I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


Leave a comment

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.’


4 Comments

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!


2 Comments

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


Leave a comment

Is science truly objective?

Here’s a thought-provoking post from Intentio Lectoris.

The author discusses some of the practical limitations of scientific inquiry that effect objectivity (finances, countless variables in the natural world that complicate things, outdated methods or equipment, etc.), but perhaps more importantly, the ways in which value judgements do come into the interpretation of data. This isn’t to say that if science isn’t perfectly objective, the whole thing is a big conspiracy and we should all forget about this whole science thing. I certainly wouldn’t advocate that stance!

Instead, it seems to me (as a non-scientist) that it is a call for scientists, and those interested in science, to be aware that scientists, like everyone else, are products of culture, particular organizations and institutions, their particular time and place in history, etc.,  and as such, carry cultural baggage, make assumptions, take certain things about the world for granted, and make value judgements based on their own prejudices.

Of course, the idea that true objectivity doesn’t (and perhaps, shouldn’t) exist isn’t only relevant for scientists. This little blog here is my personal attempt at challenging my own assumptions about the world. I try to seek out new information that gives me a more ‘objective’ view of reality, but at the same time, it is unrealistic to believe that I can ever actually be completely free of biases and certain cultural values, no matter how hard I try. I also wouldn’t really want to give up all of my cultural values because they do serve a useful purpose in life. Humans live with other humans, and as a way to communicate and create social bonds and cohesion, it is necessary to have some common ground with others, a sort of default setting of background information so we don’t have to be explaining ourselves to death all the time!

What do we really mean when we talk about objectivity anyway? What does it mean to be ‘objective’ and why does modern Western culture value this trait so highly? In what situations might it be undesirable to try for objectivity? How can we strike a balance between objectivity and the inescapable reality of personal and cultural biases and assumptions? 

For more on this topic, there is also a follow-up post here discussing why, in fact, it isn’t desirable for science to be completely objective, which is also worth reading.


Leave a comment

It’s a bit more complicated than that…

Confession: I have a tendency to think there is ‘One Right Answer’ to life’s big questions, and surprisingly enough (!), I often feel like I have that answer. However, I also know that it is utterly preposterous to think I actually have the answers to everything. On the contrary, I only know a tiny smidgen of all that’s to be known and understood in the universe, and things in life are rarely black-and-white. So, my ‘know-it-all’ self and my ‘I-don’t-know-jack-crap’ self are in constant battle. Sometimes it’s a bit exhausting to be arguing with one’s self all the time, but then again, it keeps me from getting bored!

So, that’s confession time out of the way. Now on to the more interesting stuff.

Recently I came across an amazing article about the evolution of adult milk drinking. Yeah, doesn’t sound that amazing probably, but trust me, it is. In a nutshell, for most of human history (or perhaps I should say pre-history) adults of our species could not really digest dairy, but somewhere around modern-day Hungary, perhaps about 11,000 years ago, there was a genetic mutation that kept that childhood milk-digesting ability working into adulthood, and that mutation was so advantageous for those who inherited it, that it spread like wildfire!

Still, about two-thirds of people currently living on the planet don’t handle milk so well… as in, drinking milk causes diarrhea and unpleasantness like that. However, the other one-third (roughly) can digest milk and it provides a valuable source of energy and nutrition. In some places, particularly in northern Europe, the percentage of adults who can digest dairy is up to around 99%! So, that’s a very brief run-down of the idea, but I highly suggest you check out this great article that explains it much better than I just did: Archaeology:The Milk Revolution (from nature.com).

Continue reading