I think it’s the teacher in me.
I want to understand everyone.
I want everyone to be understood.
Understanding does not mean agreement, of course.
By no means.
But how can we understand where and how we disagree unless we truly grasp what those disagreements are?
That’s trite, I know. It’s the sort of thing you hear over and over, so much so that it loses whatever power of truth it holds. (Someone probably posted some variation of this idea on Twitter just now.)
A. If I disagree with someone, that disagreement ought to be based on an accurate and thorough understanding of the other person’s view.
B. Nah, I’m good. I just want to disagree, and I don’t need to have a clue about where another person is coming from.
Of course, the right answer is A. Not only is that answer intuitively right, right in merely human terms, but it’s also unquestionably right for anyone who cares about truth, argument, and constructive debate. A point of view or opinion that takes into consideration contrary views and counterpoints is inherently stronger and truer.
Yet, we seem to be in a place today where truth matters less and, consequently, facts, formal arguments, and reason itself have been reduced to mere baubles and sequins, going in and out of style faster than it takes a Twitter timeline to refresh.
Speaking of Twitter, the polarization, distrust, and toxic discourse that has increased over the past decade is owed greatly to social media doing what it has been redesigned to do — amplify, distort, and polarize in order to monetize.
Examining this development in a recent essay for The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt compares what we are experiencing now in American culture to the biblical story of the tower of Babel. “Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything,” Haidt writes. “It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”
"OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORLD IS BASED ON WHAT WE EXPERIENCE, AND AS FINITE HUMAN BEINGS, OUR EXPERIENCE IS LIMITED."
Among other parts of this current predicament, Haidt points to the role our shared stories can play as one of the “major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies.”
But we share too few stories today. Thus, while we now live in what Marshall McLuhan famously termed the “global village,” we often see the entire village only through the lens of our individual stories.
In her famous 2009 TED Talk, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie issues a compelling warning about “the danger of the single story.” In her talk, Adichie describes growing up on a university campus in Nigeria as the daughter of a university professor and an administrator. An early and voracious reader, Adichie primarily read British and American children's books. Thus, when she began writing her own stories as a child, she says,
“I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to. My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was.”
This story is humorous, of course. But its point is powerful. It shows, Adichie concludes, “how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an ancient story, the parable of an elephant and some men who were blind.
You remember how it goes: some men who can’t see are brought before an elephant for the first time and touch the part of the great beast nearest to them. The man who touches the tusk thinks an elephant is like a spear. The one who touches the leg thinks an elephant is similar to a tree. The one who touches the trunk thinks an elephant is most like a snake. The person who touches the elephant’s tail concludes that an elephant is like a rope.
"WE CANNOT GRASP THE ENORMITY OF TRUTH ONLY THROUGH OUR FINITE HANDS."
The point of the tale is clear. Our understanding of the world is based on what we experience, and as finite human beings, our experience is limited.
This, of course, does not mean the elephant (which represents the fullness of reality and truth) does not exist. Nor does it suggest the elephant (or truth) is not knowable. It simply means we must recognize there is a bigger picture before we can even begin to capture its essence. We cannot grasp the enormity of truth only through our finite hands.
Now imagine the parable today.
Not only do we have the people who think an elephant is like a spear, and the ones who think it’s like a snake, and so on. But we also have those people communicating 24/7 across the globe with like-minded partial perceivers, forming parties, and platforms, and wars on each other based on these limited views. Some aim to gather all the spears. Some hope to chop down the trees. Some want to weave together all the rope. Some who’ve never been near the elephant don’t even believe it exists. But all are tempted to build a single story from their part of the elephant.
In limiting ourselves to stories that are too few or too small, we fail to grasp the entire elephant, let alone the jungle and the world — a world where not only elephants exist, but where lions prowl, orange trees blossom, bees sting, children are born, elders dodder, and poets sing.
As a teacher of literature, I believe that by simply reading good stories — by all people, of all times and from all places, we expand not only the stories that fill our imagination, but we also strengthen the connections between those stories in ways that lead to the bigger Story.
Listening to and bearing witness to the stories of our neighbors, our friends, and strangers — and even our enemies — can do the same.
Karen Swallow Prior is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books (Brazos, 2018).