Friday, January 28, 2011

A Matter of Perspective: The Danger of a Single Story

“The single story creates stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. … The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity. ... It emphasizes how we are different, rather than how we are similar.”

Novelist Chimamanda Adichie
Two of the principles I live by are these: that we are all more ourselves than we are representatives of any category to which we belong, and that we all have many acres of common ground. Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, below, (HT a post on Eddie Arthur's Kouya Chronicle) deals with an issue I’ve been considering once again: How easy it is to oversimplify others and judge them based on how well they fit into the mold formed by our own expectations and stereotypes. 

Certainly I’ve fallen into these traps as a mission mobilizer. I’ve used the videos, brochures, and letterhead that try to enlist people in missions with images of locals in their native dress, the stuff they only put on once or twice a year (see Missions Conferences: A Waste of Time?) Of course, we had our standards: We would always use the happy, smiling pictures; no playing up squalor or poverty. No dirty kids with flies in their eyes! 

But surely you and I have also been on the other side, squirming at someone else’s false assumptions of us based on our cultures and backgrounds. I remember how hard it was to overcome the images my friends in Central Asia had that my country was a place where people lived exciting, sexy lives and carried guns everywhere. Or what about the man I dated who had "women" all figured out and was dismayed when I didn’t act according to his script? Surely if I wasn’t like other women I must be going against what God had designed me to be.

Around the same time some Western participants in the recent Lausanne conference were complaining that the African bits weren’t “African” enough, I read a book called Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World by long-time foreign correspondent Patrick Smith. It includes several rather complex, linked essays about how three Asian civilizations are responding to modernization – from China (where, he says, "Part of what it means to be Chinese today is to be confused about what it means to be Chinese. I know of no Chinese alive who does not, in some fashion, entertain this question”) to Japan, where it makes no sense to tell people that their material goods and technologies are “Western” and therefore foreign. Though of course we still go looking for the people in native dress, don’t we?
“Japan, the ‘real’ Japan one arrives from the West in search of, does not have extension cords running along its floors. Japan is made of… silk, translucent rice paper, and bamboo. It is not made of glass and steel and plastic… for if it is modern it must be Western.” (Somebody Else's Century, p. 9)

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