The Modern Myth Parade — Part 3

Despite our agnostic protests to the contrary, we contemporary North Americans are controlled by our mythologies.  Like our ancient Greek ancestors, we honour our gods and believe they rule our lives.  The problem is our myths don’t work.  In fact, they actually have an uncanny ability of getting in the way.  For example, because we believe in a benevolent planet where all reasonable people think and act just like we do, when that literally never happens, we feel our world is chaotic, disjointed, out of step and out of control.  This confuses us, but rather than questioning our myths, we reason that somehow we just haven’t been faithful to them and now the gods are angry.  So, like all primitive peoples, we try harder to please our gods, sacrificing our common sense on the altar of appeasement.  To butcher Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves.”  Thus, when people act in ways contrary to the wishes of our myths, we look for something or someone to blame.

Here’s the deal.  When Eddie, the local villain, breaks into our house and steals the iPod, iPad, iPhone and every other iSomething that isn’t nailed down, we want an explanation.  We want to know why, in a benevolent world, this could happen to us; how Eddie, another reasonable human being, got thrown so far off the tracks?  We wonder why our society has failed us, Eddie and the prescriptions of our mythologies.  When we don’t get any answers, we feel angry and frustrated.

Unfortunately, the answers are exactly what we don’t want to hear.

First of all, we do not live in a benevolent world.  There are people out there who actively want to do us harm.  Open your eyes!  The evidence is all around us.  We can ignore it if we choose, but that doesn’t alter the facts.  Secondly, under normal circumstances, people are not reasonable.  It’s only the constraints of our society that make them so. You don’t have to be Charlie Marlow to understand that the tapestry of our world is woven of very thin yarn which breaks easily and unravels quickly.  Finally, there are people all around us who don’t give a damn about the high-minded expectations we have for ourselves.  They don’t care that we believe we’re good people.  And this brings us to our final and most dangerous myth.

We believe that our mythology itself makes us morally superior.  Now, before you relax and think, “Finally!  I knew it.  We’re all racist jerks!” think again.  I’m not talking about racism.  Actually, racism, in North America, is just a silly little word game we play with each other when the media gets bored.  Compared to the tribes of Europe, Asia and Africa, we can take the Pepsi Challenge on racism any time –and come off looking good.  No, our belief in our moral superiority has nothing to do with anyone else.  It rests solely on the mistaken idea that our society has transcended its savage past.  We believe so thoroughly in our inner goodness that any storm cloud in our Neverneverland world is cause for alarm.  And that is precisely why we refuse to question our mythologies.

The truth is that if we do not live in a benevolent world where everybody is reasonable, then we are not the good people we think we are.  We’re just techno-Visigoths, struggling to survive, and nobody wants to be a barbarian.  Thus, when bad things happen, we think we haven’t been compassionate enough, or empathic enough, or reasonable enough.  We go back to our false gods, pray for forgiveness and redouble our efforts to appease them. Thus, the dysfunctional cycle begins again.

It boils down to this.  Either we quit sacrificing the way of life that got us here to a bunch of mythologies– and try to solve the reality of our problems, face-to-face– or our mythologies are going to kill our society dead as disco.  It’s that simple.

The Modern Myth Parade — Part II

The ancient Greeks were intimately connected to their mythology.  They believed the stories about guys like Theseus and Hercules were true.  They used these tales as metaphysical building blocks to construct the rest of their society.  From what we know, it worked out pretty well.  Here in 21st century North America, we also believe in our mythologies, and even though they don’t take human form (like the Greek’s did) we worship them, all the same, sacrifice common sense to their appeasement and tremble when we think they’re angry.  The problem is our myths are just as fictional as Zeus and his pals ever were, but in our enlightened age we forget to remember that.

We’ve already seen (here) that, despite huge amounts of evidence to the contrary, we truly believe we live in a benevolent world where everyone acts in a reasonable manner.  We’ve also seen that we get angry and frustrated when these enduring myths are proven wrong, again and again.  Well, hold onto something heavy, because this next bit’s going to blow you away.

We believe that everybody across time and space thinks the same way we do!  People are people, and we’re all basically the same.  We find it impossible to believe that there are people in this world who do not share our values.  And (and here’s the good part!) every time we do see these people (frankly,  there are more of them than there are of us) we’re not only shocked, but we think that something’s gone completely haywire – some evil force has created a nefarious wrong that needs to be righted.  Here’s a perfect example.  Ask any group of your assorted friends their opinion on female circumcision.  I’m no Kreskin, but I’ll bet dollars to dead donkeys that few, if anybody, west of Quoddy Head, Maine is going to give that little cultural item a thumbs up.  Not only that, but if you persist, you’re going to get a spit storm of education on female oppression.  The prevailing wisdom is a bunch of nogoodnik men are keeping women in the dark ages for some wicked purpose known only to themselves.  Here’s a news flash: female circumcision is an accepted — accepted — practice across vast portions of our planet.  We don’t agree with it because it cuts across the grain of our cultural values, but literally millions of people (including a hell of a lot of women) think it’s normal.  But let’s not stop there.  There’s also ultrasound gender selection.  For the culturally naive, this is where parents find out the sex of their unborn child and kill it if it’s a girl – brutal, but true — and obviously not practiced by the primitive tribes of the Amazon.  I could go on for days.  There’s the quaint culinary custom of cutting off a shark’s fin for soup or whacking off a rhino’s horn for medicinal purposes only.  In some parts of this world, baksheesh is considered a privilege, for god’s sake; it’s practically tax deductable.  These are all perfectly normal ways of doing things, all over the world.  And there are tons more like them.  The problem is we just don’t believe it.

