There’s good reason to think that the culture of any mass society depends on myths which are fictions, which is to say lies we’re too polite to identify as such because these lies achieve a higher good. But what are the implications of this hypothesis, for moderns and liberals who flatter themselves that they’re rational and not so credulous?
Myths Define Cultural Identity
Every large society is founded on myths which are fictions that collectively distort the population’s perception of reality to maintain its group cohesion. In his book, Sapiens, Harari sets forth one explanation of how these myths arose, which begins by pointing out that our social instincts were adapted to stabilizing small tribes of around 150 members. In such groups we can use gossip and memory to form social bonds, based on familiarity with each other. But the agricultural revolutions in the Neolithic Period drew masses of thousands and millions of strangers together, which created the problem of unifying these masses to prevent them from splitting into more manageable subgroups. The solution was that although in the actual world a multitude may have many reasons to split due to natural differences of race, gender, character, and opinion, belief in an alternative, fictional world could compel everyone to imagine themselves as having a single, collective identity. This solution was made possible by our large, flexible brains, which allow us to dissociate information, to mentally model possible worlds and to overlay values and counterfactual interpretations onto sense data. For millennia the myths that sustained nations and empires were religious and cosmological, instilling in the citizens their collective values, and constructing theological or philosophical justifications for them in the myth’s narratives.
A second cause of the prevalence of myths is apparent from the Handicap Principle in biology. In a context in which deception is often in creatures’ self-interest, a signal is more reliable if it’s delivered at a cost to the signaler. Thus, an animal may really be formidable if it can afford to squander its strength on ostentatious displays. For example, the male peacock signals to the female that it’s a worthy mate, by finding a way to cope with its gaudy and comically-oversized tail feathers. (This has given rise to the term “peacocking” in the game of pickup artists.) In the same way, conspicuous consumption indicates that the consumer has money to waste on frivolous and often self-destructive entertainments. And whereas our imagination and reasoning may be geared to planning on how to exploit regularities in the natural environment, to increase the chance of our survival under the condition of nature’s indifference towards us, a decadent population finds itself able to squander these mental resources by entertaining outlandish scenarios and having them colour its perception of reality. Thus, the more absurd the myth, the greater the population’s apparent willpower. A foreigner might be led to think, “They can afford to believe the most errant nonsense without dying of embarrassment, so their group cohesion must be superhuman.”
This leads to a third root of our large-scale reality distortion, which is that the more counterfactual the cultural narrative, the greater the test of an individual’s faith in the collective identity. A classic example of this is Tertullian’s boast that he believes the Christian creed because it’s absurd. The fideistic rationalization of that faith would be that a doctrine’s absurdity may be a sign of its supernatural, transcendent origin. Similarly, Saint Paul said that the wisdom of the natural world is foolishness to God, and Jesus is alleged to have said that we must be childlike to enter the kingdom of God. These would be rationalizations, of course, not epistemically worthy justifications of faith, because not every childlike act of avoiding the natural world need be a sign of some connection to a supernatural reality. Even if there were some higher realm that we could access only nonrationally, many nonrational expressions may be merely insane or serving the purpose of a fraud, as in the case of cults, for example.
An unsettling implication of this hypothesis, that every large population holds itself together by suspending disbelief in a cultural fiction, is that even the so-called modern, secular West depends on myths in that respect. As Harari also points out, these secular myths are economic and political rather than explicitly theological or cosmological. Since the Renaissance, Westerners have trusted in science, capitalism, liberalism, and above all in individualism. We believe individuals should be free to decide how they should live, and that scientific exploration and capitalistic struggle for private profit are progressive. In The Age of Insanity, Schumaker distinguishes between modernity in general and the Western, American-led form of it. Modernity after the Scientific Revolution he characterizes as “a postindustrial order whose primary features are commodification, consumption, social marginality, technological encroachment, amplified organizational power, homogenized drives and tastes, deregulation of volition and emotion, incomprehensible abstract systems, simultaneous communication, and the shift toward reflexive knowledge.” The values of the Western form of modernization are “personal autonomy, self-reliance, future orientation, a strong appetite for change, capitalistic heroism, and success-mindedness.”
