The Danger of a Single Story

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by Rebecca Koerselman

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Inigo Montoya to Vizzini on his use of the word “inconceivable” in the film, The Princess Bride.

I typically use this line in the classroom when I discuss terms such as “communism” or “socialism” because so often I hear them used in ways that demonstrate the speaker does not fully understand what those words mean. Or, the speaker is only interested in using the term in a singular way, without any thought to nuance, complexity, or historical context.

In the past week, I have noticed too many people who use terms and discuss ideas and people in a singular way. It seems similar to what novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger of a Single Story.”Koerselman 22

Adichie explains that the creation of a single story, “shows a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” Adichie, a Nigerian, realized the power of a single story when she came to college in the United States. People often remarked that Africa was a country instead of a continent. Africa was full of beautiful animals, people fighting senseless wars, and dying of poverty and AIDS. Africa was waiting to be saved by kind, white foreigners. Adichie described the contrast between the single story of Africa and the multiplicity of stories of America. She read Tyler, Updike, Steinbeck, and Gaitskill and all of them represented a different story of America.

According to Adichie, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” She goes on to outline the problem with single stories: “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.” Is Africa a continent with travesty and travails? Yes. But there are other stories, not about catastrophe, and we need to talk about those stories too, says Adichie.

Thankfully, not everyone champions the single story. I read a thoughtful blogpost by Nate Pyle about the ways that fear can cause us to deny Jesus. I read a post by Scott Hoezee here on The Twelve referencing Sonia Nazario’s op-ed in the New York Times about the plight of refugees fleeing violence. There are a number of thoughtful people who complicate the single story. Unfortunately, there are not enough of them, especially in mainstream American culture and news.

What if we read stories about the billion-plus Muslims who love and respect their neighbors and live in peace with them?
What if we read stories about how so few Muslims are terrorists in comparison with the billion-plus peace-loving Muslims?
What if we heard the stories of the vast majority of Syrian refugees who are peaceful Muslims?
What if we read the stories of Syrians that are dying in the midst of their civil war because they cannot escape?
What if we heard stories about peaceful Middle Eastern countries?
What if we read the stories of refugees who are fleeing violence and civil war in order to protect their families?
What if we read stories of Mexicans who left the US because they objected to the materialism and secularism of American culture?
What if we heard stories of Republicans and Democrats that worked well together, respected each other and worked hard to find common ground?
What if we read stories of Europeans and Americans that welcomed refugees with open arms and lived in community together?
What if we heard stories of peaceful coexistence?
What if we read stories of interfaith dialogue where people who fundamentally disagreed about many things still loved and respected each other?
What if we heard stories about Christians who quietly lived out their faith by loving God and others without any interest in publicity or some sort of political agenda?

Adichie ended her TED Talk about the danger of a single story with these powerful words: “when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

I wonder. What does this regained paradise look like for you? For Christians? For our nation? For our world?

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.

Comments 2

  1. Thanks, Doug! We used Adichie in FYS this year and I cannot shake this idea of a single story, especially in the discipline of history.

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