Multitudes: Complexity in Self and Story

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A quick Walt Whitman doodle
I’ve been thinking a lot about complexity and simplicity. I’ve been thinking about how simplistic portrayals of complex things influence our perception of the world, how they drive our politics, how they contribute to an incomplete understanding of the people with whom we interact every day. The truth is that in seeking to grasp reality, in attempting to explain things that are huge and confusing, we often create narratives full of half-truths and ignored truths. We cling to stories that align with our pre-formed beliefs and reject stories that offer contradictions.

We like to believe that a political figure or ethnic group can fit into one clean explanation. But it is dangerous, I think, to assume that any one-dimensional understanding of a thing is an accurate one, especially when all of us as human beings are so extraordinarily complex. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” writes Walt Whitman in the ever-glorious Song of Myself. We are multifaceted creatures, stuffed with chaos and contradiction, both tormented and liberated by these inner inconsistencies. We struggle to do good and we fall into bad; we seek to spread love and sometimes, instead, cause harm. Or perhaps for some it is the opposite.

If we are able to address our own complexities, perhaps then our views of others will be more complex as well. If we struggle to pin down one explanation of ourselves, fail to condense our existences into punchy Twitter biographies, how can we rationalize an interpretation of another that sacrifices messy minutiae for an airtight narrative? (The answer: easily and subconsciously.) But if we seek to be informed, ethical people, we must reject simplistic answers and embrace ones that challenge us. In her brilliant 2009 TED Talk, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns against the “danger of a single story,” asserting that such a view “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.”

Yet so many of our stories seem to be of just this kind. We say, for example, that Christians are bigots, that Muslims are terrorists, that nonreligious people are cynics, disregarding charitable Christians, moral Muslims, and altruistic atheists. “So that is how to create a single story,” says Adichie, “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” In constructing our angry criticisms, often inspired by genuine hurt inflicted by a person belonging to a certain group, we forget that not all gun owners are mass shooters; that not all Donald Trump supporters are uneducated hicks; that not all Bernie Sanders fans are people hoping to bum off the government; that not all welfare recipients are lazy and unemployed; that not all feminists seek female superiority; that not all police officers are racist “pigs;” that not all Black Lives Matter activists are militant and anti-police; that not all teenagers are lazy and entitled; that not all politicians are corrupt or self-involved; that not all journalists are vapid, biased, or unprofessional; that not all immigrants are illegal; that not all refugees are murderers in disguise. I’d go so far as to say that most Christians are not bigots, most Muslims are not terrorists, most feminists do not seek female superiority, et cetera.

Reducing an entire group to a single story may be simpler to wrap your head around, but it’s just that: reductive. Simplistic. It denies the group its humanity. Looking at a group as it is—a complex, varied, diverse set of human beings—will get you closer to the truth, and to compassion, than hackneyed generalizations ever will. As Adichie maintains, “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.”

So here is to a multitude of stories. Here is to stories we write about ourselves and stories we read from others, stories that make us think, stories that do not let us stay comfortable. The more we seek out these stories, the closer we inch to an accurate understanding, and the clearer our vision becomes of what happens in the world around us.



2 thoughts on “Multitudes: Complexity in Self and Story”

  1. Indeed. For all the ugliness of this election cycle, it has given me a glimpse into the minds of some politicians I never thought I’d find admirable, yet I see many taking the high road, putting ethics and morality over party affiliation. And knowing that Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump are close friends offers hope. That said, I am worried and afraid. Literature, of course, offers insight into our world, and I love how you’ve paired Whitman and Adiche.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m also worried and afraid, but I’m trying to take an optimistic approach and learn something valuable from all the crazy, scary things going on. As are you, obviously!


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