By Emily Geddes
In 2009, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk entitled, “The Danger of a Single Story.” The 18-minute presentation outlines beautifully at least one way misconceptions about groups of people – whether by religion, race, gender, or any other category – develop.
The basic idea boils down to accepting a single story, perspective, or event as the defining and comprehensive story of the featured group, rather than seeking out and acknowledging the spectrum of experiences, beliefs, and history that influence any group and the individuals within. This “danger of a single story” exists even when the single story, perspective or event shared is true and valid; the problem is that it’s not the whole picture. As Adichie says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
Stereotypes and misconceptions block understanding, complicate communication, and cause pain. Mormonism has certainly had its share being misunderstood and misrepresented throughout its almost 200-year history often as a “single story” about Mormons became the only story in popular culture, news, or politics. Adichie touches on this idea when she says, “I’ve always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person.”
For example, your single story of Mormonism may center on the historical fact that Brigham Young had 55 wives. If that’s your only story of Mormonism, you risk confusing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially discontinued the practice of polygamy more than a century ago, with fundamentalist breakoff sects that continue the practice today, often in conjunction with horrific abuses. You also discount the stories of hundreds of women like Martha Hughes Cannon, who ran against her husband (she was the fourth of his six wives) for state senator and won, becoming the first female state senator in the country; and Romania B. Pratt Penrose, who was a polygamous wife and mother of five when she left her children in the care of a sister wife to travel back East and study to become a physician.
Or your single story of Mormonism may revolve around Cliven Bundy, his son Ammon (named after a Book of Mormon character) and their anti-federal-government stance. Even though they have quoted LDS scripture in support of their positions, most Mormons disagree with their opinions and deplore their tactics. Church leadership even released a statement denouncing their actions.
In the United States, Mormons are seen as one of the most reliably conservative groups politically. For example, in the 30 presidential elections since it became a state, heavily Mormon Utah’s electoral votes went to the Democratic nominee only 8 times, the most recent one more than 50 years ago. However, recent studies have shown that between a quarter and a third of American Mormons don’t identify as political conservatives. High profile Mormons in politics include both the former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and the Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. While they have little in common politically, both have indicated that their divergent political beliefs stem from their shared Mormon faith.
Relying on a single story to provide the whole picture is easy, especially if it reinforces rather than challenges our current beliefs about ourselves and others. Finding more stories is hard work and takes time, but creates a much fuller and more accurate picture as well as a recognition of our shared humanity. Again, Adichie drops this wisdom: “The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”
One of the reasons I love SpokaneFaVS is because it gathers stories from people across many faiths and life experiences and facilitates individuals making connections with others, filling in the gaps in my knowledge and broadening my understanding.
Of course, it’s also possible that those within a group choose to accept only a single story, or a narrow range of stories, as the legitimate narrative for the group. This kind of exclusion often hurts even worse than misunderstandings from outsiders.
I’m a life-long Mormon, born in the covenant, baptized at age 8, four-year seminary graduate, who attended BYU on a presidential scholarship and was sealed (married) in the temple at the ripe old age of 21. I’ve never smoked (tobacco or anything else) or had a drop of alcohol. I’m also a politically left-leaning moderate, feminist, graduate-degree-holding, interfaith enthusiast mother of three who curses occasionally and thinks the satirical Book of Mormon musical is both hilarious and poignant. In some ways, I am the epitome of stereotypical Mormonism. In others, I’m definitely an outlier. My story of Mormonism is mine alone and, while a piece of the Mormon puzzle, certainly not the whole picture.
So ask questions, listen to others’ stories and stay curious. As Adichie says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Religious Misconceptions” at 10 a.m., Feb. 6 at Revel 77, 3223 E 57th Ave. Geddes is a panelist.
Emily H. Geddes was born to two physicists and grew up as a Navy brat. Born-and-raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she holds a bachelor’s degree in theatre from Brigham Young University, and earned an MBA from Eastern Washington University.
