Sanjiva Wijesinha -writer and physician

Short stories, Travel and Health Information

The Danger of the ‘Single Story’

While writing this week’s Camino story – how I met this dear old lady in the tiny 10 square kilometre village of Ventosa (population 166 at last count) when my son and I were walking the Camino in Spain – I was reminded of the TED talk I had listened to the other day by the famous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

In her fascinating and eye-opening talk, Adichie warned her listeners about the danger of stereotypes, of the danger of being limited by the “single story”.

Her take home message was this: If we hear only a single story about another person or community or religious group or country, we risk making a critical misunderstanding.

I remember the words of the former Vice-President of the International Court of Justice Professor Christie Weeramantry in the inspiring foreword he wrote for my last book: “Cabinned, cribbed and confined within the faith to which they were born, the majority of people across the world remain in total unawareness of the richness of other faiths”

By asking me if I was Catholic or Moslem, the dear Ventosina lady was simply trying to fit me into a box or classification with which she was familiar, so that she would know how to relate to me.

If I had answered her and reassured her that I was a Catholic, that would have put me in the same group to which she belonged – whereas if she learned that I was a Moslem, she would have lumped me together with all the other Moslems she had met or heard about, and adopt the default position of relating to me that was the result of her only knowing that single story.

Fortunately or unfortunately, I was truthful and told her that I was neither Catholic nor Moslem. This certainly puzzled her – because in her little world, those were the only two groups that existed! She probably was not aware that there were other religions and forms of spirituality in the world – and so she could not really fit me into a ready made box or pre-conceived classification.

But her innate humanity came through despite her being unable to “classify” me. She recognised in front of her simply another human being, one hungry and tired after a long day of walking , and she took it upon herself to help me. Not only did she take me to where I could buy some food, she herself bought and gave me something for me and my son to drink.

And this danger of the “single story” is something that ALL of us, to a greater or lesser degree, have within us. It makes us judge other people through the coloured lenses we have acquired. We are infleunced without our being aware of it by pre-conceived notions and subconscious prejudices, without giving ourselves the chance of knowing these people as fellow human beings. If we discover at the time of our initial meeting (and this is not just by their answers to our qustions, but also from their appearance, their clothes, their accent) that somebody belongs to a particular group, then we lump them together with all the other members of that group that we have met or been told about previously – without giving us the chance of getting to know them as fellow human beings.

Is it not time that we as educated, rational, 21st century human beings, try to unlearn this burden of Single Story Reasoning?


2 comments on “The Danger of the ‘Single Story’

  1. Les Mumford
    August 14, 2020

    I perfectly agree that we all have this innate Single Story Reasoning, but before we can effectively address it my question is why we do exhibit it. May I propose one reason? We are all born with an instinct to survive, do we not, and part of this mechanism visually and audibly needs to quickly assess is the person in front of us “friend or foe?” We need it in our everyday life, but as the result is not normally life threatening maybe we need to recognise it and control it for a better outcome.


  2. Sri Varman
    August 14, 2020

    Humanity should be the only religion, language etc.. I remember a song that says that if you understand the language of the heart, humanity does not need a language.


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This entry was posted on August 14, 2020 by in camino de santiago, Opinion, spirituality and tagged , , .

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