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Single Stories and Blind Spots

May 27, 2011

Have you ever written someone off based solely on their appearances or your first impressions? Giving them no second chance for the benefit of the doubt? No logic, no arguments, no facts. Your decision based on nothing else but preconceived notions.

There's more than a single story
One story is not the only story

Personally, I’ve experienced people pigeon-hole me a scatterbrain; to only later be stunned by my methodical approach and the coherent results of my work. At which point I’d habitually quip “I’m schizophrenic. In real life I may be ‘Kaos personified’, yet when it comes to analysing content and creating concepts… Hey, what can I say…?”

Makes you wonder all the same, why is it we tend to look at people with blinkers on.

Professor Olga Kovbasyuk recently wrote this beautiful article on Dialogue as a means to change education. Kovbasyuk argues that when we exchange ideas, we tend to have monologues, instead of actually interacting with the other person.

Her discourse centres on the effect of dialogue in education. “The world could have escaped many troubles had people learned the art of true dialogue.” While making a strong case for dialogue, she cites Mikhail Bakhtin: “True dialogue requires developing ‘efforts towards others’, and consequently facilitates meaningful interaction between people and cultures.”

Paraphrasing Bakhtin: “we can achieve so much together, if only we make an effort to listen.”

The danger of the single story

Like Kovbasyuk, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie also takes on the way we relate in dialogue. She does so in what she calls “the dangers of a single story.” In her TED Talk she construes ‘single stories’ as preset ideas and she speaks of how “impressionable” we are to these ideas. She shares her single stories; her own prejudices and those she encounters.

Adichie quotes the writings of John Locke, who describes Africans as “people without heads, having their eyes and mouths in their breasts.” Though she dismisses this as comical, she also recognises it as the onset of how the West looks at Africa. A place of negatives, of darkness, of people who are half devil, half child.

The detrimental power and danger of the single story is, according to Adichie, that it creates stereotypes. “And the problem with stereotypes isn’t that they’re untrue, but that they’re incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The global natives and open-minds

For some time now, I’ve had my hopes set on the new generation growing up in multicultural societies and the digital village, we call Internet. With the help of social media, they uninhibitedly explore ‘other worlds’. And for a while, it seemed like they knew more than my generation did. They also seemed very comfortable with the differences of mixed cultures. That was until the poison and short sighted single stories of my generation kicked in with the crumbling of economic securities.

I’m saddened to see young people who first embraced the possibilities of global societies, now becoming more and more introverted. But I haven’t lost all hope. I still rely on the power of social media and the open-minds of global natives. And I believe that with every person who shouts out a single story; there are ten others who will direct us to ‘the complete story’.

Here’s one example of building a complete story. It’s a BBC News footage showing a different side of Africa. An entrepreneurial and independent strong Africa:

Vodpod videos no longer available.


The single story is everywhere

Know that the single story isn’t only Africa. It’s our narrow views of Muslims, of Germans, of Poles, of the Greeks. It’s how we prejudicially look at our neighbours, look at strangers or maybe even our friends or our next of kin.

As a natural-born optimist, I’m convinced though that most of us do want to engage in real dialogue. But like Adichie says, we’re impressionable. So once in a while we’ll need a nudge to help us wipe away our blind spots. And, as long as we nudge each other and collectively make an effort to always seek the complete story; I think we’ll be okay.

So, what are your personal experiences with single stories? And how do you think we can break through our blind spots?

(Source image used: Andrea)

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