Recently, I was watching a TED talk by novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, entitled, “The danger of a single story.” In this, she discusses how the construction of limited narratives pertaining to particular peoples and places creates a warped, bias perspective on the world. Today, the 7th of May 2015, it appears that the political character of the United Kingdom is on the knife’s edge as its citizens prove the mightiness of the pen over the sharp implement and cast their votes. What is at stake? For many, it appears that it is the very identity of the country itself.
I have to preface this discussion with the obligatory nod to self-reflexivity and declare my own bias. Admittedly, I am just one online commentator out of countless, just another drop from the internet cloud, and a privileged one at that. Being a white, middle class, cisgender woman in a heterosexual relationship, and a leftie at that, you could argue that my perspective on the country is just another ‘single story.’ Yet, the existence of my own bias, and indeed every other that exists in the form of over 60 million inhabitants of the United Kingdom is in fact integral to my argument against the single story of Britain.
Not surprisingly, the media portrayal of immigration is a topic Chimamanda confronts in her talk, specifically her shame at unconsciously falling under the spell of the negative characterisation of Mexico in the United States. Immigration isn’t a topic that has merely reared its head so much as had a tantrum and stamped its feet in the run up to the general election. The horror story of immigration, with the benefit-scrounging and potentially HIV positive migrant protagonist is one that Nigel Farage has relished retelling again and again. The demonisation of migrants is one of the best examples of the danger of the single story in modern Britain. For me, the day the political tale of Britain appeared to turn into a black comedy was when Farage blamed being late for an event because an increase in immigrants had caused the M4 to be “not as navigable as it used to be.” This quote reveals that the apparent scourge of immigration is in fact only one chapter in the greater British chronicle of how it “used to be.” I’ll return to this story later.
Immigration is not always beneficial to everyone, including immigrants. Immigrants will not necessarily be people that you like personally, understand or who contribute to the economy, but they are not always bad either. In fact, they are human beings that can, just like any other member of the population, vary wildly. And herein lies the ultimate fallacy of the single story. Labelling people as “immigrants” not only dehumanises, it homogenises, which is simply inaccurate.
There are other categories which have been created for people to make writing single stories about them easier. One of these is the caricature of the benefit thief. The stigma associated with claiming benefits is convenient in a political climate in which the deficit has been hung around our necks like the albatross from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a collective guilt that feels all the more heavy when welfare cuts loom on the horizon. The single story of benefit fraud allows us to render those in poverty, those disabled and others who need help from the state as The Other, when in fact those who claim benefits are not just a statistic but individuals who lead myriad lives and should not just be defined by boxes ticked on an administrative form.
It’s time now for a personal anecdote, because a bit of irony in discussing the single story seems appropriate. I had an acquaintance. He can be called, Tom, Dick or Harry, it doesn’t really matter, and for the purpose of this piece I’ll go no further. This acquaintance seemed to be obsessed with the supposed omnipresent nature of what he referred to as “pickeys.” He referred pejoratively to people who he believed were constantly watching, ready at any moment to steal tools which were left unguarded. Furthermore, he was known for having a hatred of brown squirrels, due to their history of almost driving red squirrels into extinction in the United Kingdom. In this way, even a squirrel can be labelled as a dangerous ‘immigrant,’ while it is easy to forget that they were originally brought in as a novel addition to estates in the 1870s. What this anecdote demonstrates is that a single story can lead people to actively dislike and discriminate against certain groups of people, and that the single story is very much compatible with ideologies about British identity.
So what does it mean to be ‘British?’ The answer seems to come from that chronicle I mentioned earlier, the one about how it “used to be.” There can be great nostalgia in the single story. This is a subject that Guardian columnist Zoe Williams has touched on in her article: “Let’s ditch the nostalgia that’s invaded our TV and seeped into our politics.” Though I don’t quite agree with her call to “burn the bunting,” she does make the interesting point that the recent popularity of vintage aesthetics and thrift does complement the austerity story and the connotations of British stoicism that both are woven into. Of course, a love of vintage does not have to be associated with the deficit, but nostalgia and a need to attempt to pin down a ‘British’ identity and values are important to the austerity story because without them there would be no proposed happy ending. The Puritanical urge, that sense that if it hurts it must be good for you, relays back into the feedback loop of striving for a supposed pure ‘Britishness’ which can only be attained by travelling back in time, and disassociating with The Other, which can only be won through…austerity.
Yet this single story Britain is the exact opposite of what it pertains to be. It could be believed that driving away immigrants and minorities of all kinds would create a somehow more complete, more wholesome country. Yet, as Chimamanda puts it:
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”
Austerity Britain is one story. So is the nostalgia for days gone by, a different Britain, and I’m not discounting that because it is clearly prevalent in constructions of national identity. However, there are also the stories of minorities, who are far from ‘minor’ and bring their own perspective. There are so many different cultures, colours and creeds in Britain, and they all have their own stories to tell, whether you care or agree. There is not one inherently British story, because how could there be? The world is constantly in flux, and all our stories are changing.
If you think it is only the status quo, the stereotypical traditional British person that can bang at the door of Number 10 Downing Street, then perhaps you should consider an alternative plotline. I believe there are other stories out there, and I don’t think they are the stuff of Arthurian myth and legend. There are Others. And to paraphrase Walter White, they are the ones that knock.