Overcoming The “Single Story”: 3 Inspiring Ted Talks From 3 Inspiring Women

It’s true. Every life is a story. Elizabeth Gilbert, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Monica Lewinsky are no exceptions.

At first these women’s stories all seem different, but they are not. The underlying message is the same.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, in one of her TED Talks shares that as a first time author with a best-seller she felt tremendous pressure to out-perform her first work. She discovered that the same public that gives accolades and godlike status on one hand, bequeaths successful artists with an ever-increasing anxiety of their impending failure on the other.

Gilbert wonders if successful artists would be less self-destructive if the adoring public saw their creative genius as an expression of God — or Goddess, rather, as the oft-cited muse that is said to deliver inspiration to artist and scientist alike is of female, Greek origin —  accessible to everyone today, as it was to the desert nomad caught up in the ecstasy of the dance hundreds of years ago.

The public’s reaction to successful creative people has all the elements of what Intellectual and fellow-author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, calls a ‘single story’ — a one dimensional narrative about a person or a group of people.

Adicie’s ‘single story’ presentation is one of the most popular TED Talks ever given by an African woman. It is popular because everyone has, at one time or the other, told a single story or been a character in someone else’s ‘single story’.

When Chimamanda was a little girl of eight or nine she came face-to-face with the ‘single story’. . .  As is the custom of middle-class families in Nigeria, she grew up with servants. One of whom, she was told by her mother, was exceedingly poor. Adichie recalled that she felt great pity for the servant boy and his family.

One Saturday morning, however, her mother took her into the village where the servant boy lived. While there, his mother showed them an exquisite raffia basket woven by the boy’s brother. Adichie was very taken aback. Up until that point, whenever she thought of the servant and his family, the only ‘story’ she had had of him was one of ‘poverty’. She had never conceived that they could be or do anything else — anything artistic, expressive, or intelligent —  because in her child’s mind, ‘poor’ meant a completely one-dimensional, in-expressive life.

In 1998 and beyond, Monica Lewinsky was seen in the light of a particular ‘single story’: that any woman — regardless of age and experience — who has sexual liaisons with a married man is a ‘jezebel’

When Lewinsky came to the world’s attention she was an impressionable 24-year-old who had fallen in love with her boss– a powerful and charismatic man. It is not unusual for a young woman to fall in love with their older male boss. For Lewinsky though, it was unfortunate. Unfortunate, because the object of her love was the President of her country, and in the dirty world of politics, their trysts were clandestinely recorded, and later, excerpts of them were shared with the world. While social media as we have it today did not exist at the time, the internet was nonetheless burgeoning and everyone — politicians, religious groups, et al — had something to say. Axes were being ground the world over. And while there was boisterous criticism of Clinton’s sexual shenanigans, the brunt of the ‘moral outrage’ was aimed at the 24-year-old Lewinsky. To say that she was the most scorned woman on the planet at that time is not an understatement.

The media fed readers’ salacious headlines such as ‘moral outrage’ and targeted keywords like “Lewinsky”, “stained blue dress” and “that woman” ( a quote from Clinton’s denial about never having sex with ‘that woman”). All of this, of course, led to hundreds of thousands of clicks-throughs and revenue. Many readers around the world felt justified belittling Lewinsky.

Two crucial things happened from this online attack. These were:

1. Moral outrage led to public shaming and public shaming sanctioned what would become known as cyber-bullying; and

2. Monica Lewinsky gained the dubious distinction of being the first victim of cyber bullying.

In her TED Talk, ‘The Price of Shame” Lewinsky explained how for 17 years she tiptoed around this great shame. With the increase in teenage suicides due to cyber-bullying, she decided to use her own experience to champion the cause against this behavior. At the end of her speech Lewinsky makes an argument and a heartfelt plea for people to show compassion to others.

And therein lies the one thing each of us can do better every day. We can make a conscious decision to set aside a single story– and when faced with what we have been told is true about a particular person or group of people, remove our pre-conceived judgements, take one deep, conscious breath, and do our best to replace it with both understanding, and compassion.