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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Authentic culture?

I’ve recently been writing about the theme of Otherness and in a couple of previous posts I mentioned the work of photographer Jimmy Nelson and his beautiful and thought-provoking Before They Pass Away photo documentation of the world’s last indigenous tribes.

As I’d hoped, my own reflections have sparked the beginnings of some interesting conversation on Otherness! I hope it continues because it is a fascinating topic and one that is incredibly relevant in our increasingly inter-connected and globalized world.

One idea I’ve seen crop up a couple of times now is that of authenticity. Both Jimmy Nelson, in his TED talk and other writings, as well as a friend of mine, have commented on the fact that tribal societies have an authenticity that we in the developed world have lost. Their cultures are more authentic than ours, and consequently their lives seem to be more meaningful.

I find this to be an interesting concept – one worth discussing and defining further.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘authentic’ in the context of cultures?

I, for one, take it to mean something that is ‘real’, ‘not a copy,’ ‘genuine’, perhaps also the opposite of ‘fake’.

So, is it accurate to say that tribal cultures are more ‘real’ than developed, first-world cultures? For example, is US culture or British culture or Japanese culture less ‘authentic’, meaning ‘less real’, ‘less genuine’, ‘more fake’?

I am coming from a Western perspective myself, and I think may of us in the West look to cultures around the world – particularly in developing countries, and perhaps most especially in tribal cultures – as being more authentic and a sort of remnant of an idealized past that we can no longer access in modern North America and Western Europe. But if that is the case, then when did North American and Western European cultures cease to be ‘real’ and ‘authentic’? How could we define the shift from authentic to inauthentic when discussing the history and culture of the West?

Maasai family - authentic culture?

Maasai family – authentic culture?

tv family

1950s American family – inauthentic culture?

My first thought in response to these questions is that we may consider Western culture as being less authentic because we see so much of our culture being heavily influenced by modern materialism, advertising and marketing, by machines, industry, and all sorts of advanced technology. Most of us watch TV, we drive cars, we eat processed food, we might not spend much time in nature, probably don’t grow our own food or raise farm animals. There are chemicals and preservatives in much of what we eat. Because of these characteristics of our Western modern culture, we may feel we live in a more ‘artificial’ and ‘less authentic’ way.

A friend of mine wrote an interesting comment to some of my previous questions about why we are attracted to images and information about Others, particularly those who live in tribal societies. Here she mentions the view that tribal cultures are more authentic as a reason why we are interested in Others. Now I’ll let her speak for herself and quote her in full here:

Personally I think [we are interested in learning about Others because of] the desire for meaning and seeing worlds where things are made by hands. We have destroyed our connection to every aspect of living. We don’t make things, our tools, our food… even the milk westerners feed their babies is a powdered manufactured chemical. We don’t go on hikes, we watch strangers hiking on TV. To see people who have meaning and authenticity in the things they do, the way they dress… it’s become the stuff of legend in the west. It’s loved and loathed equally. If I knit a hat from fiber I spun myself people are either amazed or they laugh and say ‘why? Go to Walmart and buy a hat for a dollar!” We live in a manufactured meaningless world, we look at these cultures with a desperate longing like an orphan sees a complete family (functional or not).

I have so much more to say on this topic, but it certainly won’t fit all into one blog post. So, I’ll leave you with some questions to consider instead.

How do we define what is ‘authentic’ in human culture? What do we consider to be the essential elements of a true and meaningful culture?

Is it true and fair to say that modern Western cultures are no longer authentic?

Is it true that tribal cultures are essentially different from developed world cultures, or are all humans everywhere just doing the same sorts of things, albeit in different ways, and with different materials, in both tribal and developed-world cultures?

Have modern cultures irreparably lost something essential, or are the elements of tribal cultures that we value still available to us in our modern lifestyle?

Is it possible to fully live in the modern, technologically advanced, increasingly urbanized world and still have an ‘authentic’ culture?

