Monday 13 August 2012

Charting paths between single “secondly” stories and their contested precursors

"How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power. ... Stories matter. 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." — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I would like to make a brief reflection on ChimamandaAdichie’s brilliant TED talk on what she analyses as the “danger of the single story.” Her analysis of this danger — “Show a people as one thing — as only one thing — over and over again, and that is what they become” — is brilliant and so worthwhile listening to that I am not going to tempt readers to skip it by summarizing it here.  Rather, I will start with the passage from right in the middle of the talk that I cannot stop thinking about:
-->Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.

I work on many topics where what I spend most of my time doing seems to be to try to get people to take a step back from "secondly." I'm not exactly trying to get us "back" to some sense of "firstly," as appealing as that often is as a first step, since sometimes understanding how we got to where we are now is important. So I recognize that we're likely to end up here often, on this path between realizing that where we are is at "secondly," then trying to figure out "firstly," then realizing there may be many different steps that are important. It's often difficult to agree about how we got to where we are now, and so instead of just charting some path from first to second and so on, I find myself working to creative supportive infrastructures for supporting the ability to see more context, to see how contingent our explanatory stories are, and to practice ways to become more comfortable with the uncertainty involved in that contingency. 

The "secondly" story I'm working on right now is the story of how the agricultural powerhouses of the world feel compelled to feed the rest of the world (or at least to narrate what they are doing as "feeding the world") — a story that seems like a good example because it doesn't feel secondary. Until we think hard about how the rest of the world might get fed via our efforts to feed the world, or why it's so invisible how "the world" might be feeding itself, or might not be able to, the "single story" nature of such a phrase as "to feed the world" usually doesn't present itself. And once the existence of backstory becomes perceptible, all the things that the "feeding the world" story helps to support may feel vulnerable. Stepping back from the question may free those of us who live under that story from being beholden to all the presuppositions involved in assuming so singularly that we are responsible for feeding the world — and also help us understand why we feel so responsible, and how we might support the negotiation of a range of stories that do justice to diverse ways to empower and humanize.
Adichie, C. (2009). The danger of a single story. TED talk:
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