Nigerian author Chimemanda Adichie gave a TED talk called “The danger of a single story” where she describes how we create a single story about a person, a people, or a whole country. It is done “by showing them as one thing, and as only one thing, over and over again, so that is what they become.” Amjad Saleem, in his blog Moving the Conversation Forward showed how he has experienced this as a Muslim after the Boston attacks.
When we accept a single story about someone, says Adichie, we flatten their experience and overlook all the stories that have formed them. She stated that when we diminish the complexity of people then there is “no possibility of a connection of human equals.” When we lose connection, we dispossess people of their dignity; we see only our differences and not our similarities. Showing a country or a religious group as one thing, over and over again, impedes our ability to see our common humanity. When we lose sight of our common humanity we become afraid and suspicious, then we can more easily judge and condemn them. The single story can become a story of how they are our enemy, and when it is told over and over again, it can easily be used to justify violence against them.
For over a decade I have been involved in a dialogue that made it possible for me to meet a number of clergy from Iran, and their families. Despite the drum beats of war repeatedly sounding a single story about Iran and its “mad mullahs” I was in a unique position to discover them and their families in all their complexity. [More information about this dialogue can be found here]
I learned through many years of direct engagement with the Shi’a clergy from Qom, sharing in the dialogue of life with them as well as in academic dialogue, that while these men were mullah’s (they are learned in Islamic sacred law & philosophy) they are also devoted fathers, compassionate husbands, grandfathers, dedicated teachers, mystics, empathetic counselors, faithful friends, beloved sons, soccer enthusiasts, humorists, poets, gardeners, as well as people who cared passionately about their faith and their “beloved Islamic revolution.” I became aware of the complexity in each of their personal stories, their family’s stories, as well as their country’s story. I learned that they also held ideas about my religion and country that flattened us and failed to account for our complexity.
Every one of us, in all countries, cultures, and religions, are susceptible to seeing one another through a single story. Whoever has the most power, gets to decide what that single story will be. As Adichie states, “stories are defined by Power: how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, and how many stories are told.” If we are constantly hearing a “single story” about Muslims, or Iran, or any place, people or religion, it should be a red flag for those of us who seek to be peace builders. We need to be especially suspicious when that single story is telling us they are the enemy. When we notice a single story is being told about a specific religion, people, or country, we need to ask ourselves how we will avail ourselves to other stories about these people, this country, this religion.
It is so hard to know about a group, a religion, a place, without personal experience, or exposure. If we want to rely on media, film, and literature to understand them we must discipline ourselves to willfully engage a variety of stories about them, from a variety of sources; both sympathetic and critical. As Adichie says, we need a “balance of stories” because stories can “dispossess and malign” even as they can “repair.”
People use the single story they know as an excuse to avoid encountering one another. We do this when we assume, from the single story, that we can already know them in advance of ever meeting, thereby refusing to meet or genuinely listen. Isolation from one another is one of the easiest ways to maintain a single story, a story that can ultimately be manipulated to justify killing one another.
Interfaith dialogue that intends to build peace – repair – between religions must insist on attending to the many stories that make up the people we want to know, as well as those we think we don’t want to know. It means showing up for dialogues where we are not sure we are going to agree with the others at the table. It means going into dialogue ready to risk our authentic questions, to unpack our stereotypes and assumptions, willing to risk admitting our consternations, ready to listen but not demanding specific outcomes before we will risk a relationship. Repair, peace building, is ultimately about fostering human connection amidst our differences, not eliminating them by ignoring them or by refusing to acknowledge one another as complex human beings.
Dialogue that can build peace expects us to engage with those we think we will disagree with, those we are not sure we can build a mutual society together with, and those whose story moves them in very different directions than our own. Only then are we engaging “the other” in their full humanity, as equals, with complex stories. We need interfaith dialogue that creates places for our complex stories to unfold over time. Places and programs that make it possible for us to stay in a sustained conversation and interaction over a long period of time, including a commitment to stay and work through the rough patches. Without these kinds of programs, we can maintain the “single story” about one another, we can avoid the hard work of learning to understand one another, we avoid finding ways to trust one another, and we lose the opportunity for true repair.
Single stories put us in danger. Interfaith peace building needs to be about disrupting single stories, creating places for us to be fully present for one another in all our complexity.