In the event of some tremendous tragedy, which in America can be any number of particular instances on any given day, there is often a temptation to blame the action on a thing. Either something that exists within our culture, or grouping a vague label of people together and dehumanizing them to the point that they become a thing. And it’s not like this is a new occurrence. Anything from rebellious behavior to national tragedy have been blamed on music, drugs, movies, video games, gay people, whichever political party the blamer isn’t, etc. It’s an easy gig too; the same as blaming the government for an individual’s life not being the way they wish it was: the government doesn’t have a human voice in which to respond, because it’s not one single entity, as much as some would like us to believe.
Blaming a giant entity or vague description of something while simultaneously reducing it to a solitary object can be cathartic. The government isn’t a person at a desk with people in line to yell at it, and that’s exactly the point. The government can mean anything from the President to the local dog-catcher. Same as when a televangelist blames leftists for something, it’s roughly half the adult demographic, so it’s nearly impossible to respond. If you can reduce an idea you disagree with into a single entity that is too broad and vague to respond personally, you can also simultaneously reduce whatever blowback you get into a meaningless small percentage of that giant vague entity. Pretty neat deal, isn’t it?
X is a broad spectrum containing thousands if not millions of people, but I will speak of it as if it’s one person that is both powerless and ubiquitous in causing a tremendous problem, therefore shrinking it to the equivalent of one powerful person. Then, in response, one critic of anything I say, the voice I do hear gets reduced even smaller than that one person, while I regrow the solitary entity back into the vague, encompassing juggernaut from which I humanized it in the first place back into its dehumanized vague existence.
That is kept in mind as I analyze the current political and cultural arena through the anthropological lens of the Power of Myth as it relates to the present goings-on and rhetoric surrounding it. While it is not my purpose within this piece to take a particular side on a specific issue, it is more to analyze and comprehend the mindsets that bring us to our plentiful divides within the cultural conversation, especially in action and reactionary terms. However, we cannot begin this analysis without defining our terms.
Stories have a bit of baggage attached to the word. Like a lot of anti-scientific rhetoric, the word is often used in a demeaning way of describing something apart from reality. “That’s just a story.” “Nothing but a story.” “That’s not real, it’s only a story.” This disregards one of the most fundamental parts of our everyday lives. One of the primary functions that define us as human is our ability to make tangible something that isn’t happening in the direct present. If one is not experiencing something immediately and in the moment, we can still access it because of stories.
A story is not only a narrative that someone made up in a book or a movie, but it can be as simple as telling your friend how your day went, recalling a trivial or even important event, or, how about this… A song. Unless a song is narrating in time with a moment (that’s actually happening, not like a musical), it is a story in some form. Stories are how we communicate and relate to each other as human.
A good story needs to be reliable, because it is meant to connect us to an event, whether that’s how awful your boss is or a fitting metaphor regarding a national tragedy. Stories are desirable. Even if they’re meant to be pure escapism, that is still a desire for a story. Our need to dissociate from a place in time is a desire for a story not connected to the present, at least on its surface.
Stories also must be accessible. While the characters and events may be fictional, or at least retold, they have to be relatable enough for the listener/reader/viewer to see something they recognize, both positively and negatively. A story that one cannot grasp is not a story that person is going to retain. It’s the balance of logical, present, analytical thinking; to see what is not there in the present and connect it back to that moment. Logic and math are how we analyze the world; stories are how we relate to it, communicate about it, and understand each other.
We like to consider Myth, or at least Mythology, as something that took place in the Greek and Roman eras of history. A comfortable distance from beliefs that a culture once held makes it easier to look at it through the lens of storytelling rather than as a religion, but that’s another argument for a different article. Myth, however, is pervasive. It’s near the top of the list of what defines us as a species, 1A from being the Storytelling Creature. Myths are stories, yes, but they are far more prevalent in our minds because of their power to transcend any medium and period of history.
-Myths are usually set somewhere else. Whether that’s a different time, location, or reality, myths aren’t from what Film and Literature Theorists would describe as the “Realism” school of thought.
-Myths are often about things beyond explanation. The supernatural, what science has or could create, or what is natural.
-Myths often involve non-human sentient creatures like monsters or gods, or events that are beyond our understanding or explanation.
-Finally, overall, Myths are about what it means to be human.
(Acknowledgement: Yes, I did use that list in a recent article about a similar topic, but they are my words)
MODERN-DAY STORIES, THE OTHER, AND MYTHS
Whereas once the only way to communicate and keep myths alive was through oral tradition, we are now inundated with myths. Myths are what we look to in order to explain what we cannot, and in this process, we create a different creature. Something that is almost human. Something that isn’t so inhuman that we don’t recognize or relate to it, but also separate than us. This is a concept within a story known as The Other.
