The danger of a single story

A friend of mine on Facebook recently pointed me to a meme which he’d acquired over at Econlog:

The next time you’re engaged in a political discussion with someone who has very strong views different from your own, ask them if they can name two famous thinkers or politicians whose politics are opposed to theirs who they also think are very smart and genuinely concerned with making the world a better place. If they can’t, it’s not clear they are able to grant the good faith such discussions should have.

This was timely and appreciated as, at the time, I had been engaged in several frustrating back-and-forths — you know, the usual someone is wrong on the internet — and I was sure one of my primary interlocutors would fail that test, and then I realized I did too. It was a good reminder.

Dovetailing with that is this video I’ve had up in tabs forever and finally got around to watching:

The two points that really stand out to me here:

  • Having only one story about a people or place doesn’t just mean that you’re probably wrong — it means you end up lacking the capacity to know you might be wrong. You lack a frame in which alternatives could fit.
  • Stories, as so many things, are about power. In particular, the powerful are those who can tell stories about other people, and have them believed.

Normally I try to draw library connections with all my posts, but this topic is near enough to my heart I am posting it regardless. If there are connections, draw them as you will.

9 thoughts on “The danger of a single story

  1. Nice post. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I decide whether to ignore, delete, or engage with Facebook “friends” who hold very different viewpoints (on just about everything) than I do. Am I really willing to tolerate what I consider to be (at worst) hatred and bigotry or (at best) ignorance?

    For now, I’ve decided I’m willing to listen and tolerate beliefs that are different from my own. I think this is because I have a very deep, core feeling that everyone is really trying to do their best with the (sometimes limited) tools they have.

    It’s a complicated topic for me though, and I’m always glad to read others’ thoughts about it. Thanks for posting.


    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I’m torn too; on the one hand, there are topics that definitely make me want to rant, a lot (and the other day I hit a trifecta of them, three different places on the internet, so, frustrations galore); but on the other hand, I do pride myself on having a variety of political perspectives in my social circle (even if not nearly a wide enough variety of backgrounds), and I think that listening is really important. I might be wrong. And I’m certainly not omniscient. It’s just problematic when other people aren’t, either ;).

      But yeah, I do think that most people are trying to do their best, and that we’re all more likely to be open-minded about other people’s lived examples than their arguments. Around and around I go.


    2. It’s a good question.

      I usually err on the side of keeping the circle open because I think that’s the only way progress is ever made. I have no idea what the “next step” is after that, though.


      1. I believe I have it set to choose random avatars for people who don’t come with their own. (Or maybe not so much “random” as “generated via hash on your email address” or something like that, which would explain why yours is consistent.) But this was something I set during installation and promptly forgot as unimportant. šŸ˜‰


  2. Do the aforementioned thinkers have to be alive? It is a lot easier for me to respect some dead philosophers, than the modern political elite. =)

    I generally believe that most politicians, most political pundits, and most talking heads honestly believe they are doing something to improve the world around them. They may be taking a more expedient path than doing the best they can to improve the world (something that garners more attention and popularity, rather than “the best thing”), but are acting out of some level of altruism.

    There are, of course, exceptions to that, but I believe it is the minority that are in the political game for the sake of the game or the sake of fame. I believe that Glenn Beck and Dr. Laura honestly believe they are in the right. Delusional or not, they seem to follow their conscience.

    The “Very Smart” Part is harder. In general, there are some points in political or philosophical discourse where the opposing position makes me doubt the person’s intelligence (evolution, understanding of the scientific method, general and special relativity, most anti-abortion arguments, anti-legalization of marijuana, anti open and affirming civil marriages, etc.).


    1. I don’t think there was any stipulation of aliveness. As far as I’m concerned, the point is “are you at least moderately aware of influential, and disagreeing, thoughts/theories/paradigms”, for which the dead work just as well as the living. (Except that some long-dead thinkers — e.g. Socrates, Jesus — have been appropriated by so many schools of thought for so long that they may not reliably count. And have had others speak for them more than they have, in the historical record, spoken for themselves. But aside from that.)


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