Friday, July 8, 2016

Modern Day Mythology

The key to understanding a society is understanding its mythology.  This was the wisdom of Joseph Campbell, who studied ancient mythology and pointed out how many common threads arose from diverse civilizations.  Now I think I understand something of what he was talking about.

Mythology is defined by my Apple Dictionary as a set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious.  In the past it was used to explain how the world worked, often assuming gods were in control.

Today things are much the same but the stories and assumptions are different.  Some maintain that the earth is only 6 thousand years old, despite reams of evidence to the contrary.  Others believe that vaccinations cause autism despite reams of evidence to the contrary.  There are hundreds of such stories in the American culture that people either cling to or reject.  In doing so they form into tribes, groups of like-minded people who share their mythologies. 

As our own tribe identifies more arguments in favor of our chosen mythology, beliefs are reinforced and convictions more strongly adhered to – confirmation bias.  Likewise when other tribes challenge us, with opposing beliefs, the tribe sticks together and fights back, sometimes with ideas but often with personal attacks.  The tribe accuses outsiders of being stupid or evil.  The outsiders must be stupid and evil because why else would they have such irrational beliefs when we are so sure of ours?  If we can’t persuade them with reason, we shout louder, pass around petitions and have parades, demonstrations and rallies to make the point.

So the prolife people are stupid and evil because they oppose a woman’s right to choose.  The prochoice people are stupid and evil because they think an unborn baby is not really a human being with a right to life from the moment of conception.  Surely one side can persuade the other with rational arguments, signs, demonstrations, bullying or popular power.  Surely there is room for compromise.

But thinking about these issues as a mythology, a strongly held belief that informs our personal stories and our sense of morality, where is the room for compromise?  How can an unborn baby be a human being and an object of choice at the same time?  There is no middle ground.  How can the government grow to provide more services for those in need and also shrink to reduce interference, to allow more individual freedom and avoid fiscal bankruptcy at the same time?

Those who believe in these and so many other positions are not arbitrarily or casually picking one side and expecting the results of the debate to settle the issue.  They are committed to a set of beliefs that makes sense to them as they define their lives.  They are not necessarily stupid or evil, though many are uninformed or misinformed.  They are telling themselves a story about how the world works based on those firmly held and long cherished beliefs. 

And they are the heroes of their own stories!  Each day they live out their personal mythology, making heroic decisions, like the Greeks of old; except instead of winning in battle, they are buying organic produce to keep their family healthy.

To become heroes they must invent villains, like packaged food companies, or the favorite of many – Wall Street.  This battle of ideas brings meaning to their lives.  Any favorable evidence confirms their heroism; contrary evidence is easily rejected with the support of the tribe.  To compromise, to give in to the other side even a little, becomes a sign of cowardice, of betraying one’s principles.

When Bernie Sanders shouts about Big Business, his tribe understands and feels in their guts that this is a villain to be defeated.  When Donald Trump shouts about building a wall, his tribe sees it as a heroic act on their part to support this idea.  The other side in each case, and in hundreds of other cases, will usually respond to these same ideas by calling out “stupid” or “idiot” or “hater.”

Where does that leave us?  So far we are fighting to a stalemate.  One political side wins an elections and the majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.  The other side gets into office and the majority of Americans still think the country is headed in the wrong direction.  Political parties encourage tribalism with instant rejection of opposing ideas followed by personal attacks and name-calling.  They don’t want to solve problems, only to win over as many as they can to membership in their tribe.  (The media does the same in more subtle ways to retain the appearance of impartiality.)

That’s where the behavioral model comes in.  It rejects the name-calling, demanding that each side talks about behavior.  Although rational arguments don’t stand much of a chance against the religious fervor of these modern mythologies, the five key dimensions are the only source of hope.  Next time I’ll look at the five dimensions in terms of some of the popular mythological beliefs that fit into each one.

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