A while ago I listened to a great Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called the Danger of a Single Story. She talks about the issues that emerge when we only know one story about a group of people.

She uses the example of stories of pity told about her native Africa that often didn’t match her life experience, and that when she met people they had expectations on that single story. She notes that having multiple stories is often a privilege that comes with power, having the power to portray yourself more robustly through many different stories. For example, she points out that while many people have only heard one story about Africa (an entire continent): a story of underprivilege, oppression, violence, and tribal customs, that most people know many stories about America because America has the ability to tell many stories about itself. She illustrated this by pointing out to a friend that she had recently seen the movie American Psycho, and it was unfortunate that Americans all chose to be remorseless serial killers. That was how it was being African and constantly given the assumption that she was like the “one story” of Africa, a story that did not match her life experience which was far more robust.

There are many problems with only knowing a single narrative about someone. I’ll share a few stories that immediately came to mind for me. One of the areas in my mission that was very difficult was the island of La Palma. There had been two vibrant branches on the island less than a year before I was sent there. When I went there, the branch in Los Llanos (on the west side of the island) had been closed, and we were just reopening it for missionaries. The branch on the other side of the island in Santa Cruz had two active members out of the 32 who were on the records. Most had reneged in that very recent time period due to very strong social pressure against converting. The island was always difficult due to a wariness of outsiders–they didn’t even like tourists. But one issue emerged when a local priest or Cura was offended by a missionary (I’m not sure what the story was) and he began to spread the rumor that the Mormon missionaries were only on the island to kidnap children. This story was, for most of this isolated island, the one story they knew about Mormons. It was bad enough that one set of elders turned a corner and saw a young boy playing in the street a few houses away. The boy’s mother ran into the street, scooped up her child (leaving his toys in the street) and ran into the house locking the door behind her. For a while, this story resulted in so much opposition that this city was shut down for missionary work, and it was in fact based on nothing more than a Cura’s lie to (in his mind) protect his flock from leaving the faith.

Likewise, many of us are aware of the power of the film The Godmakers when it is “the one story” people know about Mormons. In my case, when this film was shown in the small town I lived in, most of my classmates were not persuaded that it was accurate because they knew I was a Mormon and that I wasn’t some wacky cultist. The efforts by the church in it’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign were helpful at dispelling the “one story” problem for those who went to the trouble to go to the site. There wasn’t just “one” story or one acceptable way to be a Mormon. Interestingly, because of the church’s elevation of some family and personal choices as “ideal,” there were some members who disliked the “I’m a Mormon” campaign for normalizing personal narratives that they felt were “cooler” than their “more righteous” or “more ideal” story.

Years ago, I was in a lesson at church that I really didn’t like. I didn’t know the teacher well, but her examples seemed anti-intellectual to me–poorly researched, very superficial. I was also prone to think ill because my kids stated that her son made “gay-bashing” comments in a lesson they were in, something that they didn’t like at all. It would have been very easy to stop right there, to choose to avoid this family. Instead, I decided to get to know her better. We became good friends, and I found that there was more to her than just that one story. I was also able to share my own views on things that (because we were friends) might have gotten her to think more about some of her assumptions. Or maybe not. These things don’t always result in lifelong friendships, but they can.

Sometimes when there is “one story” it’s an exaggeration of the real story, and a little digging can radically change how the story is perceived. I was reading about Stetson Kennedy, an undercover journalist who wanted to break into the secrets of the KKK as a way to oppose their movement back in the 1940s. You can read about him in Freakonomics or in this article How Superman Defeated the Ku Klux Klan. At that time little was known about the inner workings of the Klan, so trying to subvert them was difficult. They were a terrorist organization, but actual acts of terrorism such as lynchings were at an all time low. What he found by talking with others in the movement was that they were really not active at much more than shooting off their mouths and engaging in silly rituals that made them feel important in the face of their depressed economic circumstances and prospects. Their speech was hateful, to be sure, but the majority of them had no intent to do any violent acts, unlike the reputation of the Klan. It took the fangs out of the organization when he discovered this, and made it easier for him to take them down. After he published their secrets in a Superman radio program, attendance at the next meeting was almost nil. They felt silly because children were making a game out of their antics, laughing about their ceremonies. He made the Klan the subject of mockery rather than fear, so the narrative of white power lost its pull, at least for a while.

When we talk about church leaders, they aren’t people we know well or personally, and so often we have “one story” about them. When we gather more stories, it presents a more complex picture. For example, many know Pres. Packer as someone who fought against gay rights, someone who called intellectuals, feminists and homosexuals the three biggest threats the church opposed. Many see E. Oaks as the “no apologies,” anti-gay marriage person who equates Fox News with capital T truth. But I’ve also heard a couple of stories that run counter to these. Some examples I’ve referenced elsewhere:

Let me add to the mixed bag on Pres. Packer. A good friend was greeting several apostles in their visit overseas. Packer was the most senior. A local leader had asked a procedural question, and one of the more junior apostles was about to give an answer when Pres Packer stopped him and cautioned him that answering that kind of question given their position often resulted in unintended consequences because members took what they said casually too much to heart and would turn an off hand remark into a new rule forever. This from the author of The Unwritten Order! (important to note: Pres. Packer ALSO declined to answer the question).

I also heard from E. Oaks that Pres. Packer is the one who bought the Q12 iPads to use for their scriptures and to access the LDS apps.

Oaks is also quite interesting. He loves a white shirt and pushes for outward obedience but he is also a strong advocate of equal pay and rights for women. He also did a lot behind the scenes at BYU to reduce how oppressive and right wing the environment was. And yet, he’s quite comfortable stewing in the political right.

E. Bednar infamously promoted passive aggressive behavior and judgment about something as trivial as earrings, and yet he doesn’t try to shackle women in the home, recognizing his mother as a strong woman and financial contributor.

On the flip side, Pres. Monson is someone who is well known for visiting widows and promoting service as the 4th mission of the church. But I did hear one story in which he was rude to underlings which one or two people said was typical in their experience, and of course his role in Prop 8 is well known, an action that proponents of gay rights (including me) will not see as evidence of charity. These other stories give me pause, and my belief in his universal kindness has dialed down to “mixed bag” levels. I suppose all people are a mixed bag.

  • What contrary stories do you know about church leaders that change or soften the “one story” approach?
  • Does having a more nuanced view of people help or hurt your view of the church?

Discuss.