The Danger of a Single Rural Story
What if there is more than one truth?
I have been wondering if the problem with America is that we live more and more in isolated worlds that are self-reinforcing. In California, this is known as living in a bubble, but a midwestern term for a rural version could be living in a silo. A silo has thick walls, is tall, and feels like it serves a meaningful purpose. In the midwest, our bubbles are tougher and work a little harder, just saying.
These silos mean that different people get different news from different sources. But more than that, the silo system also means that we have different sources of visual entertainment, music, religion, language, and moral high grounds. We can live our whole lives and not have our worldviews challenged or hear a credible alternate version of reality. We live within what writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “a single story” (please watch her TED talk). This is dangerous both for us and for America.
Our single story silos have allowed stereotypes and prejudice to continue and grow. I rail against the prejudice urban people show towards people who live in rural areas. It is one of the few prejudices that are still acceptable in mainstream culture. Rural folks are depicted as backward racist rednecks who keep a gun in the truck and might be a little inbred.
There is a single story out there for city people and it is not kind to rural folks. We generally don’t care, because we have our own single story about city folk as elitist liberal atheists who think they are better than us. The story is that city people don’t know how to work and want to take the taxes paid by hard-working people and give it all to people who don’t deserve it.
These are competing single stories and while they play well within the silos and bubbles, they don’t actually help people get better lives. Instead, by perpetuating stereotypes they entrench the inequalities of the status quo.
The other day I was thinking that everything might be better if we went back to the days of my youth, where there were only three major tv stations and everyone listened to the same Top 40. At least then we could agree on the facts. We had a shared culture that included rural and urban folks. We could go back to the place where rural people watched Good Times and city people watched Hee Haw. We all watched Cronkite and Brokaw and Rather and nobody had Qanon or Amy Goodman yakking in their ears. We were one nation then. Ooops.
That is neither possible nor desirable because that was also a single story. What’s worse, it was a single story infused with the stereotypes and prejudices carried by the dominant group of white, Christian, middle-class males (like me). No. We can’t go back. Instead, we get to break free from the whole concept of the single story.
True liberation will come when we break down the walls of the silos and burst our own bubbles from the inside. This will take the courage to listen to other voices and stories. This happened to me this past summer after George Floyd was killed. I chose to seek out stories from people who are not white.
It is uncomfortable to recognize how much of my life was defined by a single story narrative, and there was a world of other stories that I could ignore because of the color of my skin. This also happened to me after that day on social media where literally all of my female friends said “me too.” The stories were there all along, but what was different was that, taken collectively, they burst bubbles and broke down the walls of silos.
I think we need to let go of the dangerous single story idea across the board, especially as we think about rural America. We need to practice radical listening. We need to see commonalities, without reducing common struggles to another single story. The problem with a single national story is that it leaves out people on the edges and blurs people together.
Rural people have been forgotten and excluded and ridiculed for so long that it is no wonder we live in our silos. The way forward is to recognize each person has a unique set of truths, and although they may be different truths from another person, we can still have common cause.