But there’s another implication, which Harari doesn’t consider, which is that because these myths are fictions, they’re necessarily preposterous when viewed from an outsider’s vantage point. Unless you identify with the characters in a work of fiction, the fiction will seem merely counterproductive to the extent that it departs from the pressing features of the apparent world. The greater the author’s license to misrepresent the facts or to imagine a farfetched alternative, the more absurd the story will seem and thus the harder it will be for a foreigner to avoid ridiculing the believers for entertaining their bizarre worldview. When you emotionally identify with the characters, you share an identity with them which allows for cathartic release or for collective action. But when your values are based on your commitment to a myth that monopolizes your emotions, so that you can’t spare empathy for the plight of the mythical characters that bedazzle the foreigners, you’re disposed to belittle the mob that succumbs to that foreign piece of fan fiction. Moreover, in so far as you can be sociologically objective about all such myths, including the domestic ones, you can find yourself an alienated outsider to humanity in general, so that the conventional way of life that happens right in your midst will likewise seem as absurd as the one you’d find in a remote land or time.
Medieval European Absurdity
To see this, let’s compare how Westerners view the medieval Christian mindset and behaviour, with how an objective future historian might regard Western modernity. It’s commonplace for us to mock not just medieval peasants for their astounding ignorance, but also the priesthood and medieval intellectuals in Europe for their lack of originality, that is, for their dogmatism. Although our understanding of the period has been influenced by rationalist propaganda, medieval Christianity is still palpably absurd from our vantage point. Racism and sexism weren’t just nurtured in secret suspicions of others’ inferiority; ideological hatred motivated horrific collective action in the barbarities of the witch trials, pogroms, crusades, and inquisitions.
It seems impossible even to speak now of the medieval practices of conducting full trials of animals, including pigs, horses, rats, and even insects, and of often executing the accused on that preposterous basis, without feeling condescending pity for the childlike naivety of those involved centuries ago. From Wikipedia:
Animal defendants appeared before both church and secular courts, and the offences alleged against them ranged from murder to criminal damage. Human witnesses were often heard and in Ecclesiastical courts they were routinely provided with lawyers…If convicted, it was usual for an animal to be executed, or exiled. However, in 1750, a female donkey was acquitted of charges of bestiality due to witnesses to the animal's virtue and good behaviour while her human co-accused were sentenced to death.
The lunacy which passed for normality in that period extends to the fact that these “trials” were “part of a broader phenomenon that saw corpses and inanimate objects also face prosecution.” Needless to say, animals considered “familiars” of witches were burned at the stake along with the witches.
Comedians often use logic in their rational presentation of an absurdity, to help the audience suspend its disbelief for the sake of having a laugh. That is, a comedian might begin from a silly premise and follow through with a dramatic telling of what would logically happen next in the possible world in which that premise were actualized. With that in mind, the medieval animal trials seem now as if the witnesses, lawyers, and judges were staging a comedy: their assumptions were absurd, since even if animals had moral agency, they lack the means to communicate with us, not to mention a shared culture with their accusers, so that they couldn’t hope to understand the trial. But the medieval folks went to great lengths to put those assumptions into practice. Yet those folks were obviously not acting as comedians. Their myths and superstitions supplied them with a cultural identity, but those fictions had the byproduct of causing the population not just to detach from reality, but to land itself in what seem to us—having no cultural investment in those ancestors—like so many epic failures. Some of these trials were meant to assuage the guilt of peasants for killing what they deemed to be God’s creatures, as in the case of a French bishop’s order of “three days of daily processions where the slugs were told to leave the area or be cursed, thus making them free game for extermination.” Still, this only pushes the absurdity back a step. How bizarre must their beliefs have been for the peasants to have been able to feel less guilty about killing slugs when the slugs were merely cursed in an ecclesiastical ruling!
Imagine witnessing the plight of the pig that was put on trial for damaging property, or that of the rat that was tried and executed for running across the floor and upsetting a woman. These animals would have been just as clueless about what was happening to them as they are when they’re fed to be slaughtered or are killed by rat traps. But if a time traveler visited one of those animal trials, she would likely have felt that the practice was unseemly, because morally innocent creatures were roped into an insane conspiracy by deranged, self-righteous fools who must have congratulated themselves on their Christian virtue, for giving those animal “criminals” the benefit of the doubt. The practice was enabled by theological dualism, which was needed to justify the religious faith in an afterlife despite the body’s decay. If immaterial spirits are responsible for personhood, the physical difference between species is irrelevant and so a pig or a rat could be just as noble or as evil as a human. Liberal Westerners after the Enlightenment don’t share those medieval assumptions and so can scarcely believe that anyone could take them so seriously as to have engaged in such madness.
To take another example, Jews were demonized because some ancient, cherry-picked scriptures scapegoated them to curry favour with the Roman Empire, depicting Jews as those most responsible for failing to appreciate the god in their midst, Jesus Christ. And so Jews were murdered by Christians throughout Church history. Even Shakespeare demonized them. Again, Judaism can be rationally criticized, but here we’re talking about the necessary absurdity of how it will seem when a myth motivates a population to dissociate from reality, to act as though the fiction that emotionally binds the masses were worthy of being taken so seriously even when the myth is plainly fanciful.
