Much has been written about our polarization in values and ideologies, and now much more has been added about our different sources of information and “alternative facts.” This post focuses on another important, but neglected, area of divergence and source of disagreement: the myths we tell that form the context of the values we hold and the facts we accept. My hope is that pointing to myths as an arena of misunderstanding can provide a path forward in cases where agreement and empathy seem impossible.
One common meaning of the word ‘myth,’ of course, is a story that isn’t true (as in, “I always thought we only use 10% of our brains, but that’s just a myth”). That’s not what I mean here. Myths (in the sense in which I will be using the term) are stories that allow us to explain the world around us and to take action in expectation of predictable results. For instance, if you asked me what my dad’s family is like, I could give you an exhaustive account of everything I know about them OR I could just say, “They’re Pennsylvania Dutch: stoic, hardworking people. My dad saw his mother cry exactly once, when her finger got caught in a car door.” This description invokes the wider mythology of the Pennsylvania Dutch (that they are stoic and hardworking) and the Barr family myth of the car door incident, in order to communicate a sense of who we are. Is it true that my dad actually only saw his mom cry once? Maybe, maybe not. Is it a good myth, in the sense that it communicates what my dad’s family is like? Absolutely. You could make sound predictions about how Barrs will respond to situations on the basis of that story, whether or not it actually happened the way it is remembered.* A myth can be inaccurate or false in its particulars, but still communicate important truths.
Conversely, a myth that is true in its particulars can be a bad myth. If you tell the story of America and selectively include only the contributions of white men, for example, the facts you share might all be true, but as a myth it does not communicate the diversity of our history. Good myths make sense of history by allowing us to get our heads around a complex reality. They allow us to explain what happened and predict what will come next. We all use myths for these purposes all the time.
My contention here is that a large part of our disagreement and miscommunication today comes from confusions and differences in our myths.
For example, say two people (let’s call them Kim and Sara) both value fairness and equality of economic opportunity. They both think it is important that our economy works in such a way that when people work hard, make good choices, and contribute to society, they are better off than if they are lazy, imprudent, and contribute nothing. **
Kim and Sara also share a set of facts about the world today: inequality is rising, wages are stagnant, and hard-working people are not getting ahead.
Thus, two common sources of disagreement (facts and values) aren’t a problem here. We might, then, expect Kim and Sara to analyze the current economic situation similarly and form similar convictions about what ought to be done to address it. However, they won’t if they don’t subscribe to the same myths about America and its history.
Say, for instance, that Kim holds to the myth that America’s success in the past was due to the freedom and virtues of its citizens. In this myth, America has given its citizens freedom, opportunity, and little else, and these citizens have responded with hard work, honesty, and ingenuity. What built this country and made it great were good, old-fashioned, Christian, American values.
When Sara thinks about American history, however, she sees a country that was founded as a patriarchal and racist colonial society and whose history is the story of those in power favoring certain groups over others. In her myth, if you were African American, a woman, etc., you were often barred from access to economic and political opportunity. Who succeeded and who failed has always been largely a function of skin color and gender. Success has depended on the structures of power, far more than personal values and work ethic. America rewarded the vices of the masters far more than the virtues of the slaves.
Now, Kim and Sara are probably not going to interpret the causes and solutions of our current problems in the same way. Kim is likely to blame our problems on the increasing burden of government and a decline in American or Christian values and then recommend smaller government, moral education, and/or religious awakening. Sara, on the other hand, will see the structures of power as favoring the rich over the poor, whites over blacks, men over women, etc., and will recommend changes in power structures to correct this injustice.
Same values. Same facts. Radically different diagnoses and prescriptions.
This is why myths matter.
Now, you might wonder why I say it is myths that matter, rather than just knowing history. Well, they both know history. Kim is completely right to say that early Americans had more than their share of freedom and the protestant work ethic and that they succeeded in a largely unregulated economy. Sara, likewise, is right to say that the experience of individual Americans has always been highly dependent on race and gender, due to pervasive discrimination in government and society. Both myths are “true” in points of fact. What is different is how they select the significant aspects of the history to be included in the myth.
Thinking about myth helps us avoid two unhelpful ways of thinking: The first is the idea that those who disagree with us just need to learn the facts. There are, of course, times when this is true. However, it might also be the case that they have just as many facts as we do, they just see them as fitting into a different narrative or myth.
The other mistake to avoid is thinking that our mythologies are simply assertions of values and that there is no standard by which to compare or judge them. Myths, remember, are what we use to make sense of and explain the facts of history, guide action, and to make predictions. Thus, we can measure our myths against the tests of past, present, and future. Say, for example, that someone does a comprehensive historical study of the factors that contribute to economic success and failure. If they find that life outcomes are largely tied to personal morality and freedom from regulation, then this lends credence to Kim’s myth. But, if the study shows that poor, black girls with talent, good values, and hard work consistently have worse life outcomes than rich, white boys with none of these traits, then this would support Sara’s myth. If the study shows that all these factors matter, but none are completely determinative, then both myths may need to be revised to be more nuanced and include aspects of the other. Myths can and should respond to the reality they describe.
Likewise, we can judge myths, not just on their ability to make sense of the past, but also on their capacity to guide expectations. The more often the expectations we base on our myths come to pass, the more confidence we can have in them.***
Thus, because many of our most troubling and persistent disagreements come from problems in the myths we use to make sense of the world and because myths can be tested in how well they do that job, then there is hope that good, long, and reflective conversations can help us find common ground. By really listening to each other, we can see that what we take to be simple fact may just be an optional way of narrating the facts, and we may find other people's myths to be better options than our own. In fact, with the exception of learning new facts, hearing other people tell stories that make better sense of the world than mine do is the experience that has changed my mind more than any other. My hope is that, by paying attention to the myths all of us use, we can come to mutual understanding on issues where it would otherwise be difficult or impossible.
At the very least, I think that belief is a myth worth testing.
*Though we seem to cry more with every generation.
** In this respect, the example of Kim and Sara itself represents a "good myth" for describing America. Americans across political, economic, and cultural spectra all pretty much want the same sort of economic reality, they just disagree about why we don't have it now and what we should do to get it. Check out this article from The Atlantic for more.
*** For those interested in this is sort of thing, these criteria for the adequacy of an interpretive framework are common to modes of thinking like pragmatism and Christian realism. These schools of thought and others like them evaluate theories based on their effectiveness in bringing coherence to what has happened and to make predictions about what will happen. According to them, the best way we have to discriminate between candidate theories is how effective they are in doing the work theories are supposed to do.