Dangers of a single story

  • The ability to see validity in other narratives will make collective action possible
- Bidushi Dhungel
Dangers of a single story

Aug 18, 2014-

When in a faraway place, it is common for Nepalis to congregate on the weekends. This usually means a barbeque, a nice dal-bhat dinner or an all-out momo party. These are gatherings the diaspora so desperately look forward to, to catch up and comment on Nepali politics and society, listen and dance to Nepali songs, eat Nepali food, drink Scotch (regardless of the temperature or time of day) and generally be very merry about being surrounded by people who do or have in the past, during some phase of life, shared some cultural, geographical and most often, linguistic ties.

Questions and answers

In these wind-down sessions, there is a lot of talk of ‘why’: Why aren’t the politicians doing more for the people? Why hasn’t the water and electricity crisis been sorted out? Why is everyone so greedy and corrupt? Why can’t all ethnicities just get along? Why do people in this day and age discriminate against Dalits? Why are women still accused of witchcraft? Why are the roads so pot-holey? Why is public transport in Kathmandu so inefficient?

Why is there gunda-raj? Why are politicians supporting criminals? Why are they getting away with murder? Why is the Nepal Police racist? Why has the constitution not been drafted? Why is India such a bully?

The ‘why’ questions are, as you can see, endless. The answers, however, are usually the same: “khoi, k bhako hola, dikka lagchha,” or some variation of laying the blame on India, the Maobadis, Congress, UML, Janajatis, Bahuns, Madhesis and Pahades. Some like to go further back and say it’s all the fault of the Ranas and the Shahs or the white (neo) colonialists (my personal favourite).

There is probably some logic to all these arguments. Considering that I have heard all of these arguments over and on repeat in person and through the media, I have come to the conclusion that each is valid in its own right. I don’t disagree with most of these views. But surely, the development of a systemic crisis, such as the one Nepal faces today, has myriad causes, which are a manifestation of so many wrongs on so many levels by so many people over a long period of time.

Difference over similarity

So if some semblance of a just and vibrant democracy is to manifest in Nepal, one thing needs to be accepted: there is no ‘single story’ to explain the past, present or future of Nepal. Attempting to forge such a story, as Nigerian novelist—and my personal hero—Chimamanda Ngoche Adiche has said, would be to ‘emphasize difference over similarity,’ and thus ‘rob people of dignity and recognition of human equality’.

In Adiche’s words, “It’s not that they [the single stories] are untrue, but that they are simply incomplete.” This would also suggest that repeating the same opinions over and over again in various mediums will not make them more complete or truer.

Adiche talks about how impressionable and vulnerable we all are in the face of a story—so much so that the stories begin to dictate our lives, to the extents of justifying violence, hate-speech, discrimination and outright repulsion of large chunks of the population.

In the context of Nepal, the dangers of the single narrative of society are pretty evident in the deep polarisation we see today across all lines and at intermittent times in history. Opinion-makers, civil society, donors and political parties are all guilty of pushing single stories at certain times.

All the while, most narratives do hold a degree of truth and representation.

What, then, does it mean to say that everyone’s narrative is a part of a greater narrative?

Well, going back to all the unanswered questions regarding why things are so painfully wretched in Nepal, it’s helpful if we can accept that there are many reasons, that they are all valid in their own right, and that engaging with unresolved issues—which stem from history, the present and what is coming—needs to be done with an understanding of these multiple truths. This would go some way in not just assigning blame but towards finding solutions.  

A multiplicity

Take identity, for an example. I want to go back to another one of Adiche’s ideas. She—like many before her—explains that identity is not constant. “Most of us have many identities and identity is something that shifts depending on where you are and what you’re doing. There are times when you are one more than the other. Identities do not have to be competing,” she says. As such, each is as valid as the next. I’m quite confident that if we can understand Nepal’s current focus on ethnic identities in a similar light, it would change the discourse dramatically.

Instead, it seems though that the need to pigeon-hole every thought, every action, every injustice and every individual is eating away at the democratic space. So much so, that it has become commonplace to even use the scapegoat of ‘culture’ to justify our inaction and inability to see beyond these labels.

Talk about a ‘culture of impunity’, a ‘culture of feudalism’, ‘a culture of corruption’, ‘a culture of apathy’, and ‘a culture of inequality’ is rampant. But even ‘culture’ is fluid and temperamental: “For when culture makes it difficult for some to achieve what others can do easily, then there needs to be a demand for change.” That demand for change drives society forward.

The point is: collective action is what dictates the status quo—what can provide answers to those mind-boggling and endless ‘why’ questions on development, identity, culture, politics and society. But collective action comes from the acceptance of all ideas as parts of a greater story and can thus enable us to march forward together.

Published: 19-08-2014 09:24

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