Modern Western Absurdity
What’s shocking is that on the foregoing analysis, our secular culture must be capable of being perceived as being just as ludicrous as medieval Christianity (or as any ancient or foreign culture in its peculiar myth-ladenness). This can be tested if we manage to de-familiarize ourselves with our culture, perhaps by some rhetorical trick, so that we come to feel that same twinge of condescension—except now for our neighbours and for our encultured selves. We should be able to find a striking example of any of the features that Schumaker picks out (quoted above) and then imagine how that behaviour would strike someone who doesn’t share our culture. But let’s take just modernity’s fixation on abstract systems. This is a carryover of scientists’ use of artificial languages for the sake of greater precision in their predictions and calculations. The symbols in natural languages have intuitive, metaphorical undertones, and thus are counterproductive when the goal is to objectify and to quantify some phenomenon. Abstract systems dominate in the bureaucratic jargon of businesses and governments, in the dehumanizing rhetoric of militaries, and in the mass production of merchandise.
Take, for example, Big Agriculture’s practice of torturing millions upon millions of domesticated beasts to cut down on the costs of feeding pampered, short-sighted consumers such as you and me. Pig farmers keep sows in isolated gestation crates that are so small, the sows can’t turn around. The female pigs spend their entire life in these steel crates, except for the brief periods twice a year when they give birth. Whereas medieval peasants had no conception of the brain’s importance to the mind, biologists today understand that pigs are highly intelligent and social animals, so that we have no such excuse for failing to realize that not being able to turn around or interact with other pigs must constitute torture for those animals.
Thus, while the peasants personified pigs by trying them in court for imagined criminal offenses, we sophisticated modern folk imprison and torture pigs because our myths enable us to regard the animals as machines whose suffering serves a greater good. Medievals thought in terms of divinely-mandated hierarchies, of Creation as being governed by a benevolent deity so that no subject could be divorced from moral evaluation. Everything served God’s purpose, including the devil who badly miscalculated that he could rebel and establish an independent order of being, according to the myth. By contrast, moderns assume there’s no such overarching moral order, nor any immaterial life forces, so that all that remains are natural mechanisms, some of which add up to living things. As this Slate article points out, medievals “saw aspects of animal behavior that we don’t see anymore,” because they lived daily with animals, whereas consumer societies delegate farming to huge corporations that serve not God’s laws but the capitalistic imperative to struggle greedily to maximize profit. The gestation crates are kept from public view, so that most moderns never see living pigs. All we care about are the products we pay for, the bacon and hamburgers and ribs. Thus, we deride the medievals for their naivety in treating animals as though the animals’ behaviours were morally relevant, for going as far as to prosecute them for criminal offenses. But our callousness and cowardice involved in keeping the torture of livestock out of sight and mind must be just as bewildering from an alien perspective. Christian theology is gratuitous in its disregard of natural facts, but so is the modern penchant for abstract systems which blinds us to the anomalousness and thus the preciousness of life.
Living pigs are not really objects or machines; they’re just mistreated as such by faceless corporations that compartmentalize unpleasant truths. For example, no report on bacon profits in a Big Agra office will refer by name to the individual pigs which that corporation owns. Instead, the livestock will be quantified by an abstract system of calculating materials, costs, outputs, and the like. Perhaps the pigs are assigned a numerical designation. The sow’s happiness would matter to the food producers or consumers only if the moral question entered into our individual concerns—because as moderns, we’re individualists who worship our autonomy. If profit can be maximized by ignoring the sow’s unhappiness, because her ability to socialize doesn’t affect the number of piglets she can produce, and if the squalid state of corporate pig farms can be kept from public view, on the grounds of private property, to avoid a boycott, the moral question becomes irrelevant for capitalistic purposes. And if modernity is defined by the myth that capitalism matters more than traditional spirituality, the inhumane practice of torturing millions of animals for the mass production of food will continue as though we needn’t be ashamed of it, just as the practice of animal trials persisted for centuries because the medievals didn’t know better.
