Some years ago, I was all hot and bothered by a choice someone else had made, a choice I thought was particularly dumb. I can no longer remember what or who, but I do remember what my husband said to me that day. “Holly,” he said, “ask yourself why would a rational, well-meaning person make a choice like that?”
My first response was to say that no rational, well-meaning person would say or do X, Y or Z, since it disagreed with my perspective. But just like I learned that being “colorblind” could be problematic, I’ve also learned that thinking I had the whole truth, or the only truth was also not true. At this point, I imagine you are shaking your head and saying, “well, duh, Holly” — but hear me out.
It is human nature to believe that our experience is the experience. From our childhood, it is normal to believe that our family’s religious/educational/cultural experiences are mirrored by others. The danger of carrying that view into adulthood, however, is that we can become calcified in our own echo chambers and stay insulated in groups that parrot back our own confirmation biases.
What that turns into is an inability to see others, to hear others and to hold space for people who have different experiences than we do. It can lead to dismissiveness (“that could not have happened”) or a form of benevolent “isms” (“I have a Black friend and I think they’re beautiful, so I know I’m not racist”). It can even result in gaslighting, or trying to convince a person that their lived experiences are not real.
In 2009, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk on the “danger of a single story.” You create a single story, she said, by showing “a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again. ... 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.”
It’s like the old story of the four blind men who were feeling a single part of an elephant and then extrapolating their experiences to what the entire animal is like. The person who felt the trunk believed the animal was like a thick snake, while the one who felt the leg thought the elephant was a single pillar, like a tree trunk, and on it went. In some versions of the story, the men came to blows, so intent were they on holding onto their version of the truth.
There is not one story that is the story. Name any issue and there is not a single story that represents the whole of it. Education, poverty, masks, religion, political party affiliation, approach to foreign policy, race, gender, family size, adoption, children with special needs — any of it and all of it. People are complex. Problems are complex. If there was a simple one-size-fits-all approach to any of the issues we face, we would have found it and implemented it already. And we might be calling ourselves the Stepford Wives while we do it.
If you find yourself saying “All immigrants are ...” or “All Trump voters are ...” or “All Biden voters are ...” or “All Black people are ...” or “All women are ...” when describing an entire group of people, it’s time to take a step back and ask yourself what parts of the story you are missing.
Can you put yourself in another’s shoes for a minute? Or walk a mile? Sui Lang Panoke, senior vice president over diversity, equity and inclusion for Zions Bank, asks us to “consider this ... although you meet the minimum income requirements, you are not allowed to join the local country club because you are white. Think about that for a moment. Now, if any part of you found humor in that statement, even for a second, racism is alive and well in this country — oftentimes, we are simply unaware to what degree we have internalized it.” That’s one example out of an endless array of possibilities.
Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster spoke recently on the podcast “Therefore, What” about the value of what he calls “strategic empathy.” Strategic empathy, he says, is “viewing complex challenges, as well as opportunities, from the perspective of the other side.”
In her book “Storycatcher,” Christina Baldwin writes, “Story is the song line of a person’s life. We need to sing it and we need someone to hear the singing. Story told. Story heard. Story written. Story read creates the web of life in words.”
Stories matter. So does the way we tell them, even to ourselves.
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy Daily and a Deseret News columnist.