If you’d like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

*NOTE: I find it difficult to chose terminology to use when discussing a topic like this. How do we chose between terms like ‘indigenous’, ‘tribal’, ‘traditional’ to describe cultures? I feel like all are a bit inadequate, and also are loaded with stereotypes, value judgement and assumptions – and they probably also have different meanings for different people. The problem is the same with trying to write about the ‘opposite’ of tribal cultures – we can use terms like ‘developed” or ‘first-world’ (as opposed to ‘developing’ or ‘third world’), or we can talk about ‘modern’ cultures (although in reality, any tribal society in existence today is also ‘modern’ and has been evolving just as long as any other non-tribal culture!). And here I also talk about Western culture as being sort of synonymous with ‘modern’ or ‘developed’, but obviously, there are many other countries that are modern and developed but not Western, such as Japan and South Korea, just to name a few. So, I’d just like to point out the flaws in my own use of terminology and bring up the fact that all the terms we use to discuss cultures in this way are loaded with biases, generalizations and assumptions. I’m just trying to do the best I can to be understood while discussing an incredibly complex topic, so please forgive my shortcomings!


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Mirrors in which we see our true selves – reflections on Otherness

In a previous post, I shared a TED Talk given by photographer Jimmy Nelson, creator of the Before They Pass Away project. This stunning photo collection documents 29 of the world’s last indigenous tribes. The photos themselves are amazingly beautiful and highly artistic, capturing iconic images of indigenous peoples and the landscapes where they live throughout the world.

These cultures are under threat from the encroaching modern world, and this ambitious project is one man’s attempt to not only document their existence, but to spark conversation about the diversity of human culture and the preservation of these last tribal cultures.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Image by Jimmy Nelson, beforethey.com.

Samburu tribe in northern Kenya. Photo by Jimmy Nelson at http://www.beforethey.com

As I looked through the photos and read the captions about each tribe I found myself wondering what it is that interests us about these Others. What do we find so enticing about these images of distant and exotic foreigners? Is it simple curiosity? A desire to learn? Is it a craving for something new, a search for novelty?

It seems that interest in such exotic Others often leads us in one of two different directions.

In the first, we can be fascinated by difference because we see it as something strange, freakish, frightening and yet at the same time tantalizing. There is something dangerous about these Others, something taboo about the way they live. Perhaps by looking at their images and reading descriptions about their customs, religion or beliefs, we can vicariously experience an alternative to our own culture, albeit in a safe, controlled and distant way.

When we approach the Other in this way – as an oddity, as one who defies our sense of what is normal and acceptable – perhaps our response is one of self-affirmation. We see the strangeness of this Other, the backwardness of his (or her) ways, the perversions of his culture, his ignorance of proper morality, and it makes us feel more secure in the fortress of our own worldview and way of life. We can feel smug and self-satisfied because our way is superior, and we can thank our lucky stars that, at the end of the day, no matter our personal or cultural flaws, at least we don’t live like those Other people. Our ego and sense of self is re-affirmed and we can happily go on with our lives.

Alternately, we can approach the Other in a more positive way. We can admire the Other’s beauty, their interesting clothing and appearance. We can see valuable aspects of their spirituality; their simpler, less materialistic way of life; their close community ties; their deeper connection to nature. We may view the Other’s culture as more authentic, more innocent, less corrupted by the negative influences of modernity. We may see them through the lens of nostalgia, as remnants of the past, historical relics from the proverbial garden of Eden. By learning about these Others and their way of life, we express our longing to escape the complications and restraints of modern life, our desire to return to a state of childlike innocence and simplicity.

Unfortunately, neither of these views does the Other justice. Both are too narrow and simplistic. Any single culture is so complex that to truly understand it could take an outsider a lifetime of study, and would require living within the culture itself, among the people being studied. Even then, we would still see the Other through the filter of our own culture, our own biases and way of life.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to learn about those who are different from us. It just means we must be realistic in our expectations, realize the limitations of our own understanding and remain constantly vigilant against our tendency to oversimplify, to make hasty judgements, to create false comparisons. The path toward truly understanding the Other is fraught with intellectual, moral and philosophical pitfalls, and we must be careful how we tread.

