I’m a big fan of historical mythology, as part of our cultural heritage. But we also use ‘mythology’ to talk about other constructed bodies of thoughts and ideas. Some of those live in people’s heads today and hold us back from a better world. Here’s a big one.
One of the most primal impulses behind mythology and religion is to get an explanation for why bad things happen to us. Humans are pattern-making creatures. A storm flattened your crop? The devil did it.
So today we have a lot of people trained in the worldview of, say, the 1950s to 1980s, and they arrive in the 2020s and that worldview doesn’t work any more. They did the things they were supposed to do, they ran through the mazes and climbed the ladders, and the world was supposed to roll over and let them tickle its tummy. They were supposed to be rich and popular; large and in charge. But here are all those other people who don’t look or sound like anyone in the stories in their head; and here are all these issues hanging over us like swords that they were never told about; and they keep getting told they are somehow to blame for things. This is bad and uncomfortable! Where did the promised land go?
So it needs explaining, and they construct a victim mythology.
You see it all the time on social media; often pushed by people who, from the outside, are some of the most financially well-off and high status in the world, telling us how they are being victimised, and it’s so unfair, and everything that Group X says is just because it hates them. You are horrible meanies, they say from their mansions and holiday islands. As the internet meme goes, crying across all the news programmes about being silenced.
What also happens is the invention of demons and enemy tribes. Because the victim mythology needs an enemy to point to, often people create or appropriate a label, and then imagine a whole crowd of people into place behind it. So you’re minding your own business, and suddenly there are people classifying you as ‘the left’ or ‘the woke’ and making themselves quite cross about it. (The labels are considered acceptable language casualties.)
The point of all this effort? To avoid adaptation to reality. Our brains don’t like having to think about things: basic living in the world is complex enough, and altering your mental model is extra work. Some people are naturally more flexible than others. And it turns out that in the wacky depths of human programming, it makes sense to avoid spending a little bit of energy on thinking by spending energy on lots and lots of noisy behaviour.
How do you get past this? Probably through common values and common humanity as bridges (though some people have buried these far down for mental convenience). For instance, people with children or grandchildren tend to value them deeply, and many of us are affected by the ideas of legacy and future generations. So events like the children’s climate action protests of the last few years have power, because that puts one element of people’s worldview up against another that they cannot easily dismiss, and highlights their choices. Other strong values include a sense of fairness, or being rooted in a particular ethnic community or locality.
But what doesn’t help is to jump down into the holes people have dug to join them there. We can extend a polite helping hand and, if refused, keep on walking. There are both old and new mythologies that are more fun and more useful.