in this experiment called democracy. As Christians, we have a calling from God to care about the other no matter how different their story is from ours.

The only way to combat the danger of the single story is to welcome the whole story and trust the One who can transform even the most broken of stories. I love to tell His story! May we be instruments of His graceful healing in this world.

With you, digging deep to know more,
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