In her TED Talk, “The danger of the single story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns that knowing only one story about people different from you can result in a vast misunderstanding. A single story can never be representative of the entire group that the subject of the story represents. The power of stories is that they show one possibility. That possibility, if it resonates with beliefs we already have, is very motivating – for better or worse.
“Single stories create stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Allowing single stories to speak for the identity of a vast group of people is, to say the least, problematic. But that doesn’t mean stories themselves are the culprit.
Adichie goes on to say, “Stories matter. And many stories matter.” Our job is not to stop telling stories, it’s to stop repeating the same tired stories, listen to new stories from others and start telling our own.
What does all this talk of stories have to do with guns?
I was one of millions who watched a Facebook video posted last week by Scott Pappalardo. After sharing his story, he personally decommissioned his AR-15 by sawing it apart on camera. “People have always said, ‘There’s so many of ‘em out there.’ Well now, there’s one less.”
He told his story as a strong defender of the Second Amendment, sharing that he even had it tattooed on his arm. It made his personal choice to destroy his AR-15 that much more powerful. And it added a new story to our understanding of what a man with the Second Amendment tattooed on his arm might think or do.
His video quickly went viral and the hashtag #onelessgun started trending – a single hashtag that communicates so much possibility for participation. If you’re someone who wants to see smarter gun regulations, the possibility of decreasing the odds of another catastrophic gun violence event by even one gun is incredibly motivating.
That’s the power of one person, one story, one action – new possibilities, new motivations for change.
Another individual who shared her story recently was Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Instead of accepting that one new story couldn’t possibly make a difference in a country that did nothing after Columbine, after Sandy Hook, after Orlando, after Vegas, she stood and spoke – and called B.S.
“Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS!” Gonzalez said at rally in Ft. Lauderdale on Feb 17. “If you agree, register to vote. Contact your local congresspeople. Give them a piece of your mind.”
In addition to inspiring millions with her story, her call to action to register to vote has been taken up by people from Demi Lovato to Oprah, supporting the students’ voter registration and youth mobilization efforts. Gonzalez and her fellow survivors are organizing nationwide marches and school walkouts, forcing public debate on our prioritization of guns over lives.
Gonzalez’ story is not one we expect to hear from a high school student. It’s “just” one story, but it reveals the possibility that anyone can become an activist – not just those you’d expect.
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed or disempowered as individuals. But one person speaking up and taking action is enough to start the next movement, to keep the movement going, or to add a new story to a movement, proving that tired anecdotes never paint a full picture.
In a retelling of Loren Eisley’s “The Star Thrower,” there’s a woman on a beach that is awash with starfish, suffocating from their time out of the water after an unusually high tide. A passing girl sees the woman carefully picking up one starfish after another and throwing it back into the ocean. When questioned by the girl on why she is engaging in such an obviously futile endeavor when it can’t possibly make a difference, the woman says, looking down at the starfish in her hand, “It makes a difference to this one,” and throws the starfish into the ocean.
Will one less gun make a difference?
You may not be able to speak for all guns, but if you own a gun, you can make a personal choice to decide what its story will be. And that one personal choice just might inspire massive change.
Can you as one individual make a difference?
Absolutely. But where do you begin, when there’s so much to be done?
Here are some tips for overcoming “activism overwhelm” from arts consultant Beth Pickens, author of “Making Art During Fascism,” shared with Ann Friedman on a January 2017 episode of Call Your Girlfriend. Pick two issues – one that personally affects you, and one that does not personally affect you but affects people less advantaged or more oppressed than yourself. Those are now your two issues. Tell your story over and over about the issue that affects you. Listen and amplify the stories of those affected by the second issue. Join local action efforts on those two issues, and accept that it’s OK that you’re not able to do everything.
Another tactic Pickens suggests for keeping your activism personally sustainable is to find the one resource you can offer, and become that resource for all the issues you care about. Maybe you’re the person who brings audio equipment to all the rallies. Or hosts traveling organizers at your home. Or donates a percentage of your profits to those with time to do the activism you can’t do.
The possibilities are endless. It only takes one – one person, one story, one action – to start.
Crystal Paradis is committed to intersectional feminism and building alternatives to white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. She is the founder and lead organizer of Feminist Oasis, which you can learn more about at FeministOasis.com. You can also find her at CrystalParadis.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was originally published in the February 23, 2018 issue of “Seacoast Sunday,” the joint weekly publication of Foster’s Daily Democrat and The Portsmouth Herald.