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The limitations of the single narrative - Comments

root2squared's Avatar Comment 1 by root2squared

Thanks for posting this. I thought it was brilliant, very insightful, and witty as well.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 15:59:16 UTC | #583967

Stevehill's Avatar Comment 2 by Stevehill

Today, there is no excuse, for those living in the West, to be untravelled.

Carbon footprint? There's nothing worse than air travel on that score.

I've travelled a lot in the past, but nobody in my family of four has been on a plane in the last 5 years. We can and do see a lot of Europe via train and car.

Oh, and the whole airport experience stinks these days. It has absolutely nothing to commend it.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 16:08:43 UTC | #583968

TheRationalizer's Avatar Comment 3 by TheRationalizer

Thanks so much for posting!

No matter how much pro or anti Islamists might claim it to be true, there is no single Islam.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 16:51:02 UTC | #583979

danconquer's Avatar Comment 4 by danconquer

I wish this website allowed users to 'tick' or 'thumb-up' (perhaps 'thumb-down' too) contributions. Then I could simply 'thumb-up' comment No.1 instead of having to say that I too thought it a delightfully pithy endorsement of first hand experience and the enlightenment it inevitably brings.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 16:56:24 UTC | #583983

root2squared's Avatar Comment 5 by root2squared

This really is not about Islam. It is about something very important for rational thinking:

The narrative shapes views, and those with more power have more narratives. Hearing stories from one side only will most likely make you a bigot and you will never realize it.

A very simple fact that most will never get throughout their lives.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 17:03:37 UTC | #583992

Carl Sai Baba's Avatar Comment 6 by Carl Sai Baba

Bah, humbug.

Television and newspapers don't tell us a lot, but I think everyone here is aware of moderate Kurds and people in iran who are tired of theocracy as examples of all muslims not being the same. The common cry that terrorists are "just extremists"is a blunt view of terrorism, but shows that people beyond this website don't think all muslims are the same character in a single narrative.

Also, there may not be a doctrine for all africans, but there is a koran for muslims. Do we really need to go over the lesson in variation within a religion reflecting variations in adherence?

And for all of the possible acknowledgments of african diversity, one could still make a good deal of money by betting against the original poster in a guessing game I will call "starvation or space program?"

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 17:37:37 UTC | #584017

Neodarwinian's Avatar Comment 7 by Neodarwinian

" Today there is no excuse for those living in the West to be untraveled. "

Oh, Reeeaaaly!

Are you using the word stereotype free of connotation?

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 18:03:43 UTC | #584029

Peter Watkinson's Avatar Comment 8 by Peter Watkinson


I would also like to thank you for this very interesting posting.


Tue, 25 Jan 2011 18:55:51 UTC | #584040

VitruviannMan's Avatar Comment 9 by VitruviannMan

RDfan, as others mentioned, very witty post. However, I can't help but think that the correct audience for this post should be pretty much everyone but the people in this forum. I'd guess that many of us rational thinkers (if I may call us that) would already be skeptical about any doctrine having only one face.

If you don't already have one, I'd recommend that you start a blog so that others can read it too.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 19:36:14 UTC | #584055

pekkaa's Avatar Comment 10 by pekkaa

Very nicely written, but perhaps you have a little narrow view of us westeners:

Today, there is no excuse, for those living in the West, to be untravelled.

Raised in a poor single-parent working class family, I know one very good excuse to be untravelled. That is lack of money, of course. Now when I am older and have a good job and reasonable income, I still have very little to spend. I have to support my wife and three sons. I am the only one who works in my family. And even if I could spare the money, it is not an easy task to travel around the world with a family of five.

Your comment, forgive me, sounds a bit elitist.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 20:02:26 UTC | #584063

bigfootisreal's Avatar Comment 11 by bigfootisreal


Maybe instead of untravelled the word uninformed would be more appropriate word. Not everyone can afford travel, but most western countries have decent libraries and the internet can be accessed from almost anywhere in the world.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 22:12:10 UTC | #584134

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 12 by AtheistEgbert

I'll respectfully disagree with RDFAN. Africa is a very big continent but the narrative appears to be slow development. Why? Have a few guesses.

