'Truth' influenced by varied experiences
Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Op-ed (Published on July 27, 2023)
Author: Dr. RL Booker
Editor: Sara Bishop and Veronica Mobley
In many African countries, such as Benin, Ghana, Nigeria and Togo, an African proverb has been shared for centuries. One of the variations of this proverb is "the true tale of the lion hunt will never be told as long as the hunter tells the story." When I first heard this quote, I did not quite understand it. In a 2017 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Dr. Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, explains that he once met a Nigerian scholar who explained this proverb with a tale often told to children in Nigeria about an elementary school teacher who posed a math problem to her class.
Suppose, she said, four blackbirds are sitting on a tree branch. You take a slingshot and shoot one of them. How many are left?
An American-born student answered quickly, "That's easy. Four take away one is three." An equally eager Nigerian immigrant boy stated with equal certainty that the answer was "zero." The teacher chuckled at the Nigerian youth, indicated the answer was wrong and suggested he study more math.
Dr. Sue explained that this story gets to the heart of the unspoken assumptions of psychological science: If the teacher had pursued the reasons behind the Nigerian student's answer, she might have heard the following: "If you shoot one bird, the others will fly away."
Seen from the perspective of the hunter and the lion, both answers may be considered correct, but the hunter's tale determines "truth" and can result in imposing one reality over another.
So, why am I sharing this proverb? As I reflect on decisions that impact real people's lives and livelihoods, I often wonder if we, as a society, are interpreting the hunter's tale as truth or if we are seeking to hear the lion's tale so that we can determine what the actual truth is.
In many of my past articles, I've highlighted how the word "woke" has been used in the Black community for decades as a way to express that we should stay awake and be aware of systemic injustices in the world. Despite its original meaning and importance, some leaders have chosen to weaponize it toward cultural and social issues. In his 1967 book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated, "One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change ... but today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change."
I too believe we should be willing to stay awake, adjust to new ideas and, at times, stand with those who have different experiences, exposures and environments (the three E's). Standing with others does not require you to agree on every issue, rather it shows how you truly care about the dignity and humanity of those whom we call our neighbors.
I've also talked about the long-standing benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), not just for people of color but also for people with disabilities, women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and, quite frankly, all of us. DEI was born out of the civil rights movement to give those who had oftentimes been excluded from exercising their rights in society the chance to do so. People like Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb and many others were murdered fighting for the very same civil rights act that sought to address everything from preventing voting barriers for Black folks, other racial minorities and poor whites in the South, to prohibiting sexual discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities via Title IX. Yet many states and organizations have decided to target DEI. While this can be frustrating or even feel like a personal attack, I believe it is essential to provide some insight to leaders who may be wading through these issues.
In Stephen R. Covey's book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People," Habit 5 highlights how we should seek first to understand then to be understood. Covey highlights that many of us seek first to be understood because we are often certain we are right. Some leaders don't want other opinions because they risk being influenced to shift their position. But, if we are honest with ourselves, we don't want our doctor, dentist, mechanic or any other professional to make decisions about our health care or property without first seeking to understand the root cause.
If this is true, we should hold ourselves to that same standard. Keeping ourselves to that standard requires us to continually self-interrogate whether we want to be right or to be effective. Being effective involves listening to those most impacted, keeping the lines of communication open and being willing to shift our position.
I believe we should all continually interrogate whether we are interpreting the hunter's tale as truth, or are we seeking to hear the lion's tale to determine where the actual truth lies. Only time will tell if any of the changes that have been enacted will be proven effective.
I am sure we will all be watching.
Covey, S.R. (2013). 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon & Schuster.
King Jr., M.L. (1968). Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? New York, Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.