The Other is someone or something separate from the perspective and narration of the story. Its separation is a technique designed to bind you with the perspective of the story being told, and in general, make the separate group the source of the problem or what must be overcome. You read the introduction of this article; don’t get ahead of me just yet.
To Other is to dehumanize; both figuratively and literally. In the figurative sense, that is why Myths often include beings like Monsters, Aliens, Zombies, or Vampires. They symbolize what a concept or a belief can become if left unchecked, and are the counter to the narrative being told, which is either to return to normalcy or subvert it. Rather than taking a race of people, a religion, a political party, or just that guy down the street who yells things at you when you walk by, the Monsters are a blank slate onto which we can project our greatest fears.
The most famous example of this exists in 1950’s Sci-Fi, where space aliens were The Other and a near one-to-one for Communism. Communists… I mean aliens… are invading, and it’s up to us to stop it. Another famous example is connecting Zombies to Consumerism, and if anyone knows of a less-subtle use of that metaphor than They Live, I await your response. The point is, when The Other is not human, our sympathies do not lie with them. Our natural instinct is to want the storyteller, or hero, to survive and overcome the non-human threat to our way of life. Think of Lord of the Rings. If the Orcs weren’t ugly, grotesque, and based entirely on carnage, would it have been so easy to slaughter them by the thousands without a second thought? The body count of Orcs in those films has to be in the hundreds of millions, but they’re ugly and evil so we don’t care when they die.
So how does this relate to the present that I set up in the Intro?
THE INABILITY TO SEPARATE OUR MYTHS FROM REALITY
We like to think that we know when something is a story and aren’t affected by it. While that does not mean that we’re talking on a one-to-one level something like “video games cause mass shootings,” we’re tricking ourselves if we don’t think the stories we tell have any affect on how we live our lives, speak to other people, and formulate our behavior.
The #MeToo Movement was the most effective and visible communication of stories of sexual harassment, assault, and violence in years because the stories became so accessible that they could no longer be conveniently ignored. It would, though, be foolish to say that it was not met with its own resistance. Why is that? Why would someone be in favor of those harmful and sometimes life-threatening actions?
On the surface, at least for a majority, they aren’t. Nobody believes themselves to be the villains of their own story, because that’s not how stories work, right? Either the hero themselves tell the story, or an omnipotent but completely separate narrator follows the hero throughout the duration.
How many stories in our culture exist that follow one specific trope: Boy Gets Girl.
Or, a bit more specifically: Boy Meets Girl, Boy Likes Girl, Boy Gets Girl. That’s a three-act movie right there that anyone reading this can apply one hundred different versions of on the spot. But those are just stories, right? They don’t affect the way we behave in real life. We can distinguish the two with relative ease. Right?
Not if you look at the commonly-portrayed behavior with the beliefs that many think are associated with “how things are supposed to be.” Following someone around because you’re interested in them, even if they don’t return the interest, isn’t okay in real life, but how many stories have been told that it’s the right thing to do? That’s how you show you’re interested, right? That’s how you make yourself visible. Especially if the girl has a terrible boyfriend and you know you’re just right for her, even though you don’t really know her. That’s what boys have been told they should do, and that’s what girls have been told they should want. Normativities aplenty aside, that is the culture many of us were raised in.
Here’s another: The Hero’s Journey.
Or, a bit more specifically: The World is Great. Something Bad Happens to a Man. Man Goes on Adventure. Man Makes Things Right. And, in most cases, Man Gets Girl.
Most popularly attributed to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of 1000 Faces,” this is not only one of the most common and famous plot/story structures, but for a very long time was believed to be the only way to make a movie. Now, in these stories, there’s a man… usually cis, straight, and let’s be honest, white… who lives in a place where things are amazing. Good family, nice town, great life. Then, something messes that up. His aunt and uncle are killed while goons look for droids. An evil scientist or millionaire disrupts tranquility in the town. Dad is killed. Girlfriend is kidnapped. Wrong is done. Sometimes to everyone, but usually to one specific white cisgender heterosexual young man.
In most of these stories, it is the One Man (TM) who must stand up to the giant evil that has caused this disruption. Sure, there are friends who help him along the way, and the girl (always a girl, of course) that may have a series of characteristics, but is ultimately The Prize. The One Man (TM) defeats every obstacle put before him, no matter how insurmountable the odds may be, until the Villain… Or to connect it to earlier, The Other… is the last thing that stands between him and Justice, Revenge, A Return to Normalcy, and of course, The Girl. Just as I’m writing that, you’re imagining everything from Star Wars to Troy. That’s because those are Myths that we have accepted as part of our understanding of our culture. They’re ingrained.
Think of some of the following phrases, now that we’ve set all this up, and how they might relate.
-Boys will be boys.
-That’s how boys show they like you.
-Good Guy with a Gun/Bad Guy with a Gun.
-Everything happens for a reason.
