Our lives are shaped by stories – even the most frivolous and whimsical are essential in the construction of our subjective and shared realities. Stories convey information we have learned; they help us teach lessons of history, beauty, morality; they allow us to construct our personal and group identities. Humanities’ earliest written texts contain pages of parable, allegory, and narrative, and we know that oral traditions of storytelling reach back immeasurably further.
People like stories because stories make things human. Stories take abstract notions and fill them with flesh and feeling. They are captivating because we can see ourselves within them. Within each character – our humanity is reflected back at us. A recent study by the New School found evidence that reading good fiction increases an individual’s ability to empathize by exposing the reader to the inner worlds of others and forcing them to make inferences about a characters’ mental states. To understand a story it is essential to understand the feelings and experiences of the characters within it. As naturally curious creatures, we are driven to find out “how the story ends.”
The Problem with the ‘Single Story’
What happens then, if all of our stories contain the same cast of characters? In her 2009 TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche talks about the “danger of a single story.”
She shares her experiences of coming to the US from Nigeria to attend college and discovering that Americans had only one story of Africa – that of poverty, famine, war, and tragedy. They could not understand her story of a teenage life filled with modern conveniences and pop music. She says, “Show a people as one thing – as only one thing – over and over again and that is what they become.” The people who do the “showing” in our society are people who hold power. The richest media outlets, corporations, and politicians have the loudest voices, and so become our dominant narrators. These narrators tend to give only characters who most resemble them their due depth and dignity – most others are ignored or simplified for easy consumption. Adiche says,
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told – are really dependent on power.
The single story reduces great human complexity to broad strokes. It sensationalizes and exaggerates to compel cheaply, and it edits to ensure it is in line with our previously held stories– ensuring “authenticity.” A deficit in stories leaves everyone in a deficit. Those who are able to easily identify with our dominant narrators are left with an impoverished world view. They miss the opportunity to empathize with diverse characters and find the shared humanity in voices which sound different from their own. For those who find themselves distinct from a dominant narrative the effects can be quite devastating – the ability to create positive identities is diminished – leading to feelings of shame and pathologization.
This is the place where storytelling becomes political. These unheard stories subvert the dominant, and hearing these stories can change hearts, minds, and policies. When these stories are heard they thwart expectations and break historical stereotypes. They empower, embolden, and increase empathy and understanding between diverse groups. They already exist – and need only be brought out from under the oppressive din of the “louder” single story.
Embracing Identity – A New Project
In the coming months, I will be seeking to turn up the volume on some of these under-heard stories through a series of in depth narrative interviews with people who have “come out” as both queer and atheist. There is no “single story” of queer, atheist identity. The Embracing Identity Project will be a place to hear the diversity of experiences, attitudes, and outcomes of being “out” in a broad range of communities. Each story will highlight our shared humanity through the struggle, joy, liberation, and transformation within them, and perhaps inspire others to tell stories of their own.