Tue, 25 Jan 2011 23:37:48 UTC | #584178

Pete H's Avatar Comment 13 by Pete H

I’ve had several good stories from Nigerian creative writers via email spam over the years. They must have hordes of creative writers.

They’ve developed a distinctive style that makes their proposals just barely but not quite plausible. A few Australians have been quite taken with it. A few have even gone to Nigeria to meet these talented writers, but they haven’t been seen since.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 01:34:03 UTC | #584234

Pete H's Avatar Comment 14 by Pete H

The constant barrage of media stereotypes is just a symptom of the original misleading beliefs, which were established by stories.

Doctor Goebbels of the Spinne with his theory of the Big Lie is an example. Propaganda is only effective when people already think in certain ways. It works by pushing thoughts further in the direction they’re already going. E.g. No amount of Nazi propaganda could ever have convinced Europeans that Jews were normal and good people. But only a small push could generate enthusiasm to round them up. Same thing with the Tutsis and Hutus.

In the OP example it is not deliberately manipulative, but the process is the same.

It depends on the narrative bias, which is almost as interesting as the placebo effect.

Stories may exist as a human art form to serve this purpose. There’s a theory that long stories in poetic form predate written language and incorporate specific structural elements which aid memory and ensure reliable transmission. But there’s more to it. They involve a very powerful tool of unconscious psychological influence known as the narrative bias. Like most other biases they work best when the subject isn’t aware of the bias, and is otherwise distracted and preferably uncertain or anxious – with the implied message offering to resolve or justify that uncertainty or anxiety.

But there are 2 interpretations of narrative bias:

  1. People tend to not notice information which doesn’t fit the orthodox story, regardless of how that story became established (authoritative sources, repetition, media bias). But this is only a variation on the confirmation bias. It affects how beliefs are unconsciously defended and maintained but not how beliefs are established.

  2. People tend to more readily believe information when it is packaged into a recognisable story structure, with emotional interest. The narrative structure is a form of evidence for the truth of a story. There’s a limited set of story templates to which a message must conform to so it can be recognised as a valid story and be believed independently of other evidence.

The narrative bias links with the authority bias and social proof. The authority effect would work to the extent that anyone who transmits a story is regarded as either an expert authority (because the story structure is evidence of interpretation and analysis compared to less memorable but simpler facts), or is channelling an expert authority.

The social proof effect is relevant because an elaborate story is a reliable indicator that a significant number of people have previously handled the story (via the oral tradition our minds have evolved to assume). Multiple retelling would contribute to a story’s complexity and emotional intensity, and an elaborate story is unlikely to be concocted just to manipulate or deceive a single individual. A good story implies a hidden mass of past and future audiences. This hidden audience provides ‘social proof’ of validity because a good story could not exist in the absence of an substantial audience. It is the hidden large audience, yet still perceived by implication, that provides the necessary social proof to facilitate belief.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 01:44:27 UTC | #584239

RDfan's Avatar Comment 15 by RDfan

AthiestEgbert: My main point is about the narratives that come out of Africa and the Middle East. These stories are almost always negative. I guess the same could be said of most "news" programmes, even those in the West. They tend to focus on conflict, corruption, division, despair and death. It is a simple narrative, a "winning formula" told repeatedly, with very little nuance.

Whilst I think that these are important issues and need to be covered, I also think that these issues are disproportionately showed on our TV screens, almost at the expense of all other stories. There is a trend in voyeurism in today's media; some have called it Poverty Porn, a kind of Death n Disease Cult among the popular press.

The ordinary person living in the African continent, or the random man, woman or child in the Middle East, hardly gets a look in on our TVs. These people's stories are hardly told; if they are, it is to the extent that they fit into the narrative of death and destruction that's already agreed to be the only story to be told.

It's probably true that any "news" broadcaster that attempted to programme only "good news", or even every-day uneventful stories (which is the vast majority of stories out there) from around the world, would probably be out of business in a very short time, sadly.

