Global Independent Analytics
Danny Orbach
Danny Orbach

Location: USA

Specialization: Modern Japanese History, Modern Chinese History, Military History, History of Counterinsurgency, History of Disobedience, Dynamics of Atrocities in Wartime

The Dangers of the Single Story

In a popular Ted talk, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi elaborated on what she called “the danger of the single story”. How can we use Ngozi’s insights to look beyond formulaic “morals”, and glimpse upon reality’s multiple stories?

In an interesting Ted talk, The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi described some of the difficulties she experienced during her student days in the United States. More than anything else, she found it hard to bear the one-sided perceptions of many Americans of Africa in general, and of her homeland in particular. As far as many of her classmates were concerned, there was no real difference between Nigeria, Ghana, and Somalia, as they all belonged to the same “black space” of famine, civil wars and epidemics. In her first days at the college’s residence halls, Ngozi’s roommate asked her to play “her tribal music.” How could the young Nigerian open the eyes of her roommate to the lively, rich scene of Nigerian contemporary music? How could she explain to her that Nigeria is very different, in both culture and music, from the primitive Savanah she imagined?

And yet, Ngozi’s criticism significantly differed from the usual politically-correct complaints of those who decry any “Western gaze” (let alone criticism) on Africa and Africans as pure racism. By contrast, the Nigerian author emphasized that the common Western image of Africa – war, epidemics, famine and ethnic strife, is not false, but simply partial. These ills are part of African reality, but only one part. Nigeria suffers from terror, poverty and war, but it also has a lively culture and modern urban life. The dangerous tendency to reduce reality into a “single story” is far from being exclusively Western. Ngozi, with surprising honesty, admits that she has made the same mistake repeatedly. In her early childhood attempts at writing, she was still too influenced by British literature, thus producing characters who were all blond, blue-eyed and avid drinkers of ginger beer – a beverage she has never tasted. Only when she began to read African literature, her writing became more diversified. The stories of Western literature never disappeared, but co-existed with other stories.

That was not the only instance when Ngozi was oblivious to anything beyond the single story of the moment. In her childhood home - a typical Nigerian upper-middle-class family - there was a young servant of an extremely poor background. For years, Ngozi’s mother forced her to finish all the food on the plate, because “you have to appreciate what you have. The family of our boy has nothing!” One day, when Ngozi visited the servant’s family, she was astounded to see amazingly beautiful Nigerian baskets, hand-made. Beforehand, she could not imagine to herself that residents of such a poor village can actually create something. In this case, poverty was the single story that Ngozi told herself. Obviously, it was there, but the boy’s village had many other stories to tell. The reality is almost always multi-faceted.

As Chimamanda Ngozi said, telling a single story, and only a single story, is a very dangerous thing to do. Her insights are invaluable. Most of all, they can teach us how to steer clear of dubious pundits. As every informed reader knows, several questions have to be asked when weighting in the relative merits and demerits of journalists, analysts and bloggers of all kinds. Is the author well-versed in the field she is writing about? Was she caught lying in the past? Does she have a political bias or a personal stake in the issue? What’s her general level of credibility? All of these questions are valid, and crucial. However, Ngozi offers an additional criterion for evaluation: even if a given analyst is a reliable and honest expert, you should ask yourselves whether she tells only a single story.

Howard Zinn’s books on American history, for example, can be summed up to forming a single story: predatory American imperialists, full of hate and greed, encroaching on their citizens and a host of victimized countries. There is some truth in this story, but is it the only possible one? At the same time, it is possible to tell a story about a democratic country, undergoing a process of self-improvement through civil right struggles while holding the beacon of liberty in a world full of totalitarian powers. And of course, there are many stories in between. For the Israeli pro-Palestinian journalist Gideon Levi, the story of the occupation in the West Bank is a story of Israeli tyrants and Palestinian victims. There is some merit in this story a well, but it lacks reference to the parallel stories at hand, such as the return of Israelis to the land of the Bible, their legitimate security fears, and the part Palestinians themselves played in the perpetuation of this abhorrent situation.  Socialist authors tell a story, also partially true, on greedy bankers and tycoons preying on honest citizens – but there’s also another story about capitalism as a system that rescued hundreds of millions from poverty worldwide. 

It is important to emphasize that not all stories are equal, and observers do not have to reach the lazy conclusion that “we agree to disagree”, or that “you have your truth, and I have mine.” It is absolutely okay, even laudable, to take a stand and fight for it. But a good writer will always present her readers with an account that contains more than a single story. In such a case, readers get a multi-faceted picture and can draw conclusions of their own. Paradoxically, telling multi-faceted stories can help partisan writers in their political quests, as it increases their reliability with the readers and keeps them away from a monotonous, boring parroting of formulaic views.

How can you know that a writer is feeding you with a single story? I recommend a relatively simple test. If the writer belongs, for example, to the pro-Palestinian left, ask yourself what will he do if the facts refuse to straighten out according to his narrative. If he finds out in his research that the Israeli Army was right, occasionally or even rarely, will he share it with his readers? Can we expect an anti-Israelite like Mondoweiss to publish a convincing, fact-based article that justifies Israel? Will Commentary publish progressive articles? Would libertarians agree to admit that in certain cases and circumstances governmental interference in the economy can actually be beneficial?  Will partisans of a certain political candidate, let’s say Bernie Sanders, agree to admit that sometimes he is wrong, or will they defend him unconditionally? When an author, or a media outlet, gives you the same narrative regardless of circumstances, that’s the right time to become suspicious. Much of the poisoned nature of contemporary politics, and the reluctance to seriously listen to any opinion different from one’s own, are symptoms of the “single story” malady. Keep therefore clear of principled writers, who never strayed from a particular political line for the last three decades. Look instead for original thinkers, those who may surprise you each and every time with a new story and with a fresh point of view. 

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