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

The Mythology of Poverty

Whoever said “There’s honour among thieves” obviously hadn’t met many thieves.  This is one of those modern day truisms that simply isn’t true.  Thieves steal things; that’s their job.  When there’s no one else about, they will steal from each other.  Haven’t you ever seen The Sting?  Our world is chock full of these pseudo aphorisms — all widely accepted and all utter crap.  For the most part, they’re harmless, even cute.  But lately they’ve been creeping into our fundamental thinking, causing trouble, distorting our ability to handle problems.

For example, “Honour among thieves” suggests that there’s some kind of a Rogue’s Code out there that governs the little bastard who stole your iPhone™.  There isn’t!  He doesn’t belong to a fleet-footed fraternity of contemporary Robin Hoods, dedicated to redistributing technology to the less fortunate.  The only creed he lives by is economics – straight up and down.  He stole your phone for money: that’s it!  We attribute a modicum of honour to his profession because most of us simply can’t fathom an ordinary person following a moral compass that has no dial.  However, the reality is the gentleman thief is a fiction, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law to amuse his Victorian friends.  Unfortunately, it has somehow gotten stuck to our psyche, with disastrous results.  And it’s not the only one.  There are others way more serious.

There is a general misunderstanding that poor people have a moral leg up on the rest of us.  It is widely believed that if you are struggling to make ends meet, you’re absolutely bursting with integrity.  Not only that, but if, for whatever reason, you jump off the moral balance beam, the assumption is you were forced into it by an unforgiving society.  Let me set the record straight.  People who take the early bus to menial, minimum wage (or below) jobs do not necessarily have either honesty or empathy hardwired into their DNA.  Yes, they are working hard and, quite probably, getting the shaft on a daily basis, but I doubt very much that moral intrepidity is based on an unfavourable income tax bracket.  The “Poor but honest” stories we all grew up on are wonderful tales for children.  However, unless you’re seriously into economic profiling, there’s no reason to believe that poor people are any less corruptible than your average middle-class, 80K-a-year systems technician (No offence, systems technicians!)

And while we’re at it, the other prevailing myth about poor people is they all want to live together.  There is an unshakable belief among NGOs, city planners and politicians, that the cure for homelessness, slumlords and squalor is social housing (sometimes euphemized as affordable housing.)  Surprisingly, this legend is still with us, even after half a century of building gigantic, high and low rise concrete bunkers to warehouse the poor.  These urban battle zones are low rent Mogadishus and probably contribute as much to our low income social problems as cheap, hardcore drugs.  The real head scratcher, however, is the biggest proponents of social housing all live in tidy little neighbourhoods with painted fences, dogs on leashes and manicured lawns.  Either that, or they’re in gabled condo communities with assigned underground parking and more security than the Green Zone in Bagdad.  Is it just me, or is the disconnect here so wide you could sail the USS Abe Lincoln through it?

These are just two examples of truisms about poverty that just aren’t true.  There are piles more.  Think about it.  Poverty is not one homogenous entity.  It covers a huge area of land and has millions of people in it.  It’s also a relative term.  Poor in Detroit is quite a bit different from poor in Seattle.  The below average family in Biloxi has more in common with their wealthier neighbours than they do a statistically similar family in Newark.  Yet, we continue to think, talk and act as though poverty were a one-size-fits-all affliction you throw money at.

Furthermore, some of those most willing to perpetuate these myths are those socially and politically active people who are walking examples of exactly what I’m talking about.  Ever since Bob Geldof couldn’t figure out what to do with Tuesday, wealthy activists have been making a part-time profession out of poverty management.  Sometimes, they’re celebrities but mostly they’re just people with money and time on their hands.  Unfortunately, extended amounts of leisure do not qualify anybody to dabble in economics, education, social or urban planning.  Their opinions are no more valid then the local drycleaner.  In fact, the very success that gave them this free time is actually a detriment to their thinking.  For the most part, they are isolated from the real world and some have become so cocooned they wouldn’t know how to cope with reality (poverty-stricken or otherwise) if it bit them on the bum.  I’m sure these people truly care, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.  Sympathetic does not equal smart.  That’s just another truism that isn’t.

Our society has some serious problems, and most of us sincerely want to fix them.  Unfortunately, we’re never going to come close to solving any of them as long as we keep taking mythology as our starting point.