@Pekaaa (comment 10)

I once knew a woman who was a cleaner in a library. She probably did other odd-jobs, too. She dropped out of school before completing her secondary school years. She could barely read, write or add up. Anyway, 9 out of 12 months of every year she worked and saved her money. Why? Because the other 3 months she traveled. She took no planes; she used trains, buses, boats or simply trekked. Although barely "educated", she has been to more countries than I could count, and she is one of the most interesting, humble, intelligent, and knowledgeable persons I have ever met. How did we meet? I was cleaning the library with her. So, no, I'm neither rich nor am I elitist.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 01:58:00 UTC | #584244

AtheistEgbert's Avatar Comment 16 by AtheistEgbert


Again, I will have to respectfully disagree. Of course most news is bad news. Of course the same old themes crop up, and nice stories or hopeful stories simply don't get selected. No one is much interested in news stories in Ireland, unless there is something related to the 'troubles' as an example.

But there is an element of postmodernism in your post. I don't have much time for Marxist social science theories and the idea of equality of narratives, or the idea that one single narrative is based on a capitalist conspiracy I find tiresome.

I actually do think that there is a single reality out there, and I think that Africa is held back by both religion and corruption. Any nice stories of progress is one step forward, while the general state of things is two steps back.

Of course you're right in suggesting that things are more complex and that is inevitable when you begin to only look at the specifics, but the general underlying cause of problems in Africa is the retardation of development.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 02:23:52 UTC | #584250

Misfire's Avatar Comment 17 by Misfire

Thanks RightWingAtheist for driving home the point that atheism is not a belief system, and as such we can disagree on a very fundamental level.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 04:30:57 UTC | #584277

pekkaa's Avatar Comment 18 by pekkaa

I once knew a woman who was a cleaner in a library. She probably did other odd-jobs, too. She dropped out of school before completing her secondary school years. She could barely read, write or add up. Anyway, 9 out of 12 months of every year she worked and saved her money. Why? Because the other 3 months she traveled. She took no planes; she used trains, buses, boats or simply trekked. Although barely "educated", she has been to more countries than I could count, and she is one of the most interesting, humble, intelligent, and knowledgeable persons I have ever met. How did we meet? I was cleaning the library with her. So, no, I'm neither rich nor am I elitist.

That's very touching but do you really think that it is feasible to all? I too could have dropped secondary school, but back then I felt that it was more important to study and graduate from university.

Now when I have a family to support it is no way possible to spend months a year traveling the world.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 13:24:42 UTC | #584377

Al Denelsbeck's Avatar Comment 19 by Al Denelsbeck

Re: #15 by RDfan

If you had left off your last little dig, your post would have been fine. As it is, your closing line changes the entire tone to one of unsupported accusation.

I once knew a woman who was a cleaner in a library.

Had this statement been issued by one of the apologists that frequent here, you yourself would likely have called it, "anecdotal." The circumstances of this woman you knew are as unique as my own. I daresay her living arrangements would not stand up to the majority of people on this forum, much less "in the West." Some of us, believe it or not, might have found it more useful to learn how to read and write, and perhaps even pursue a stable career, than to travel extensively for the sake of experience. Personally, I would love to travel a hell of a lot more, but your accusation that this was my fault hardly makes you aware of my situation, does it?

The rest of your post was great. Add in a subscription to National Geographic and you've closed it nicely.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 14:10:16 UTC | #584393

holysmokes's Avatar Comment 20 by holysmokes

Having traveled around the planet a few times, (no I am not rich), including a handful of African nations, I believe the largest problem with that particular continent is nothing more than a lack of education. Poverty and corruption will never end, so long as people have no means to support themselves and their families.

I'm not talking about basic grade school learning, nor do I refer to college degrees. I'm talking about that part in the middle such as trade schools and technical institutes. Places people can go to get training for real world employment like plumbers, masons, construction workers, electricians, machinery repair etc. Take a look around places like the USA or Western Europe. Most employed people, (who make a decent/honest living), have at least a small amount of specialized training.

Obviously it is difficult to learn when your primary goal is to simply figure out a way to feed your family on a daily basis. I don't pretend to have the answers, especially for the countless millions in this trap, however I am convinced that education is the key. It will also serve to lesson the degree of subjugation of women that Chris Hitchens frequently talks about.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 16:20:31 UTC | #584433

locutus7's Avatar Comment 21 by locutus7

Regarding muslims, I would suggest that while believers vary in their economic circumstances, appearance, etc., they are united by their stated belief in the Koran and the deity described within. If someone says they are a muslim, they may not be a murderer, but their identification conveys quite a bit of information about the person.

