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The Danger of a Single Story

January 14, 2013

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.

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Faun says:

I watched this TED talk for a purpose unrelated to this blog, but have decided that it’s a marvelously communicated, important argument that should be shared widely.
I don’t want to write a post that selectively summarizes Adichie’s points for my own purposes. She articulates her ideas much clearer than I can, so I would really urge you to just watch the talk.

My addition is this: as a Canadian, when I watch this I think about celebrations of multiculturalism such as ‘Heritage Days’ in Edmonton. For readers unfamiliar with it, I’m sure that you have encountered something similar. Here, representatives of different ethnic communities get together annually in Hawrelak park and put up tents with food, music, and merchandise.

I would argue that sharing the surface of community is better than sharing nothing at all. At the same time, though, what kind of ‘single story stereotypes’ does experiencing only a shallow, marketable version of different nationalities create? Do we become complacent in regards to intercultural relationships in Canada? This country has a long way to go before the asserted aims of real multiculturalism are met, and I suspect that few of us actually commit to understanding and valuing traditions for their arts, moralities, scholars, and stories beyond what is displayed at Heritage Days.
I would also connect Adichie’s ideas to the current Idle No More movement. One of the most striking things noticeable in discussions (especially online) about this movement is the ignorance of those speaking about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. Many critics are skipping right over the facts and resorting to overused stereotypes, relying on the single story of Indigenous peoples that they have heard repeated time and time again.

Canadian or not, I will bet you a hypothetical million dollars (and because I chose the social sciences as a career, this will remain forever hypothetical) that you find this TED talk relevant, thought-provoking, and delightful. One of the many marvelous things about her discussion is that I’m having a very hard time narrowing down its audience. It’s applicable to everyone who has ever interacted with others.

Miriam says:

This TED talk has been making huge waves in the social justice community, and I have seen it referenced in many of the recently published books I have read for my inter-religious dialogue job. The most recent time I saw it mentioned was when the author Brian D. McLaren quoted it in his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed cross the Road?” The context in which McLaren talked about the single story was his education in grade school, growing up in the USA. There, he learned, as almost all of us did, History with a capital ‘H’. He learned a history of America that at the time he did not consider to have any kind of agenda, despite looking back and realizing that of course the history he learned was biased toward and against certain things. An example he gave was the telling of Columbus’ discovery of America. The textbook completely left out the atrocities committed on the island population by Columbus’ crew, which included slavery, rape, and murder. A similar thing can be said of our Canadian education; that ‘single story of Indigenous peoples’ that Faun talked about above is a story partially perpetuated by what we learn in school growing up—at least in my experience.
The whole reason that the field of history interests me so much is that I see it as a way to debunk the single story. The use of history is not to chronicle exactly what happened in the past, but rather to interpret the past for the present and future. When we tell a single story as our history, we do a tangible disservice to people we are inevitably harming from using this approach. That is why we must constantly go back and reappraise and reassess, both the personal history of our own lives, and our collective history that we continue to live out each and every day.


What if people told European history like they told Native American history?

May 11, 2013

An Indigenous History of North America

The first immigrants to Europe arrived thousands of years ago from central Asia. Most pre-contact Europeans lived together in small villages. Because the continent was very crowded, their lives were ruled by strict hierarchies within the family and outside it to control resources. Europe was highly multi-ethnic, and most tribes were ruled by hereditary leaders who commanded the majority “commoners.” These groups were engaged in near constant warfare.

Pre-contact Europeans wore clothing made of natural materials such as animal skin and plant and animal-based textiles. Women wore long dresses and covered their hair, and men wore tunics and leggings. Both men and women liked to wear jewelry made from precious stones and metals as a sign of status. Before contact, Europeans had very poor diets. Most people were farmers and grew wheat and vegetables and raised cows and sheep to eat. They rarely washed themselves, and had many diseases because…

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Breaking News- Israeli Ethiopians

January 29, 2013

            So, in breaking world news, Israel has admitted to giving birth control shots to its Ethiopian residents without their knowledge. 

            I don’t even know what to say.  Most of the Ethiopians living in Israel are Jewish.  This pretty much conclusively proves that Israel’s discriminatory practices against their own immigrants and against the Palestinians have little to do with religion and everything to do with racism. 

            The other thing to point out is that Israel practicing eugenics is… supremely ironic.  I mean, it is ironic and hypocritical when Israel is coercing and mistreating the Palestinian people, and then reminding the world of their own mistreatment during the Holocaust.  But this… the Nazi regime is very famous for their active practice of eugenics, and for Israel to be using the very same tactics on Ethiopians who share the same faith as them…I am speechless.

            Until recently, the country I lived in, Canada, did not side with Israel.  They did not actively side with Palestine, but they did not side with Israel.  This position has changed, with our very own Prime Minister Stephen Harper.  Because of him, Canada became one of the countries—which were in the minority— that voted against recognizing the State of Palestine.  I feel ashamed that the international reputation of the country I live in was blemished on that day.  Palestinian protests now include signs that say ‘Down with Harper’ and ‘Down with Canada’. 