I want to note specifically that last one. Why do you think it’s so pervasive in our minds that everything happens for a reason? Even with religion teaching that, and whether or not you believe in a religion is not the point, that’s the basis of all stories we’ve been told. Most stories to mass audiences that don’t have a conclusive ending, and therefore a reason to hear/see the story, are not well received. We like our stories accessible, universal, and most of all, resolved. That is how we understand the world: Everything has a reason, and therefore a conclusion that solves the story.
To once again reiterate, this is not to make anything a one-for-one. I’m not saying that seeing John Cusack stand outside a house with a boombox will make you go and do that thing. But the feelings it may have given you make you want to do something like that, don’t they? Hearing that a friend has been hurt by a partner or a total stranger, the instinct often is to go out, hunt that person down, and harm them in return, bring them to justice, or both, right? Of course! The most common stories in our culture, at least until recently, have been One Man Will Save Us All. That is how we understand the world.
Is it not then any wonder that when stories are told differently, the so-common default for those stories doesn’t feel able to identify with them? A cis straight white guy has had so many stories told about him and for him, why would he want to hear anything else? Anything else must be wrong: that’s not his story, that’s not how it’s supposed to go. He’s supposed to interrupt the wedding and that will win over the girl, because that’s how the story is supposed to end. The One Man Will Save Us All is supposed to be called to action when times seem their worst, and they are, always, the Good Guy With the Gun. No one is the villain in their own story.
It may be that the story has been changed when it comes to flirting with women, or that it feels threatened by people who are no longer interested in the fantasies of taking down someone with a penis-enhancing murderstick with their own, or at least want to see some kind of limitations put on it. That’s not how the story is supposed to go, and taking that option away can feel like it will always mean that chance to be The Hero will never be obtained. I’m not saying it’s right, but how can it be any question as to its influence on discourse?
The natural instinct is to blame a terrible event on The Other, because everything in stories is almost universally cut and dry. To blame The Other is to be the hero of one’s own personal story, because stories is how the human experience is most accessible. Because it isn’t inherently logical or pragmatic, anyone can project themselves onto a hero, and heroes always fight the bad guys, The Others, The Villains. Anyone who is not that hero must therefore either be the Prize to be won, or the ones who need to be fought against. Queer people, trans people, people of color, immigrants, etc., have almost always been The Other, unless it’s to enhance the story of the hero for being so brave as to acknowledge that one of them is, in fact, human after all. They’re an accessory.
When almost all the stories have been about you and for you, seeing them be for another feels like a threat to that. You’ve been told you’re the universal default, so why can’t everyone always just see it through your eyes, because that’s the way things have always been? The guy wants another guy instead? That’s not how the story goes! The woman is the hero? No, she’s supposed to be the one the hero wants! Trans people and non-white people exist as something other than a Punchline or a dangerous Other? That’s just the radical SJW agenda. The stories have almost always been for a certain default, and ridiculed whenever they’re not. Does the phrase “Chick Flick” ring a bell?
Where some people feel threatened that their stories are being invaded because they’re not always about them, they fear what many of us have had to accept as our only representation. The Accessory or the Villain. They fear not being the hero of the story, because they know what happens to the people who aren’t the heroes, and if they aren’t the heroes, they may have to change. It’s better to immediately dismiss anything that isn’t for or about you and blame it on a vague group for whom it must be as a negative thing. If someone else is the hero, that must mean that they’re the villain, and we can’t have that.
Same as how if they don’t have the chance to be a Good Guy With a Gun because enough people are tired of getting shot, how will they ever be the hero of their own story? The most popular religion in America teaches that God made man in his own image. How can the image of God itself be wrong? Everyone else must be. Better attack the credibility of the one telling the story so that it never has to change.
Whether it’s simply talking about making it a bit harder to get guns morphing into a total gun ban in the minds of the defenders, non-cis straight white males being a protagonist turning into some kind of all-out political agenda, or adults who constantly complain about this generation of kids always being on their phones and never getting involved also turning around and attacking those very kids for getting involved when it’s something they don’t like, it’s a violation of their attachment to a Myth. A Story. And all of those have an easily-blamed villain and an easily-understood conclusion where everything is set right.
Unfortunately, as some people end up finding out, the way stories work is not always how the world works. Just because you relate and identify with the story does not mean it has all the answers. Just because that’s how it’s always gone doesn’t mean that’s how it always needs to be. Nobody wants to believe they’re the villain in anyone’s story, so if they can control all the stories, they never will be. The attachment to those Myths has never been more visible and prevalent as it is right now, and whether it’s people speaking out about harassment and assault, or daring to not want to be shot for the preservation of a perceived-threatened right, the long-thought Universality of those basic and retold Myths has finally been threatened.
And that’s far scarier to accept when you’ve always been the presumed societal default.