Moreover, if consumers can ignore the fact that to furnish us with our cushy modern lifestyle, most wild animal species have had to be exterminated (due to encroaching human habitation and industries), leaving mainly the domesticated, tortured animals, so that the bacon’s taste isn’t tainted by unwanted knowledge, we consumers will perpetuate the disparity between how the world really is and how it seems to us, given our ideological filter. The disparity is more unseemly in the modern case, because we have only false consciousness, not wholesale ignorance to enable the dissociation that sustains our myth-laden practice. We know that pain and pleasure are matters of biology, not immaterial spirit, and being individualists we glorify personhood as the pinnacle of natural creation, even though we must differ from animals only by degree. Thus, the fact that we consumers indirectly torture millions of sentient creatures, by demanding their meat for food and by participating in a neoliberal society that prioritizes economic evaluations must be as sad and grotesque as the medieval’s childlike ignorance, although in our encultured mindframe we can’t appreciate the absurdity.
Myth-Making in Politics
This assessment of the cost of social unity can be applied to the mystery of Trumpism. Liberals wonder how Republicans can afford to lie with so little shame, but liberals thereby miss the point of authoritarian propaganda. As one author puts it in the New York Times, the goal of such propaganda is “to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power” (my emphasis). If Democrats are more loathe than Trumpian Republicans to publicly stray from a literal reading of facts, this shows only that Republicans operate at a meta-level of myth-making. Liberals are beholden to the Enlightenment-era myths about the individual’s sovereignty through rational self-control, while Republicans understand that politics isn’t a science but an exercise in maintaining social unity through the cultivation of a mass fiction. What Trump is doing is bypassing feminized, obsolete liberal myths and reframing American social issues in terms of authoritarian fantasies that spring from his gut reaction to the anecdotes he comes across in his binges on late night television. Instead of creating his religion in the traditional manner, by sojourning in the desert like Jesus or on the mountaintop like Moses, Trump aggregates the upshot of infotainments that bubble up to the surface of social media. The result may be an uglier, regressive American self-image that befits that country’s lesser standing in a multipolar world. In any case, the fact that Trump doesn’t attempt to hide the political process of fictionalizing daily events to unify the public is itself evidence for the above analysis. Trump’s motives aren’t selfless, but the public nevertheless needs an imaginary collective identity to avoid brutalizing the strangers next door at the slightest grievance.
What’s more, though, the liberal reaction to Trump’s audacity is likewise evidence that Trump opposes a received myth to which liberals are unwittingly enthralled. The conventional wisdom is that political leaders should be honest and rational, because democracy, like capitalism, is meritocratic. In a free society, we strive to better ourselves, taking advantage of opportunities to gain knowledge, and politicians and businesspeople will be modest managers whose power is reined in by the voters or shareholders. That so-called wisdom is mythical and fantastic. In reality, the chance to exercise power over others attracts not the best but the worst members of society, namely psychopaths. Decent individuals would abhor the opportunity to dominate others, fearing that such a temptation would naturally corrupt their character. Meanwhile, zealots with the most ambition who leap at the chance to “serve” the nation or the market are actually the most likely to be inwardly monstrous. Outwardly, these “leaders” will be attractive, since the electoral and promotional processes are superficial, but ethically the winners will be disproportionately predatory or parasitic.
Now Trump represents a backlash against that liberal convention. The “elites” and the “establishment” are blamed for double-crossing the middleclass, which they’ve done non-stop since Ronald Reagan was president. Trump won’t address the problems of globalization or automation, since there are no political or economic solutions to them. A technological miracle will save the bulk of humanity or there will be a wave of neo-Luddite slaughter and all-out war against the top one percent. But what Trump is clearly trying to do is to reframe American culture to lend the white male have-nots some self-respect. Trump’s fantasies and lies and spins are laughable, but that’s irrelevant since every culture is laughable, being a practically-necessary mass fiction that requires the believers’ suspension of disbelief. Liberal faith in democratic and capitalistic institutions is also laughable. As this article explains, these institutions are currently in the business of putting most humans out of work. Robots are taking over—and not just in science fiction. Liberals want to raise the minimum wage and improve education to ensure the masses have good jobs, but those measures are obsolete and even counterproductive. Raising the minimum wage, for example, will escalate the outsourcing of jobs not to foreigners but to machines that work for free.
Trump is an abomination, but so is civilization which condemns us to lie to each other. Trump is only exploiting the depravities of a social order that’s operated on principles first devised twelve thousand years ago. The leaders must lie to the masses, and those lies must be captivating so that the masses will beg for more. The alternative is to stare reality in the face with no protection by way of self-serving myths. That existential confrontation is deathly and suitable only for the marginalized. Mass society itself is possible only if the majority is put to bed by a lullaby, otherwise called the myth that defines the population’s cultural identity. Liberals are free to oppose and to ridicule Trump, but they shouldn’t pretend that myth-making is unknown to politics, because that gives their game away and makes them look foolish in turn.