A primer on myth


In the coming posts, I will be making repeated reference to the word ‘myth’. Among a group of atheists and anti-theists, the word ‘myth’ has taken on a decidedly derogatory meaning. Religious myths are used in the place of facts to justify deplorable and immoral actions and policies. Indeed, the primacy of the ‘Adam and Eve’ myth alone has been used as the basis for everything from extorting money from people under threat of ‘original sin’ to the most absurd and yet powerfully harmful anti-gay sentiment. The entire young earth creationism movement, motivated by a flood myth, is working tirelessly to undermine science education. Myths about the proper role of women (and their role in the fall) are used to subjugate women and pigeonhole men into restrictive gender roles.

Without wishing to excuse the harms done by mythology, I do want to recognize that supernatural and religious myths are, in fact, only one particular subtype of myth. Indeed, our idiomatic language would be severely weakened in the absence of mythology – one might even say it is our Achilles’ Heel. And again, beyond the value of myth as a common point of cultural reference, we also use myth to explain the world around us.

I wish to draw my first example from Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. We have all heard the story of Christopher Columbus – the intrepid European explorer who set out on a mission to India at the behest of Queen Isabella of Spain, but who ran smack dab into the North American continent itself, bringing back news of its riches and people to Europe and sparking colonial interest in ‘the New World’. Now there is no doubt that Christopher Columbus existed, and did travel to North America a number of times, but we’re all historically savvy enough at this point to know that he didn’t “discover America” – he wasn’t even the first European to arrive on the continent. His story is largely mythologized, but serves as a useful proxy starting point when teaching the history of colonialism.

More recently, we can look at the myth of the civil right movement in the United States, sparked as it was by the brave refusal of a woman named Rosa Parks to sit in the segregated section of a bus. Emboldened by her example, black people across the country joined with sympathetic whites to demand voting right and anti-discrimination legislation, which they eventually achieved in 1965. Again, a useful reduction of a story to digestible length, but utterly false. Rosa Parks’ passive resistance was a large event indeed, but black groups had been organizing for decades beforehand. The civil rights movement was one facet of a much larger push for racial equality, and it definitely didn’t end with any piece of legislation.

Maybe one more.

We all remember how the ‘Arab Spring’ was an uprising of people across multiple African, Middle Eastern and Arab countries, demanding accountability and political reform. They ousted dictators, and through the power of social media, toppled regimes that were decades old, ushering in an era of self-determination and western-style democracy. Now of course it’s far too recent for the Arab Spring to get mythologized so completely, but this narrative popped up repeatedly when people were trying to make sense of what was going on. We know that the ‘uprising’ is not over, and in some cases went in the opposite direction of what many of the reformers had been advocating for.

History is a messy thing, and most of the stories we tell about it are necessarily run through with myth. It’s almost inescapable.

For the purposes of this discussion, I want to lean heavily on a more secular, non-supernatural definition of myth. Myths, in this particular context, should be thought of as stories that we tell about the relationship between ourselves and the world. They have the luxury of being able to be casual with the truth, because they are myths. Parts of them, or in fact all of the parts of them, may in fact be completely true, but the way in which we connect and describe those parts tell a revealing story about who we are, how the world is, and where we find our place in it.

The reason I choose ‘myth’ rather than ‘narrative’ (or some other synonym) in this particular case is because ‘myth’ uniquely places claims outside the realm of truth or falsehood. Those empiricists reading this can take some comfort in the fact that I fully intend to return this discussion to a place where truth can be adjudicated, but for now I would ask that we put temporarily put aside that question in order to adequately frame the issue.

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Comments

  1. Don F says

    “Myth” is a little like “theory”.

    “Oh, that’s only a myth.”

    “Oh, that’s only a theory.”

    Yes, very similar . . . .

  2. says

    Now of course it’s far too recent for the Arab Spring to get mythologized so completely,

    My dad, who is a history prof emeritus at Johns Hopkins, always used to say that the history of a time can’t really be told until all the bodies are buried. You’re completely right – what happens with things like the Arab Spring is events move fast and history needs time to catch up, and in the meantime the vacuum gets filled with alternate narratives (usually being shouted by the winner).