Well said Emily.
I think my frustration comes from how tough it is these days knowing just which story represents someone. We are forever sub-defining and redefining as a culture. People are now able to self-identify with anything they choose. So is a progressive feminist: a conservative, polyamory practicing monogamist, beer drinking prohibitionist baptist Muslim? Today, it can be if you want to say it is. Reason is unreasonable now.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. (I am large; I contain multitudes.)”–Ralph Waldo Emerson
I think the problem lies with your understanding of “reason.” No person is ever–has never been, will never be–just one thing, and therefore the categorical modality of reason–the track that leads us to say “never the twain shall meet”–has always been unreasonable; at best it’s been a (somewhat) useful fiction that enables us to interact superficially with one another without devoting cognitive or spiritual resources to achieving understanding and connection. In other words, I don’t need to know how the cashier at Safeway spends her weekends or how she relates to whatever family she has; I can get away with slapping (practically) whatever label on her I choose without it compromising my ability to buy a gallon of milk. But in applying that label, I dehumanise her. I choose to regard her as less than she is. Put it another way, labels and categories are half truths, and as someone far wiser than myself has said, a half truth is the same as a whole lie.
But even when a label does capture some fundamental truth about a person, there’s the question of how we can know if it’s the *right* label. Perceptive as we may be, none of us can see into another’s soul, and therefore none of us can truly know whether the label we *assume* applies–male or female, Jew or gentile, slave or free–actually does. Thus, the only honest choice is to let the other person tell you who they are, and know that what they tell you is, at best, just part of the story.
You, Eric, are a conservative-leaning libertarian. You’re involved with interfaith work but you’re also very, very clear on the role of Jesus in your life and faith. I bet some pastors who seem like you “on paper” would wonder why the heck you “waste” your time hanging out in interfaith circles. You have a handle on the Truth, why mess with all the people who have it wrong? But I think within you there’s an insatiable curiosity about people and their faith that exists alongside all of the certainties you have about God and Jesus and life (e.g., premarital sex is a sin, it’s never a good choice for people to make).
I’m committed to trying to understand the world, culture and city I live or must engage. In light of my experience and understanding of faith, I am see the image of God in others and that is true no matter what understanding of truth they claim. Honoring others is a nonnegotiable, but that doesn’t extend to honoring all ideas about truth as equal.
You raise an excellent point. I know many people who would say that you cannot be both a Christian and a libertarian (in the political sense), that those two terms are mutually exclusive.
That’s ridiculous, freedom of will is fundamentally Christian.
That’s a lovely bit of equivocation there, but you and I both know you aren’t as unintelligent as this response would suggest. My comment specifically referenced *political* libertarianism, which is at its heart the doctrine that no human interaction should be governed or regulated by a third party, no matter how coercive the interaction and asymmetric the relationship between the two actors. That has nothing to do with *metaphysical* libertarianism–the belief that human being have free will–which is wholly compatible with Christianity. Thank you for once again demonstrating the difference between not *having* “cognitive and spiritual resources” and having them but choosing not to *use* them.
That’s a generous response thanks for your positive contribution.
I live to serve.
Brad, can you expand on that a bit? What aspects of libertarianism might conflict with Christianity? If we go the extreme and think of Ayn Rand, I can see it, but not sure when it comes to the Rand Pauls of the world.
Political libertarianism, as I understand it, is the position that human interactions should not be subject (except in conveniently extreme cases) to monitoring or regulation by an outside entity. It says essentially that my interest in your wellbeing does not encompass your “voluntary” interactions with other agents, and that it is not legitimate for me to intervene if (for example) I see you being exploited by someone more powerful than yourself. It can only lead to just outcomes if you either assume that no one person will ever try to take advantage of another (i.e., deny original sin and/or the abundant witness of history) or if every person both starts out with the same degree of power (which we don’t) and maintains that equilibrium (which we can’t).