In actual fact, despite great wads of evidence, we regard cultural customs we don’t agree with as nothing more than primitive practices, operating on the nutbar fringes of other societies.  We think that the everyday-walking around men and women of other cultures believe this also and that they are only one western enlightenment away from purging themselves of these reprehensible acts.  Our myth of inherent cultural equality tells us this.  Therefore, since the gods can’t be crazy, there must be evil forces abroad in the world: ruthless dictators, religious zealots or heartless capitalists whose sole purpose is to hoodwink their people into doing things that are obviously contrary to their nature because they are contrary to our nature.  We simply can’t allow other people to think differently than we do — because that would anger our gods.

Friday: The Final Myth and Why Our Mythology Doesn’t Work

The Modern Myth Parade

I’m not sure if the Age of Reason is over or it’s just taking a sabbatical, but not since the days of the ancient Greeks has our world been so riddled with mythology.  We might not expect Zeus to come hankering after our handmaidens any time soon, but we believe in all kinds of crap that has just about as much empirical evidence to support it.  Take a look around.  Here in North America, we live in the most bountiful society in history (sorry, Europe, but it’s true) and yet, for the most part, we’re dissatisfied with it.  There isn’t a day goes by without somebody claiming our world is actually just a suburb of Mordor and the evil Lord Sauron is only one piece of jewelry away from unleashing the orcs.  Why is this?  It’s because we believe in our mythologies so strongly that when they don’t measure up (and they never do) we start hunting around for somebody or something to blame.  Bluntly, Zeus is irreproachable; Leda must be a slut.

First of all, we believe we live in a benevolent world.  Yeah, yeah, yeah: “Bad things happen to good people,” but nobody really thinks that.  If they did, they wouldn’t be quite so surprised when the world jogs up and kicks them in the groin.  This myth runs across the board, all the way from “That woman walked off with my pen” to Hurricane Katrina.  Last week, I half witnessed a grown man prop his seriously expensive mountain bike next to a bike stand at McDonald’s, not lock it with the massive lock that was clearly attached and have it stolen before he could figured out whether he wanted to be supersized or not.  The telling note of this tale is the guy’s astonished look when he returned and his accusation that I should have done something.  His point was I saw a crime of opportunity being committed.  My point was I saw the beginning and the end but nothing in the middle, and besides, old, out-of-shape men very seldom catch crack addicts on bicycles — especially when they have a substantial head start.  There was no mention of who gave the little crook the opportunity in the first place.  This off-the-cuff thinking drives our world because our society has been so successful at reducing everyday risk that we believe there isn’t any anymore, and we’re outraged when the odds catch up with us.  People simply refuse to accept that we’re all just one U-lock away from getting our collective bicycles stolen by people who don’t give a damn whether we’re good parents, support the arts or recycle our juice boxes.  And this brings us to our second myth.

We believe that everyone is reasonable.  We think that for anyone to step outside the bounds of good and gracious living, they have to be pushed by powerful forces.  To go back to our bicycle thief: he may or may not have been a crack addict, but chances are good he didn’t consult his moral compass before riding off into the sunset.  What probably happened is he was hanging out at Ronny Mac when the opportunity for a free bike hove up on the horizon, and since he who hesitates is lost, he jumped on and took off.  It’s that simple.  Maybe there were mitigating circumstances.  There might have been an unknown emergency somewhere or some other altruistic purpose I’m not aware of.  Perhaps our boy is, in actual fact, the Jean Valjean of two-wheeled transportation.  It’s not likely, but it is possible.  The problem is we, as a society, believe that this is not only possible but probable.  We simply cannot fathom that some people are bad.  We’re shocked and frustrated when we find them living among us, and the first thing we do is demand some reasonable explanation.  Who is responsible for this?  What unholy set of conditions led this young man to steal that other fellow’s bicycle?  Reasonable people simply do not pedal off with other people’s property.   No need to call MythBusters, folks: yeah, they do – every day.

If you see a pattern here, you’re not alone.  Like the Greeks who modeled their society on their gods and heroes, we are changing our society to conform to our new mythology.  Our world must echo our beliefs, and when it doesn’t, there’s hell to pay.

Wednesday: And the Myths Go On