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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The universe is in us all

‘The knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth – the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars- the high mass ones among them- went unstable in their later years- they collapsed and then exploded- scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy- guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems- stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up- many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.’    ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson ticks a lot of boxes for me.

First, he is clearly brilliant. No need to elaborate there.

Second, the way he describes space, matter, stars, physics, life and the potential for life in the universe… he makes it so accessible, even to people like me without much background knowledge in these topics. In fact, he makes me eager to learn so much more!

Third, his enthusiasm is absolutely infectious! I really didn’t enjoy any science classes when I was in school, but have become a fan of ‘popular science’ as an adult. Reading about biology, chemistry, evolution, genetics, and cosmology – it’s a challenge for me, but I also find it intensely rewarding because it forces me to look at the world and the universe in such a different way than I normally do. For one thing, it encourages me to see things from a non-anthropocentric perspective, and I enjoy the way it reminds me of my place in the universe.

It helps me to remember I am not the centre of everything. Not only that, but humans as a species aren’t the centre of everything. We share a kinship with all the creatures on our planet, with the plants, with bacteria, with stones and seas and the clouds in the sky… as Neil deGrasse Tyson points out, we even share a sort of kinship with the stars. Not in a sort of magical airy-fairy way, but in a real, chemical, atomical, physical way; we are all inter-connected. We are all a part of each other, and there is something beautiful and humbling about that reality.


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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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Man hunts antelope…

This video of a hunter of the San tribe in south Africa, using the ancient hunting technique David Attenborough refers to as the ‘persistence method’ – running prey down on foot until either hunter or animal give up and collapse from exhaustion – is truly stunning.

There is something so raw about this epic chase. Essentials only. A man – bone and muscle and sweat and blood – using his speed and endurance to catch his prey, simply running on his own two feet through the desert. There is the scorching sun overhead, the sand beneath his feet, the shimmering heat in the air. There is the speed and power, the gracefulness, of the wild antelope… and a life and death struggle to survive.

It is a primal experience. The human animal, striped of pomp and circumstance, with only a minimum of material objects at his disposal. The state of trance-like focus, the stark clarity of mind – there is no moment but the present, no task but the one crucial task at hand: continue, conquer, survive.

At the end of this epic chase there is both tragic defeat and heroic victory. The cost of human survival is the life of the antelope. Death, this savage struggle live in a harsh environment, to kill to live… it isn’t glamorous or romantic. But there is something earthy, grounding, unflinchingly real – even tender – as the man strikes the killing blow, pays homage to the nobility of the animal and sends its spirit back to the desert sands from which it came.

Witnessing such an experience brings me back to those Big Questions I never get tired of asking…

What does it mean to be a human on this earth? How to live, and die, well? How to co-exist with other creatures on this planet, how to live authentically and simply, how to get down to that essential, earthy, raw experience, to live with focus and clarity, to do what is necessary and remain free of unnecessary burdens? How to make the most of this one wild and precious life?