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Sunday 21 July 2019
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The dangers of a single story syndrome

As we were going to celebrate Africa Day, I wrote about the homogenization of Africa and dehumanization of Africans and referred to the fact that Africa suffers from what the renowned Nigerian award-winning novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, calls the danger of a single story syndrome.
Indeed, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2015, her work has been translated into more than 30 languages, and is the author of the novels “Purple Hibiscus,” which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; “Half of a Yellow Sun,” which won the Orange Prize; and “Americanah,” a 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award winner, which she finalized during a fellowship year at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her most recent book, “Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions,” was published in March 2017.
Recently, she called on graduating seniors to pursue the truth and use the power of their Harvard degrees to change the world at the College’s Class Day exercises on Wednesday 23 May 2018. On that occasion she said, “If I were asked the title of my address to you today, I would say ‘above all else, do not lie.’ Or, ‘don’t lie too often,’ which is really to say tell the truth.” But lying—the word, the idea, the act—has such political potency today that it somehow feels more apt. Adichie’s statements come in light of increasing skepticism about the value of the truth in the current political climate. She also argued for the importance of truth and balanced coverage in journalism.
Offering words of wisdom to graduating seniors she admitted she often procrastinates while working on novels. She said “Procrastinating is a form of fear and it is difficult to acknowledge fear, but the truth is that you cannot create anything of value without both self-doubt and self-belief. Without self-doubt, you become complacent. Without self-belief, you cannot succeed. You need both. The key lessons in her address are that there is a difference between a malice and mistake. We now live in a culture of calling out and outrage and we should call people out, we should be outraged but always remember context and never disregard intent.
At no time has it felt as urgent as now that we must protect and value the truth. Telling the truth does not mean that everything will work out, actually, it sometimes doesn’t. Don’t tell the truth because it will always work out but because you will sleep well at night and there is nothing more beautiful than to wake up every day holding in your hand the full measure of your integrity as the hardest truths are those we have to tell ourselves. It is hard to tell ourselves the truth about our failures, our fragility, and our uncertainties. It is hard to tell ourselves that; maybe, we haven’t done the best that we can. It is hard to tell ourselves the truth of our emotions that maybe what we feel is hurt rather than anger, that maybe it is time to close the chapter and walk away and yet when we do, we are the better off for it.
She also said we should make the human story the center of our understanding of the world. We should think of people as people, not as abstractions who have to conform to bloodless logic but as people, fragile, imperfect with pride that can be wounded and hearts that can touched. What Chimamanda Adichie hopes to follow are the first signs of crumbling of clichés and stereotypes.
Sometimes, telling the truth will be an act of courage, so we need to be courageous. We should never set out to provoke for the sake of provoking but never silence ourselves out of fear that the truth we speak might provoke. People can be remarkably resistant to the facts that they do not like but we should not let that silence us from speaking the truth. We should be courageous to acknowledge that even if there is no value in the position of the other side, there is value in knowing what that position is. So we must listen to the other side, at least, the reasonable other side.
We must be courageous enough to know those things that get in the way of telling the truth-the empty cleverness, the morally bankrupt irony, the desire to please, the tendency to confuse cynicism for sophistication. We must be courageous enough to know that life is messy. Our life will not always match our ideology. Sometimes, even our choices will not align with our ideology, and we should not justify and rationalize it but acknowledge it. We must be courageous enough to say, we don’t know. This might be hard but ignorance acknowledged is an opportunity, ignorance denied is a closed door and it takes courage to admit to the truth of what we do not know.
The danger of a single story syndrome is about what happens when complex human beings and situations are reduced to a single narrative. Her point is that each individual life contains a heterogeneous compilation of stories. If you reduce people to one, you’re taking away their humanity. What do you say to the story of a young Malian man who risks his life crossing the Mediterranean Sea but ends up saving the life of a little French kid? Talk about the irony of life, oh mon dieu, as the French would say!
We are all guilty of perpetuating stereotypes that create a single story, whether it’s intentional or not. In “Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda puts it best “Show people as one thing over and over again, and that’s what they become.” She warns that we risk a very critical and very cultural misunderstanding when we forget that everyone’s lives and identities are composed of many overlapping stories. “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” She said.
When we hear the same story over and over again, it becomes the only story we ever believe. And this stands especially true for the story of Africa. Too often do others hear this version—Africa, the poorest “country” in the world where only rural landscapes exist and where people live in terror amongst wild animals. Too often do others treat Africa as one narrative, one they have fostered over generations and generations, becoming so institutionalized that even those who graduated from universities will sometimes slip and refer to Africa as a country or their language as “African.”
This brings to mind a quote by American writer Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” We must learn to unlearn these perpetuated stereotypes in order to allow ourselves to see that there is more than this one narrative to Africa—to anything, really.
Adichie reminds us that we must not only seek diverse perspectives, we must also tell our own stories, ones that only we can tell about our own personal experiences. I can personally relate to her lessons as a father of twins or what I refer to as two nations, one right handed and the other left handed, one light in complexion and the other dark in complexion, one taller than the other. From this, as a teacher, I used to tell my students that there are two sides to the coin. Just as there is darkness, there must be light. Just as there is night, there must be day, as there is right, there must be left, as there is a man, there must be a woman, as there is joy there must be pain, as there are lies, there must be truth.
In a democracy, as there are the elected who win the elections there must also be a free and pluralistic media as there must be an opposition and divergent views. That is the beauty of democracy. There are no absolute truths as these depend on which side of the coin you are or which angle you look from. If it is winter in Africa, it is summer in the northern hemisphere and vice versa. If it is day light in the western hemisphere, it is dark in the eastern hemisphere. The fact of the matter is; you both stand on two diametrically opposite sides.
Chimamanda urges us to change the lies of the world, no matter how small. If we feel a sense of dissatisfaction about a status quo, we must nurture that dissatisfaction, be propelled by our dissatisfaction, act, get into the system and change the system. Tell new stories, champion new story tellers because the truth is that the universal does not belong to anyone group of people. Everybody’s story is potentially universal; it just needs to be told well.
Politics has always been prone to single storyism.  The stories have become identity markers. This is a phenomenon borrowed from campus political correctness. In order to express your solidarity with the virtuous team, you have to embrace the socially approved story. If you differ from the official story it is not so much a sign that you are wrong (truth is not the issue). It is a sign that you have false allegiances. You must embrace the approved story to show you are not complicit in a system of oppression.
We must change the media and make it about truth. Not about entertainment, not about profit-making, and fighting political, factional and ideological battles but about truth. As in life generally, every policy has the vices of its virtues. Aggressive policing cuts crime but increases brutality. Silencing the media will result in poor ratings on media freedom and instead of listening to the truth; we will end up listening to our cheerleaders and praise singers. There is no escape from trade-offs and tragic situations.
Let us agree to disagree and let the beauty of unity in diversity blossoms. As Chimamanda puts “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.” Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of my employer and this newspaper but solely reflect my personal views as a citizen.




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