There’s more to it

How subscribing to a single narrative can mean the death of reason

Single story creates critical misunderstanding -- a TED talk that this professor of Stony Brook University shared with his audience as a part of a postgraduate program where I tuned in as a guest speaker. It was about what happens when human beings and complex situations are reduced to a single narrative; for example, when Africans are portrayed as pitiable poor and starving victims with flies on their faces. The point she made was how each individual life contained a heterogeneous compilation of stories, and if they were reduced to one it takes away their humanity. 

This applies to the people of Bangladesh as well (or it used to). People, particularly in the Western world, know that Bangladesh is only about poverty, crime, flood, child marriages, overpopulation, and so on and so forth. Such assumptions all represent a single narrative: That we are yet to be civilized. More specifically, Bangladesh’s economic, socio-cultural, and educational development have always subscribed to “single story-ism.”

The professor shared stories about how Bangladeshi students were representing their notions and ideas based on single story-ism when their American counterparts were collaborating and exchanging ideas with them. For example, when American students would bring up positive stories of Bangladesh, Bangladeshi students would negate their points and claim how that was not the case, about how their homeland is more defined by what’s wrong with it than what’s right.

How and when did we as a nation get to this point?

Is it because this is how we were brought up? For example, I grew up knowing that every household help in Bangladesh is abused and poor, but the truth is that there are other stories: How they struggle to survive and climb up the ladder and oftentimes even succeed; how their children go to school and try to change their financial conditions.

As Adichie believes, a single story might have a huge negative influence. They have the potential to degrade the mindset of people by emphasizing our differences rather than our similarities. This discourse, at its core, pushes us to appreciate the importance of storytelling, and that, by providing people the opportunity to hear a diverse range of stories, we may help to empower and humanize them.

On a separate note, being married to someone who works in tech, I often get to hear the stories that inspire people working in such a sector. At one event, I was listening to the CEO of Felicity IDC, who was giving a keynote speech. He was sharing anecdotes about how, in 1996, he opened his email id and then he went on the development of the IT sector over the 25 years. He was also encouraging other international organizations to place their trust on Bangladesh and create opportunities by opening the gateway to a cross-border digitalized reality.

As Bangladeshis simply sharing stories of our misfortunes does the whole nation a disservice; we have achievements -- be it economic, infrastructural, social, or otherwise -- and such stories just as much time in the spotlight, if not more so. It was enlightening to hear how he looked at Bangladesh from diverse perspectives and went on sharing the stories about how the IT industry used to be in 1996, and how it evolved over the next 25 years. These stories positively influence and mitigate the manipulations that may possibly take place in the understanding of others. 

Adichie says that stories matter, but we usually live our lives through the lens of a single story that we are aware of -- whether it is about a person, an event, or a conflict. Single stories are frequently the result of simple misunderstandings or a lack of knowledge about others, but they can also be used to oppress other groups of people giving way to prejudice. We adopt unconsciously held viewpoints.

The danger of a single tale or a single point of view -- which can lead to faulty assumptions, judgments, and decisions -- can lead to conflict. Operating within the confines of a single narrative prevents us from seeing a situation in a more complicated, nuanced light. We must establish a link between individual stories and the impact of power in our lives. In any situation, who tells the tale, how they tell these tales, and when they are told all have significant impacts on the outcome.

If we don't analyze how we make sense of things, we can end up with narratives that are potentially damaging.


Nasrin Pervin is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English and Modern languages, North South University.