Why progressives should worry about the myth gap

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around.

Alex Evans
11 January 2017

Credit: Flickr/OvO. Some rights reserved.

The last two years have been bruising for progressives—perhaps most of all when we found ourselves confronted with the new “post-truth” politics of the Trump and Brexit campaigns. But while our instincts may be to rebut lies and distortions with yet more facts and data, our real challenge is to become as adept as conservatives in terms of myth-making and storytelling.

Once upon a time, we were rich in stories that united us, and helped us to understand the world and ourselves. We called them myths. Some were rooted in religions. Others told of heroes and quests. But all, in their different ways, had deep truths to teach us—about wisdom and ignorance, good and evil, grief, guilt, and redemption.

Today, we’ve largely forgotten these old myths. We’ve decided that things are either literally, scientifically true, or not true at all. “Myth” has become a synonym for “wrong,” as in “urban myth.” In the thesaurus, you’ll find it filed together with bunk, crock, fabrication, fiction, and hogwash.

What does this have to do with politics, economics and how to shape the future of our societies?

The answer is ‘everything.’ Writing just before the First World War—at the end of another long period of globalisation, innovation, and connectedness—Carl Jung saw all too clearly the risks of “the man who thinks he can live without myth.” Such a person, he wrote,

“…is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or the ancestral life within him or yet with contemporary society”.

What Jung understood was that without shared myths to bind societies together, the risks of fragmentation, polarisation, culture wars and actual violence increase dramatically—exactly as we see all around us today.

In such conditions—in the “myth gap” we now inhabit—it’s all too easy for dark ‘anti-myths’ to fill the void. One of them, expertly propagated by the new myth-makers of the marketing industry and explored by Jonah Sachs in his masterful book Winning the Story Wars, is the meme that ‘you are what you buy.’ If this idea itself is almost metaphysical, the consequences—in terms of consumerism, ecosystem degradation and climate change—are anything but.

Or consider so-called ‘collapsitarianism’—the story that we’re inevitably heading towards ecological overshoot and collapse, that there isn’t enough of everything to go around, and so we need to grab enough for ourselves before others do. This myth, too, can have all too tangible real world expressions, from the Nazi idea of Lebensraum in the 1930s to today’s international scramble for arable land in the form of land grab deals.

And then, of course, there are the nationalist myths of Trump and Farage, Putin and Le Pen. Stories of making America (or Russia, or France, or England) ‘great again.’ Stories of taking back control. Stories that play skilfully on fears of a shadowy ‘other.’ Stories that were at the very core of 2016 and its bitter harvest.

Too often, political progressives try to fight these hugely resonant stories with policy memos. Our hope appears to be that rational arguments and empirical data will somehow win out against brilliant political narratives of the little guy versus remote elites, or corrupt politicians who are only out to line their own pockets, or vast conspiracies to falsify climate change data.

This was the mistake made by the Remain campaign during the Brexit referendum in the UK. It was the mistake made by US climate campaigners in 2009, when they were routed by climate deniers and the Tea Party. And it was the mistake that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the US Presidency.

We ought to know better by now. After all, research consistently shows that evidence and arguments matter less than we think in terms of how we make up our minds about political issues. Instead, it’s the values that are held by our families, friends and colleagues that weigh most heavily in shaping how we think, behave, and vote—values which are in turn  shaped by myths and stories.

What if, rather than spending all our time fact-checking Donald Trump’s tweets and bemoaning the perfidy of the Brexiteers’ infamous claim that the European Union costs the UK £350 million-a-week, progressives became storytellers of their own kinds of myths? What would they look like, and how would we tell them?

While there’s clearly no one myth that will work for everyone, the kind of myths that we need at this point in history share a few common themes.

First and foremost, we need myths that help us to think in terms of a larger us—a seven billion ‘us’ that deliberately includes everyone rather than (as Trump, Farage or Le Pen do) defining ‘us’ in opposition to ‘them.’ Some Progressives are already starting to run with this story, like More United in the UK, or Van Jones’s Love Army in the US, or Avaaz throughout its ten year history.

Second, we need myths that help us to think in terms of a longer now—to situate ourselves at the intersection of a deep past and a deep future, to think across generational timespans, and to protect and cultivate the future rather than gorging ourselves and leaving our successors to pick up the bill.

And third, we need myths that nudge us to imagine a better good life, one that decisively does away with the notion that ‘we are what we buy.’ We have to reimagine growth, away from material consumption towards growing up as a species, and move past the current, dangerously adolescent moment at which we’re testing the limits of the earth to see what will happen.

At a deeper, more subtle level, we also need myths to help us to work through the enormous psychological challenges of a time as turbulent and uncertain as this, as we face threats like climate change or the possibility of a renewed nuclear arms race.

On climate for example, a big part of why so many of us would rather not think and talk about the issue is because to do so would entail confronting the hugely complex and challenging emotions that are involved—like grief and guilt.

In the past, societies have understood that myths have a crucial role in helping them to process the collective psychological dimensions of existential challenges like these—from the prophetic writings of Jeremiah or Isaiah during the Babylonian Exile to the quintessentially mythic language of Churchill’s “finest hour” speech in June 1940.

As these two examples underline, the good news is that turbulent periods in history have always provided the most fertile ground for the emergence of new myths. So as progressives gear up to regain the initiative in 2017 there may be no more important task than reimagining ourselves as storytellers and myth-makers, and working to create new processes of collective storytelling that can start to build bridges across political divides—while retelling the story of who we are and the future that we’re building.

The real power of myths lies in their capacity to become self-fulfilling prophecies: they create our reality as much as they describe it. As the novelist Terry Pratchett once put it, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around.”

Alex Evans’ new book is The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?

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