  3. says

    stories that we tell about the relationship between ourselves and the world. They have the luxury of being able to be casual with the truth, because they are myths

    Yes!

    The interesting thing about history is that it’s like trying to completely map a mandelbrot fractal. There’s always more detail. In fact the only way to tell a true history of a time would be to run the clock backwards and let it run forward again. What the historian (and mythicist) try to do is identify what they think are inflection points where something particularly interesting happened, then offer an intellectual framework in which we are hoped to interpret those events.

    For example, The Treaty of Versailles – many historians would say its terms were a critical factor in causing WWII. And they’d be right. Some historians argue that Woodrow Wilson may have been tripped out on the Spanish Flu during the negotiations, and that he wasn’t on his best game may have been one reason that Wilson went along with the terms that the French wanted. So: was the Spanish Flu the cause of WWII? Or the French at Versailles? Or Woodrow Wilson? Or … etc. The answer to all those questions is “to some degree or another: yes.” Myth, as you say, allows us to simplify our view of causality and place it on a level that makes sense for human societies.

  4. left0ver1under says

    We all remember how the ‘Arab Spring’ was an uprising of people across multiple African, Middle Eastern and Arab countries, demanding accountability and political reform. […] We know that the ‘uprising’ is not over, and in some cases went in the opposite direction of what many of the reformers had been advocating for.

    That statement reminded me of this editorial cartoon:

    http://jmichelle.wikispaces.com/file/view/Egypt-Revolution.jpg/285936452/Egypt-Revolution.jpg

    For the purposes of this discussion, I want to lean heavily on a more secular, non-supernatural definition of myth. Myths, in this particular context, should be thought of as stories that we tell about the relationship between ourselves and the world.

    But is it told as a “reader’s digest” version of events, or historical revisionism? A lot of what could be labelled “myth” is told to deliberately avoid or prevent mention of what really happened.

    Most of the US corporate media now repeat the lie that “the US invaded Iraq to bring democracy” instead of WMDs, as if Bush never said it. And many spew bigoted and patronizing tripe, saying certain countries and people “are incapable of ruling themselves”. They pretend the lack of democracy in African and Middle Eastern countries had nothing to do with western meddling or overthrowing of governments, and in saying it they are trying to rationalize further meddling.
    .

  5. says

    My point is that any story, any narrative arc, that we tell about the world, necessarily omits some relevant fact or other (either by genuine ignorance or through inattention or intentional obfuscation). We tell stories about things to place ourselves in the world, and they are all mythical.

    Your comment is absolutely valid, but you’ll see better what I mean when tomorrow’s posts go up.

  6. R Hayes says

    At first I read one of the sentences as:

    They have the luxury of being able to be causal with the truth […]

    Hmm, maybe that’s not so far off…

  7. jesse says

    Maybe also we should also add the myth of social media’s power re: Arab Spring

    and the myth that democracy and capitalism were magic pills for the people of Eastern Europe, brought to them entirely by Ronald Reagan’s strategy of building a military fast enough to bankrupt the USSR as they tried to keep up, and the pope.

    These myths can be pernicious. In the Eastern European example, we took that myth because the western-educated people who had a vested interest in privatizing everything ASAP told non-Russian speaking western reporters what they wanted to hear. The effects on the whole region are still being felt today. (A useful metric is how bad the exploitation of women got in the last 30 years. It’s pretty awful any way you slice it. Bad as the Soviets were they didn’t supply sex slaves to brothels in Turkey).

    (On social media: I never get over the fact that all the Twitterati agog with tweets from the region seem never to ask why all those people are tweeting IN ENGLISH. Holy language learners, Batman, did it occur to anyone that if you are trying to organize locally, you’ll probably tweet/ FB in freaking Arabic or Farsi, in the case of the Iranian unrest? And that 50% of the people in Egypt have NO INTERNET connection, period? That maybe the whole revolution wasn’t set up by western-educated, tech-savvy kids in Cairo? It bothers me so much for a host of reasons, some of them professional, some just that it reeks of the idea that you can get good information without having to understand and learn a damned thing).

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