If muslims do not want to be "stereotyped", they should not identify with that rigid belief system.

Just my opinion.

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 22:09:50 UTC | #584563

lilalindy's Avatar Comment 22 by lilalindy

"Today, there is no excuse, for those living in the West, to be untravelled."

Yeah, right.

We're not all middle-class. Some of us thinkers are simply unable to afford travel like that.

To class a low wage as an excuse is, ironically, using the single narrative that all of us in western Europe are affluent enough to travel, if we could be bothered to get off our fat arses.

Thu, 27 Jan 2011 09:37:23 UTC | #584675

guyver_dio's Avatar Comment 23 by guyver_dio

I disagree, I think the message to 'not believe everything you hear in the news' is stated everywhere, I think people are aware that any report or broadcast only shows one side and that it's all that gets covered, however it's still up to people to pick and choose what they want to believe.

There's also a lot of people from those countries in the west, mixing in with western societies. If you talk to them you always find out way more about these countries than the news reports. Even if you don't know them, you only have to observe that they aren't gun wielding maniacs the news would have you believe.

I wouldn't travel to those countries but not because of fear brought on by media, I simply don't have any interest or have any reason to visit those countries, or almost all countries for that matter, I'm not the traveling type.

Thu, 27 Jan 2011 10:50:59 UTC | #584688

wynn's Avatar Comment 24 by wynn

There is an argument raging in South Africa at present, that you cannot be African if you are not black, I saw somewhere recently that you cannot sing the 'blues' if you have straight hair?

I am a non African South African (second generation whitey) I grew up in Capetown, where there is a large Muslim community and I have spent the majority of my adult life close to the Transkei where the Xhosa people come from. I can say that in my experience, both Communities have a majority of good conservative people with the occasional hot head.

Both of these communities suffered under the Apartheid yoke.

The one thing that most Westerners, in fact a large number of white Africans don't understand, is that most black Africans make decisions as a collective for their communities. So even if it is wrong according to western standards or local individual or minority beliefs the collective decision holds sway.

The other thing is Tribalism, although in larger cities this is becoming less so, is still a strong indicator as to how well you do in a local society.

Xenophobia is raising it's ugly head among the crowded slums and people from other African countries are being discriminated against and in certain instances persecuted.

Africa, at least the part I know, is very complex and even though it has a Western shine on some of it's faces it will take as long as Europe took to leave the 'Dark Ages' before it reaches it's full potential.

Fri, 28 Jan 2011 11:02:05 UTC | #585183

wynn's Avatar Comment 25 by wynn

The 'Dark Ages' comment in my previous post relates to the fact that Witches are still burned and 'Muti murderers' harvest body parts for Witch Doctors to make 'Muti'

Fri, 28 Jan 2011 11:13:21 UTC | #585190

Layla's Avatar Comment 26 by Layla

What you're saying applies to everything. Not just to Africa or to Muslims. Everyone stereotypes and generalises about everyone else. It runs both ways and we do it about not just region and religion but nationality, occupation, age, class, etc.

I just see these generalisations as a kind of shorthand and take it as understood that they come with qualifications.

Who seriously thinks Muslims aren't all individual people with their own lives and their own personality?

Wed, 02 Feb 2011 19:36:06 UTC | #587076

JohnnyBosc's Avatar Comment 27 by JohnnyBosc

I can't really fathom why physically displacing your butt to some minute portion of another region --where I likely won't even understand the language never mind the details of the cultural undercurrents bar the most trivially obvious ones-- to meet with a minute fraction of its population should be so much more intellectually rewarding in this respect than e.g. trawling the internet for the huge amount of parallel and widly different narratives contained therein. Different - certainly. Experience-enriching - indubitably. More fun - quite possibly. But indispensable for an adequate appreciation of the variety of human experience and its vissicitudes -- hardly.

Btw, I have travelled quite a bit, if that's any sort of credentials.

Thu, 03 Feb 2011 11:18:34 UTC | #587285