So, if we cannot hope to get a very accurate understanding of these distant Others from photos and books – from our gazing at a distance – what is it we hope to gain from the experience of looking and reading? What is our goal?

Perhaps it is an opportunity to be shocked out of our complacency. By seeing images so starkly different, we are shaken out of our usual dullness. We are forced to look deeply, to pay attention. It is hard for us to look away. We begin to see ourselves and the world around us in a new light. Things are turned upside-down. The ground feels different beneath our feet and the air tastes different when we imagine the roads that the Other walks on and the bright empty sky that hangs above the his head.

And then…

We begin to ask questions.

First, if we are brave, we may ask what makes this Other tick. How does he feel? What does he truly believe? What does he love? What does he fear? What are his desires? How does he interpret the world and his place in it? How does he create meaning in the experiences of this life?

While we can ponder these questions, we cannot really answer those questions about or for the Other. That is something only he can do.

And so, if we are even braver, we then begin to ask those questions of ourselves. We realise that we too are an Other in someone else’s eyes. Our culture, way of life, beliefs – none of these are to be taken for granted. There are countless ways to be human, and our way is just one of many. 

Perhaps that is why we feel such an irresistible pull towards the Other, why we seek these encounters with those who are distant and different. They offer us something immensely valuable – a mirror in which we can more clearly see our true selves.

*  *  *

To learn more about the Before They Pass Away project and to view the amazing photos of indigenous societies around the world, click here.

To visit the Before They Pass Away Facebook page, click here.

To read the first part of my ongoing series on Meeting the Other, click here.

To watch Jimmy Nelson’s TED Talk, click here.


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Oops, I fell into the prejudice trap (again)

I recently wrote a post about the way we let our prejudices prevent us from honestly considering new ideas and alternate opinions; about how we assess potentially new information based on what we want to believe, rather than simply looking at the facts.

Lest you think I’m being preachy and just pointing out flaws in other people, I’d like to share an example of this type of biased and prejudicial thinking in my own life.

I watched a TED talk last week about the evolution of human sexuality which was really excellent and worth at least one post of its own, so I won’t go into details about it now. The speaker was very engaging, well-spoken and humorous. He said some things that chimed well with beliefs and ideas I’d already formed, and I very much agreed with his open-minded approach to the whole topic.

In fact, I found it all so interesting, I immediately had a look on Amazon for his book, so I could read more extensively about his theories and research findings. While checking out some reviews I came across another book by a different author, written as a direct refutation of the first guy’s work and proposing some different views and conclusions.  By further investigating on the internet, it seems these two thinkers have a personal dislike of each other as well as conflicting views on human sexuality.

What I found most interesting in all this was how strongly I reacted in favour of one author and how ready I was to dismiss the other. When browsing on Amazon, I read numerous positive reviews and a few negative ones about each of the books, so in this respect, they looked about even. However, because I’d had an enjoyable 14 minutes watching the first author present his ideas, and maybe even just because I actually came across him and his ideas first, I had already formed a prejudice in his favour. He was clearly ‘more right’ than the other author, and I also felt that I liked her a bit less, because she clearly had it out for this intelligent, funny man I had heard speak. Seriously, what was her problem?

All of this happened in the space of about 20 minutes.

(1) I had been introduced to an idea, (2) learned there was some controversy about it, (3) decided which anthropological study was more valid based on my judgement of the presenters perceived likeability, (4) discounted the opposition as irrelevant and false without actually knowing what her position was, and (5) was eager to share my new ‘expert’ knowledge and new ‘correct’ understanding of an incredibly complex topic with the rest of the world. My oh my, the brain works quickly!

What!? She came to overly hasty and irrationally biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

What!? She came to overly hasty, irrational and biased conclusions again? Nooooo! Make it stop!

Fortunately for me, almost as quickly as I formed all those thoughts and prejudices, I realised what I was doing, and could have a bit of a laugh at how hasty and unreasonable I was being. At least by recognising the conclusions my brain was jumping to, I could take a step back from my initial reaction and try to look at things more rationally. 