            We, as Canadians, need to become a much louder voice in opposition to Israel’s policies, because otherwise it’s not that things will never change, but rather things will continue to get much much worse for the millions that daily face oppression from Israel.

Babies and Childhood

December 21, 2012

Babies-2010-movie-picsMiriam says: I recently watched a documentary entitled “Babies”. This 2010 French documentary, directed by Thomas Balmes, follows four human babies through their first year, from birth to their first birthday. One baby is from San Francisco, one is from Japan, one is from Mongolia, and one is from Namibia. Two of the babies are urban (San Fran and Japan) and two of the babies are rural (Mongolia and Namibia). The film chronicles the ways in which the babies develop, as well as the parenting techniques employed by each parent, and by extension, culture.

I quickly found myself examining my own ideas about how a child should be raised, and pitting my perceptions against what I was seeing in the film. I will now present a list of what I see as the main strengths of each baby’s situation. (DISCLAIMER: I recognize that these observations of mine are based on a very very small amount of information about each baby, let alone about that baby’s culture. Back to the list-making!)

1. San Fransisco- This baby’s father was very connected with his little girl. He sang to her, played with her, read her books. Of all the babies, the father appeared most present here, and it was heartwarming to see him interacting with such enthusiasm with his daughter.

2. Japan- This baby developed very fine motor skills from a remarkably young age! The parents stressed lots of activities that would build these skills, and the little girl was often with lots of other mothers and children working on the same activities. I would not have guessed that at such a young age, she would have accomplished some of the puzzles that she was able to complete.

3. Mongolia- This baby had a keen sense of adventure, and was very willing to try new things. It appeared that this baby was allowed to explore, largely uninterrupted by his mother. There were some adorable scenes of the young boy interacting with the livestock close to his home, with absolutely no traces of fear. I feel like this baby will be good at setting his own limits.

4. Namibia- I’m not going to lie… this was my favorite baby! She had a wonderful mother who gave her lots of attention, while simultaneously instructing her from a very young age. She also had a large number of siblings, all of whom took on the responsibility of caring for her and modeling good behavior for her. This little girl was sitting up before the other babies, was crawling first, standing first, walking first, dancing first!

I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this examination of child-rearing around the world. My first instinct was to imagine what parenting techniques I would add or subtract from my own culture. But this was replaced with a different thought. All four of the parents in this film were obviously very good at raising healthy, happy babies, and all four loved their babies deeply. And these parents were able to raise their babies the way they did according to the situation that surrounded them. I feel like that is the universal strength of all four babies: the parents were all offering the best that their cultures had to offer.

Faun says:

What ‘childhood’ means, and how young people are raised, treated, and defined, varies historically and culturally. Miriam’s discussion about different childrearing practices made me think of a famous study by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (a Critical Medical Anthropologist at Berkeley) called ‘Death Without Weeping’. In an ethnography from the 80s in Brazil, she uncovers how infants are treated not as humans, but as ‘little angels’ born wanting to die because of the extremely high infant mortality rate.

“Part of learning how to mother in the Alto do Cruzeiro is learning when to let go of a child who shows that it “wants” to die or that it has no “knack” or no “taste” for life. Another part is learning when it is safe to let oneself love a child. Frequent child death remains a powerful shaper of maternal thinking and practice.”

Both culture and economics have played a role in defining age categories across both time and space. One open-access chapter by David Newman and Rebecca Smith describes how the evolution of childhood in Western nations has been tied to both mortality and modes of production for centuries.

“The social value of children was also affected by major economic transformations in society. The shift from a predominantly agricultural economy to an industrialized one in the 19th century revolutionized cultural conceptions. On the farm, families were bound together by economic necessity rather than emotions. Children were a crucial source of labour in the family economy, and they were a source of financial support in old age. Consequently, the birth of a child was hailed as the arrival of a future laborer who would contribute to the financial security of the family.”

It’s interesting and important to think about this for several reasons:

1- As Miriam pointed out, we can totally think about sharing good ideas cross-culturally. ‘Bubble-parenting’ is not the best route, as we have recently been discovering.

2- There are several pieces of international legislation that assume a certain definition of childhood. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the more famous ones- and while it’s a very important document, with some great things to say, it’s also important to discuss and think about variations in what it will mean from country to country. For example: The right to play would be a marvelous thing if the UN could guarantee the economic security of every family. Since they can’t, how does that right apply to families who need their children to work in the home, on a farm, or elsewhere? Doesn’t subsistence come first? To what extent is the right applied? The fuzzy language in the Convention is also problematic.

3- Structural violence, yo. Instead of condemning families/communities whose children are working, not going to school, or dying, perhaps we should take a look at some of the international socioeconomic factors that help create these situations. The Scheper-Hughes study is definitely worth a read.

