press enter to search

URBAN CHAT: The crowd of single narrative

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, January 25, 2019  /  05:21 pm
URBAN CHAT: The crowd of single narrative

Give voice: Holding to a single narrative on an issue can partially blind people to the whole story, which in turn would deny the person the whole truth. (The Jakarta Post/Estella Maria Swantara)

I spent last Sunday brunching with my friend CeeCee, a journalist-turned-yoga-instructor who moved to South Africa a few years ago. As we hadn't met for a long while, our conversations were robust and animated, but one discussion got me thinking further -- one about people with single narratives.

Illustrated poignantly in a TED Talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a person maintaining a single narrative on an issue can be partially blinded to the whole story, which in turn would deny the person the whole truth. 

Chimamande drew examples from her life as a middle-class Nigerian student in the United States who constantly met Americans who had expectations of her being a poor and tribal African -- Americans who'd been exposed to a single narrative of a devastated Africa long before they actually encountered any Africans.

Conversely, Chimamande owned up to the fact that she, too, once held a single narrative about Mexicans as hapless immigrants, which rendered her ashamed the day she visited Guadalajara and saw diverse Mexicans.

Having worked with expats and lived overseas, both CeeCee and I are familiar with foreigners who hold a single narrative about Indonesia or Indonesians. I, for example, was earnestly asked in the summer of 1995 by a fellow Harvard Summer School student, no less, if Indonesia had any McDonald's restaurants or BMWs.

Having said that, CeeCee and I also aren't above admitting we've had single narratives about something or someone, but what got us worried is the spike in numbers of Indonesians around us chained by single narratives, whether about race, ethnicity, religion, politics, or all of the above.

It's 2019, a good 74 years after independence and we still have Jakartans who think that the eastern provinces of Indonesia are full of pristine beaches and unenlightened folks, not much different from the American single narrative of a devastated Africa that Chimamanda lamented about.

It's 2019, a respectable two decades after Reformasi, yet we still see Muslim Indonesians who are bound by the New Order narrative about all Chinese folks, including the ones born after generations in Indonesia, being godless communists. Ironically, many of the same Muslim Indonesians also believe that the Lunar New Year is a religious event for all Chinese.

Each of these single narratives occupies a brain cell next to each other, padlocked shut so tight their contradictions never come to light. Being in a majority, many Muslim Indonesians live their entire lives among their own kind so that to them people of Chinese descent are no more than shopkeepers, strangers during elevator rides, or rich tycoons profiled in the media.

It's 2019, at least two decades since internet access became available, yet one can still find non-Muslim Indonesians, who've gone to school and lived among their own demographic since childhood, who assume all Muslims are dog haters or never know that the reason Muslims seriously desire food upon breaking the fast during Ramadhan is because they ate their last meal at about 4 a.m. and not during the normal breakfast time. 

Sounds ludicrous? Anecdotal as they may seem, these are all true stories that I found. If you look at things people have posted on social media lately, some more venomous than others, the numbers of people steered by a single narrative seem to be burgeoning, emboldened by social media algorithms to commune only with the like-minded, getting themselves farther removed from knowing the whole of any story. 

It is even worse when religion is thrown into the mix. Piety, in any religion, requires acceptance of the One Truth, of us versus them, yet what we see lately in Indonesia are newly religious groups that aren't even open to their own brethren who dare to differ slightly over scriptural interpretations.

No wonder evil political minds decided to take advantage – the single-minded lambs marched voluntarily into the slaughterhouse in hordes, surrendering their logic and awareness in exchange for a vote. 

How do we change this whole mess? Offer another bunch of narratives. Offer your narrative: voice, not noise. Go out of your virtual and real-life comfort zones, befriend people who don't share each and every one of your demographic traits. Share your stories. Hear their stories in return. It would not be easy at first, it would feel useless at times, but if you don't want a single narrative to be taken as the truth just because the noisiest crowd accepts it as such, then only you can shout out the other. Can't you?

Even if you can't immediately change perceptions, wouldn't you want the chance to add your voice into the mix? Chimamanda had her TED Talk; you can have your coffee talks. Give voice, not just noise.

Interestingly, I think that's what former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama is trying to do. By switching his nickname from "Ahok" to "BTP", he can accomplish a few things. First, he follows the political practice of adopting catchy initials (SBY, AHY, JKW, JFK, RFK and LBJ, for example). Second, he erases the trace of ethnicity. Third, he offers a new narrative about a man named BTP who has a clean slate, removed from that Ahok guy with his controversial narrative. As a former brand marketing professional I salute whoever advised Ahok, I mean BTP, on this rebranding.

It's what many of us must do. Indonesia is too diverse, too complex, for one lousy narrative on the things that make us Indonesians. Almost 75 years into independence, why have we more like a collection of single-minded crowds, instead of a balanced and broad-minded nation? C'mon now, people! (ste)

-- Lynda Ibrahim is a Jakarta-based writer with a penchant for purple, pussycats and pop culture.

Your premium period will expire in 0 day(s)

close x
Subscribe to get unlimited access Get 50% off now