I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the dangers of the ‘single story’

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an absolutely brilliant and talented woman. Her novels are among my all time favourites and from the few video interviews and speeches I’ve heard her give, she seems to be a deeply insightful, engaging, bold and entertaining woman. I would love to meet her!

This talk about the ‘dangers of the single story’ is one of the best things I’ve heard in a long time. I think I tend a bit towards exaggeration and describe lots of things as ‘amazing’ and ‘thought-provoking’, but this speech truly is. I also think it provides an interesting perspective on ‘Otherness’ although Ms Adichie doesn’t comment on this concept directly. But she gives many examples from her own life experience, both of her own judgements of Others and the way others have judged her in turn, based on the ‘single story’. She draws on her own experience of the stories told about the poor, about Africans, about Americans, about immigrants – the over-generalized, narrow and often prejudicial narratives we tell about other people and other groups – to show the way in which these stories absolutely fail to capture reality and how these stories can cause harm, misunderstanding and rob others of their dignity.

This type of ‘single story telling’ is something we all do. We have all, at one time or another, been guilty of telling the single story and consequently of denying the dignity of our fellow humans. But if we can acknowledge the truth –  that there are in reality, many many stories – then there is hope of restoring that dignity.

It is certainly worth listening to the entire talk. I’ve shared a few ideas from the speech below, but it was a challenge picking out individual bits when all of the talk was so good. Please take the time to listen to the entire thing! You won’t be disappointed!

‘That is how to create a single story – show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.’

‘It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power.Power is the ability, not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.’

‘The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity.’

‘Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also be used to repair that broken dignity.’

‘When we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.’

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Set the people free!

As it turns out, 16 March was Open Borders DayAlex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution sums up the point of this day nicely:

‘[Open Borders Day is] a day to celebrate the right to emigrate and the right to immigrate; to peacefully move from place to place. It is a day worth celebrating everywhere both for what has been done already and for the tremendous gains in human welfare that can but are yet to be achieved. It is also a day to reflect on the moral inconsistency that says “No one can be denied equal employment opportunity because of birthplace, ancestry, culture, linguistic characteristics common to a specific ethnic group, or accent” and yet at the same time places heavily armed guards at the border to capture, imprison, turn back and sometimes kill immigrants.’

I’m obviously a bit behind in commenting here, but better late than never!

The issue of immigration is a big one for me, partially for personal reasons, but for much larger ethical and moral reasons as well. I myself am someone NOT living in my country of birth, which I suppose makes me an immigrant. I don’t often think of myself that way though, probably in large part because a) I am white, b) I am a US citizen, and c) I have a university education – in other words, I come from a very privileged background. I don’t fit the ‘immigrant stereotype’. I didn’t leave my home country to escape poor living conditions or lack of economic opportunity. And because I am white, educated and American, I get preferential treatment when it comes to living and working abroad, although there are still limitations regarding my rights to live and work where I choose.

However, most people on the planet who would like to live and work in a country other than the one they were born in face far greater challenges that I can even imagine. They want to better their lives, earn a decent living, provide for their families, give their children the opportunity to gain an education and a better standard of living. They want to escape poverty, economic stagnation and hopelessness. They want to contribute to society. They want stability, safety, to have adequate food, water and shelter. They want to be treated like people, to be respected as humans, to make choices about their own lives.

I’ve done a bit of browsing around the Open Borders website and I am so impressed with this informative and well-balanced project. The site addresses a huge number of different objections people voice against immigration and the concept of open borders, where, in theory, people would have a much greater degree of freedom to migrate than in the current world order. They look at a wide variety of arguments for and against open borders – political, ethical, theoretical, economic, etc. – and discuss in a very detailed and nuanced way the real-world implications of free movement of people. If you are looking for fact-based and balanced information and discussion of immigration issues, this looks like a great place to start.

I highly recommend exploring this site. There is so much to think about here!

As part of my on-going reflections on Otherness, I look forward to returning to the themes and ideas explored in Open Borders. More coming soon…

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What is an omnivore to do?

For the sake of transparency, I’ll share with you the reasons I’m not currently a vegetarian or vegan:

  • I love pretty much all food, including meat.
  • I feel healthier if I eat meat sometimes, as well as other animal protein sources like eggs and yogurt.
  • I don’t have the discipline to never eat meat.
  • I don’t always think about animal welfare when I’m shopping for food, cooking or eating what someone else has prepared for me.
  • Perhaps I’m just a bit lazy.

Now, I’m not saying these are ‘good’ reasons. They don’t necessarily justify my non-vegetarianism. But those are the honest reasons why I am not currently a vegetarian. That being said, I usually only eat meat once a week at the moment, so ‘vegetarian’ eating is the norm for me the vast majority of the time.

Anyway, the truth is I am an omnivore, and so are most of the people on the planet. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you judge the matter, but it is true all the same. And, as this article from The Economist points out, as people around the world become more affluent, meat eating is on the rise. Meat is a desirable commodity for most people, and if it is affordable and available, they want more of it!

This does create issues that we omnivores have to think about and address.

One issue is that raising livestock does have negative environmental effects, such as the use of land and water for sustaining animals, the destruction of natural ecological systems to create grazing land (i.e. chopping down the Amazon Rainforest to make space for cattle farming), and CO2 emissions that come from cows, to list some of the most obvious.

So, eating meat means that more animals will be raised for food, which means that there will be more harm done to the environment.

There is a way to lessen the impact, but it presents it’s own moral and ethical problems: efficient factory farming. This type of intensive farming can decrease the impact of livestock on the environment but obviously has the downside of being worse for the animals involved.

So, in a nutshell, you can’t have enough happy, frolicking, free-range animals to feed everyone without taking up huge amounts of space and wrecking the environment. You also can’t completely protect the environment and valuable wild habitats without resorting to the cruelty of factory farming.

I admit, it seems that the obvious best-choice is for everyone to become vegetarian (although, realistically, this isn’t an option for everyone either, due to the geography and climate, and consequently the food sources available, in certain areas of the world. I also cannot claim that it would be the healthiest choice for every individual, as I am not a nutritionist or doctor). However, I think one must face the fact that that’s not the direction things are heading, and while global vegetarianism may be ideal (I stress the may), this isn’t a perfect world and we can’t wait around for that to happen.

So, the question is: how can the least damage be done, to both the environment and the animals involved? How can we strike a balance between treating food animals as humanely as possible while using the least amount of land and other valuable natural resources?

One additional and very important bit of information the article highlights is that not all animals are equal when it comes to environmental impact, resource usage and nutritional output. For example, pork and poultry are more efficient than red meat (i.e. more protein with less environmental cost), and dairy is a more efficient form of protein than meat. Just a little something else to think about.

Click here for the full article from the EconomistLivestock: Meat and Greens