Links to cited things:

Happy holidays to everbody, see you in the New Year!

On Tolkien, Fairy Stories, and Going to Prague

November 1, 2012

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it…
Fantasy is made out of the Primary world, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the at of making can give… By the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled. (Tolkien, On Fairy Stories)

Faun says:

On the way home from a night class, I was suddenly surrounded by those huge, fluffy, intricate snowflakes that are illuminated beautifully by streetlights and provide a whole new kind of contrast to evening walks. This kind of snow always makes me feel a bit like a child, and by night it summons the same kind of peace, awe, and sense of magic that I acquired from stories as I grew up.

In that flash, everything had changed. The snow was there as it had been a moment before, but not piled now on roofs or stretching flat over lawns and fields. There were only trees. (Susan Cooper, the Dark is Rising)

I loved stories that were full of mythologies, symbols, and moral journeys. It was so easy to feel magic, as a child. Now, as an adult, magic can only rarely be reclaimed, but stories still illuminate a life in invaluable ways. We are meaning-making, creative creatures, and it’s extremely saddening that my generation might be the last one to grow up reading books.

If you will practice being fictional for a while, you will understand that fictional characters are sometimes more real than people with bodies and heartbeats.
(Richard Bach, Illusions)

We assemble our lives like stories. I have a goal, I have climaxes and characters and genres. The most significant moments in my life have had story-like qualities, and I can pull motifs from the assortment of themes that give meaning to my narrative.

Let’s momentarily think about this and go to Prague. In the figurative sense, in the “read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, date a sculptor, now I know how bad American coffee is” sense:

Human lives… are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven’s music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual’s life… Without realizing it, the individual composes his life according to the laws of beauty even in times of greatest distress.
It is wrong, then, to chide the novel for being fascinated by mysterious coincidences (like the meeting of Anna, Vronsky, the railway station, and death or the meeting of Beethoven, Tomas, Tereza, and the cognac) but it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty. (Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

The conclusions of this sadly disjointed mulling? To be happy and feel like my life has weight, I sometimes need to pay attention to magic, motif, and miracles. Fairy stories, as our dearest J.R.R. asserts, are certainly a form of high art. Read more of them, especially to children.

Miriam says:

One of the things that Faun and I bonded over those many years ago was our love of fantasy. We swapped our favorite fantasy books, and compared notes on ‘Lord of the Rings’ and Arthurian legend. It was great fun to escape and to explore both the crappy and well written worlds of dragons, unicorns, wizards, sole adventurers, and relatable teens thrust into fantastical situations.
I’m going to go back earlier than that though, and talk about fairy tales. What immediately sprang to mind when I read Faun’s post was the fairy tale ‘The Twelve Dancing Princesses’. Here is a link to the story:

What I like about this story is that I never saw a film of it. I don’t think I even read a story book with pictures of it. But it captured my imagination, more so than the Disney-fied fairy tales. And it’s because I created my own lush imagining of the story. The groves of trees with leaves of gold? What is better for igniting the imagination of a child?
I’d love to hear from people about what their favorite fairy tales were as a child; it’s often surprising what stories grab childrens’ attention. I don’t know how I would be different if it were different

fairy tales playing such important roles in the development of my imagination, but I guess I’m pretty satisfied with the result. Dancing princesses! Trees of diamonds! I’m gonna go read some fairy tales now.

Modern Art- Art Brut

October 16, 2012

I’m not actually posting the original version of this song, I am posting a cover that one of my favorite youtubers, KickThePj, made.  The song is about someone describing their palpable reactions to Modern Art.  I really love this song because I love anything that makes a case for the importance of art.  The other reason I really enjoy this piece is that I am sometimes a little shy about appreciating the visual arts.  I am much more comfortable with music.  So a) it’s cool to hear someone appreciate art in the same way  I appreciate, say, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and b) it empowers me to have emotional reactions to visual art.  Anyways. What is art that has affected you in any way?  Please let me know!

Catch the Wind (Donovan)

October 8, 2012


As Miriam said, this month we’re posting songs that cheer us up, make us less stressed, and help us forget that it’s cold outside. So here’s one of my all time favourites.

This song made me feel nostalgic the first time I heard it. That was a long time ago, and it now invokes a sense of home regardless of where I am in the world; it has had such a constant presence in my life that nostalgia has been replaced with comfort.

It’s a cheesy song. Except- if you listen carefully, it’s actually an expression of hopeless pragmatism partially shielded by a harmonica and an acoustic guitar. It distinguishes itself from other love songs of its era by adding a subtle, melancholy layer to a genre usually characterized by uncomplicated joy.

I love that I can make up a keyboard accompaniment for this song using only three chords. Defending it to sceptical music connoisseurs is one of my preferred pastimes.

And that’s all I’ll say, before I get myself into too much trouble.