Friday, July 22, 2016
Changing the Mythology
Over the last two weeks I have made the case that everyone has a personal mythology. People run stories in their heads about the what and why of everything happening around them. To be heroes of their stories depends on following an underlying mythology that sets the rules for judging noble, moral behavior. It is this underlying mythology that drives actions and decisions, not whether people are inherently evil, greedy or stupid. Calling them names or shouting them down has no effect, except possibly minor, temporary victories and new enemies.
We look at ISIS or white supremacists and easily recognize their mythology. Most Americans agree that those mythologies – one about building a caliphate to wipe out infidels as they usher in the end of the world and the other about racial superiority – are just plain wrong. But many mythologies of our friends and neighbors are not so clear-cut in terms of morality. There are gray areas with strong arguments on both sides, and some people don’t remain our friends long if their mythologies are too much at odds with ours as each side refuses to budge.
One problem is that some of the tenets of these modern mythologies lead individuals in the wrong direction. They waste time and money. They lead people to support political solutions that waste everyone’s time and money. When confronted, they cling to their core beliefs and coalesce into camps or tribes to help them support and justify their position.
A second problem comes from the speed and reach of modern communications. Ideas are flying everywhere and people are more interested in clinging to ideas of their liking than taking time to find out if what they are hearing is true. Just as in casual conversation, it’s cooler to come up with a witty retort or story of your own experience than to check the facts.
The result is what we have today: a deeply divided populace, short on meaningful debate, throwing slogans, insults and accusations back and forth, and then retreating to their own corners for support and reinforcement.
Many people use kind words about understanding, tolerance and compassion, but it doesn’t play out that way. Even those who claim to be most tolerant and compassionate are often the first and the loudest to call someone with different ideas an idiot or a hater. They ask everyone to be open-minded, that is, to accept their point of view; but open-minded means listening to and considering another point of view, not accepting every crazy idea that comes along. Our politicians lead by example in an increasingly divisive and unproductive use of accusations and labels. There must be an end to this!
Our objective should be to unify Americans around the idea of putting an end to the waste in society and to reduce the number and intensity of behavioral errors in the key dimensions. This will get the country moving in the right direction. Doing it through behavior is the solution and is a viable alternative to gathering into tribes and fighting.
But this will be an uphill battle. The wasteful and dangerous behavior is so often initiated and reinforced by deep-seated modern myths. It must be an evolution, rather than a revolution, improving choices and decisions by chipping away at the underlying myths. These myths include: that it’s uncool to be conscientious; that being complacent about and tolerant of bad habits is appropriate; that there really is some magic cure to all our ills but doctors and others are hiding it to protect their own interests; that "natural" or "ancient" is equivalent to good because modern science can’t be trusted; that a growing economy only benefits a few; that wanting it all and wanting it now without concern for the future is the way to live; that the government has unlimited funds to bail everyone out; and all the rest. Take for example the housing boom/bust. The crisis sprang from the wrong belief that everyone has a “right” to the American Dream instead of the healthy belief that success requires hard work and sacrifice.
All these faulty myths are constantly reinforced: by the media to attract an audience, by advertisers to make sales and by politicians to get re-elected. Only a few years ago no one, except a small percentage with a specific medical condition, worried about gluten-free diets. Now almost 20% of Americans look for it on packaging, while manufacturers are all too happy to accommodate the fad by plastering it on more and more labels, even in products where the prospect of finding any gluten is zero. And that’s just one example. Thanks to the rapid and widespread reach of social media, more faulty myths are being created and reinforced daily.
To change people’s minds we must somehow get them to modify their mythology, not just assume that everyone else is stupid and evil. The only hope is for a significant group of Americans to become more aware of the behavior-consequences link in their lives and the lives of those close to them. We must begin resisting impulses, thinking more carefully, understanding the economy better, taking responsibility, improving education for all, working for results instead of demanding them as rights, and being more selective. We must begin challenging advertisers, politicians and the news media to give us straight information, instead of playing to our fears, insecurities and social fads. Some myths are just plain wrong leading people in the wrong direction with potentially harmful results. It is right to be intolerant of behaviors that show a lack of responsibility or make matters worse. Tough love is still a valid response to those making bad decisions.
Use behavior and consequences to point out problems. Calling people stupid gets us nowhere and is probably incorrect. They merely have a different mythology that they turn to first for direction. Treating essential oils like a miracle drug is no crazier or stupider than thinking the sun is pulled around the sky by a god in a chariot. It’s just a different mythology.
Behavior is in a sense infectious. We read headlines about how your friends can make you fat and such - because we share their habits and tastes (and mythologies). By being sensitive to the behavior-consequences link and changing our own behavior accordingly, it may be possible to "infect" others. And as we get more Americans on board with these ideas, advertisers, politicians and the media may respond by giving us better information and joining the fight against erroneous, wasteful and harmful behavior. One can only hope.