More fundamentally, however, is the deep core of political libertarianism. If you strip away all the justifications and spiffy rhetoric (at which Rand Paul excels, by the way), political libertarianism manifests itself as a resistance to following rules (liberty) and paying taxes (property); it can be summed up perfectly in a seven-word phrase most of us thought we’d left behind on the playground: “You are not the boss of me!” That’s it. Liberty, property, autonomy, non-aggression are all window dressing laid atop a fundamental stance of rebellion, of denying the supremacy of any authority over the ego. Some would say that’s about as anti-Christian as you can get.
Interesting (if trivial) side note: a friend of mine is a practicing Satanist (and a very intelligent, if somewhat odd, fellow). As he explained it to me (and as my reading of the texts bore out) Satanism and political libertarianism are sides of the same coin, and have at root the same principles. As best I can tell, Satanism is in fact the only religion directly compatible with political libertarianism. None of which is to say that all libertarians are closet Satanists, merely that those who claim political libertarianism and some other religion (like Christianity) are living out an implicit contradiction. And that is one thing at which we humans have ever excelled: “The heart [of man] is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9)
I mean. If you’re a teetotaler and you drink, that’s contradictory based on the terms. If you’re hairy but completed clean shaven, that’s contradictory. What troubles me about your question is that it invokes extremes. To me the whole point of identity politics is that it’s a struggle to put into words aspects of self-understanding that are generally frustratingly ineffable. It’s an uphill battle. If someone is vegetarian but wears leather shoes and eats gelatin, are they vegetarian? So many people think vegetarians eat fish. If I don’t observe kashrut or Shabbat, ate pork and shellfish growing up, and don’t believe in God in the traditional Jewish sense, am I not Jewish?
“Who is a Jew” is a big question in Judaism these days. Recently an orthodox member of the Israeli government said that it’s a waste of time making a space for Reform Jews to pray at the Western Wall, because in a few generations intermarriage will eliminate Reform Judaism anyway. Maybe it will eliminate what this Orthodox person thinks of as Reform Judaism, but Reform Judaism is Judaism, period, and I think it will be around for a long time. Contradiction is always there, beneath the surface. When we think in black and white, we go to the other extreme from what you’re describing. Is either accurate? Is either helpful?
Clarity and truth of terms doesn’t ‘invoke extremes’ it helps people understand. Many people want to redefine the beliefs, values and even terms of institutions today and communication is becoming a mess. I know for people like Brad who have “cognitive and spiritual resources’ this isn’t a problem but for many others it’s burning bridges of understanding. It’s one of the real challenges of interfaith work too. Conservatives and moderate evangelicals do steer away from groups like this because of the mirage nature of truth that is presented. Many people don’t like playing the inter-relationship game with shifting rules, terms and boundaries. It’s like showing up to play football and all the other players won’t commit to playing by its rules because they want to play soccer. Then when you protest, your shamed down because of the ridiculous idea that there should be some type of forced commitment to predetermined rules. This type of thing is spilling over into all kinds of areas of public life. I’m just waiting for the progressive movement to take on parking tickets, so I can redefine the law to fit what I feel or want in any given situation.
And what happens when that “understanding” is illusory, when it is predicated upon a lie? I’d much prefer a messy, uncomfortable truth to a crystal-clear falsehood. Wouldn’t you?
This is the world we live in, Eric. This is the world we live in. People have the sincerely held belief that they are cats. Sincerely held beliefs are the currency of the realm, now, man. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5gWXwbToNpA
Well just because someone thinks they are a cat doesn’t mean they are, but I’m sure those designations are too oppressive or bigoted, for some types.
Thanks for the shoutout to SpokaneFAVS! This is what we’re all about, sharing stories.
So true. Labels don’t tell us anything about what is in a person’s heart or what their potential is. Breaking out of stereotypes is a great service to any community.