To cut myself some slack, I think we, as humans, are hard-wired to make hasty judgements about many things. I mean, if a lion is running towards you, you do NOT want to take a deep breath and try to make a slow and deliberate assessment of the situation, draw a chart outlining your options and the pros and cons of each, or sit and ponder whether or not you are judging the actions and motivations of this particular lion unfairly. You want to make a hasty judgement and get the hell away from that lion!

Even in non-life-or-death situations, if we really thought deeply and logically analysed every bit of information and every experience we went through in life, we’d have no time for actually eating, sleeping, performing a job, just living! It would be complete overkill and ‘ain’t nobody got time for that’ (as the saying goes)!

So, I’m saying it isn’t surprising that we do this. It’s no shock at all that we want to take mental short cuts, make hasty judgements based on what we already know and believe, and just want to get on with our lives. There are many situations where this tendency doesn’t matter too much, or can even be helpful.

However, there are certainly times when it is detrimental to making wise decisions. I know that in my own life it means I can be a bit (or sometimes very!) judgemental towards people who think differently than I do. It also means that during conversation I sometimes don’t truly listen to what others are saying because I’m not really interested in their opinions; I’m just waiting to say what I think and ‘save’ them from the error of their ways!

At the end of the day, I think that developing an awareness of our prejudices and the way our minds work is a necessary first step towards becoming more balanced and fair when seeking out facts and listening to the views of others. It’s a key move towards better communication and deeper understanding with our fellow humans.

One has to start somewhere, after all!


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Challenging our views…

I am currently a member of a parenting network online, in which members share stories and experiences and ask for parenting advice via email. I’ve learned some wonderful things from people in this community and I feel, without a doubt, that these are good, sincere, thoughtful and intelligent folks. I have really enjoyed learning from and getting know this lovely group.

That being said, I would like to share a brief exchange that occurred during an email ‘conversation’ between a few members of this online community, because I think it is an interesting example of the way people make decisions about what is true and false.

One person initiated this email conversation by mentioning a recent scientific study she’d read which looked at the differences between a large number people who were either breastfed or bottle-fed in infancy. The study measured differences in a wide variety of characteristics, such as intelligence, health, obesity in adulthood, among others. These characteristics were compared between breast- and bottle-fed children, both from different families, and within families (i.e. one sibling was breastfed and his/her sibling was bottle-fed). According to the brief summary this first person shared, the study seemed to say siblings fed with different methods showed no significant differences in health, intelligence and whatnot, although there were differences between children from different families, showing advantages for those who were breastfed.

Why might this be significant? Because it might mean breastfeeding is not be the sole cause of these advantages; instead, other factors like socio-economic status, wealth, education, culture, geographic location and ethnicity of parents may be the key. In other words, breastfeeding and better health or intelligence may be co-related, rather than breastfeeding being the direct cause of  all of these benefits.

Now, I have yet to read the entire study, so this is just a summary of what I was told it was about. As a disclaimer: I am not making any claims whatsoever in this post about the pros/cons of breastfeeding vs bottlefeeding! I am not recommending you do one or the other. That is absolutely not the point of what I’m trying to say here!

So, what is my point then? I’m glad you asked!

I was actually more interested in the reaction I saw to the mere mention of this study’s findings, coming almost entirely from people who hadn’t even read it yet!

Continue reading


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Before They Pass Away

An inspiring talk given by photographer Jimmy Nelson, who has travelled the globe to create a stunningly beautiful photographic record of the world’s rapidly disappearing indigenous cultures. He shares some wonderful stories of his encounters with these communities and the key lessons he learned during these intimate cultural exchanges.

In Jimmy Nelson’s own words:

‘We in the developed world are very comfortable with our prejudices and with our judgements. Look closer. Look closer because you never know what’s around the corner. Often things can be very different than what they seem.’

‘Even at the edge of the world, if you dare feel yourself, if you dare feel the environment you live in, if you dare feel one another, you know what will make you happy and you have a choice [as to how you live].’

‘By being vulnerable, by letting go, by being fallible, you can connect with people on any level.’

To learn more about this amazing project and to view the breathtaking photos, click here: Before They Pass Away