Understanding social myth: Why it’s so hard to find common ground & how to do it

The other day, I saw a poster. It’s the iconic picture of Rambo with bulging muscles and a bazooka. But, instead of the head of Sylvester Stallone, it has the head of Donald Trump. The caption goes, “Trump. No Man. No Woman. No Commie Can Stump Him.”

My first reaction was to think of it as satire, making fun of Trump’s exaggerated opinion of himself. But, no, given the context, this was meant as a prideful statement by one of his followers.

Do his followers not know that he is obese and averse to exercise? Is it possible that they don’t know that he avoided the draft? How could they believe in something that is so far from the truth?

Pausing for inner experience

I pause a moment as I’m pondering these questions. I pay attention to my inner experience. I notice that what this brings up for me is some mixture of outrage and smugness. Outrage: how dare they represent something that is so far from the truth? Smugness: the sense that I am more in touch with reality than these people.

I know that, if I stay with my sense of outrage and smugness, all I do is reinforce my preconceptions. So I try, for a moment, to shift into a different perspective. I tap into a sense of curiosity about what this picture might mean to the people who proudly display it. Does one need to take it as literally true to be inspired by it?

Probably not. We, human beings, have the ability to use symbolic thinking. We use metaphors. Sometimes, the metaphors we choose are very carefully related to the topic. Occasionally, we voluntarily choose metaphors that present a stark contrast to highlight an aspect that is especially important to us. For instance, I remember how Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa liked to use the metaphor of warriors to reflect the quality of courage. Mindfulness practitioners are certainly not warriors in the typical sense of the term. They are not belligerent, far from that. The warrior metaphor serves to draw attention to their hero quality.

But what if the metaphor is so over the top that it loses any power? When Vladimir Putin displays pictures of himself bare-chested, it is consistent with his background as a sportsman, a judo practitioner. But what could the man who avoided the draft because of bone spurs possibly have to do with a Rambo-like figure?

Calvin & Hobbes

To better understand this, I find it helpful to think of one of my favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes. Calvin is a little boy, and Hobbes is his tiger. Clearly, for Calvin’s parents and all the other characters in this strip, this is what Hobbes is: a stuffed animal, a toy. But, whenever Calvin interacts with him, Hobbes is represented as fully alive. A magnificent, powerful tiger. More than that, a tiger who is also able to speak and play with Calvin.

You could say that all of the stories take place in Calvin’s imagination. So what? Saying that misses out on what gives these stories their charm. They don’t just talk about the fantasy world of the kid. They draw us into it. To enjoy the story, you suspend disbelief that this is a stuffed animal. You see and experience Hobbes as a full-fledged character, not a toy but an animal. Actually, an animal who is also a person. But also a stuffed toy, because the story works on many levels. You have to follow it on all the levels as it unfolds.

The story that unfolds does not have an “as if” quality. It would be boring if it were possible to reduce it to what’s happening in Calvin’s imagination. What makes it captivating is that it is also happening in our imaginations. The power of good stories is that they draw us into the world of fantasy. What makes a story enjoyable is not how closely it hews to literal truth. It is how it captures something compelling that literal truth cannot capture as well. It is akin to how a simple drawing can capture a sense of a person more effectively than a realistic photograph.

A realistic story, or image, captures what we would call reality. Yet, it does not capture all of what we experience as reality. As social animals, we have developed brain structures to deal with elaborate human relationships. We automatically apply these resources instinctively to apprehend just about everything we interact with in the world. So we tend to see the world in terms of relationships. This tendency of ours manifests in anthropomorphic thinking. It is evident, for instance, when we ascribe natural phenomena to the intervention of gods with human-like characteristics. In this sense, a God of thunder is a personification of the relationships that make thunder happen, and the relationship that we have with thunder.

Oh, but, you will say, “this was in the past. We are so far beyond all of that now.” You might state that we can now see the world as it truly is. Of course, we indeed have more of a grip on what makes things work than our remote ancestors had. As a result, our technology can accomplish much more than theirs was able to. Does this mean that we are now impervious to the power of myth?

No, emphatically no, says historian Yuval Harari in his book, “Sapiens.” It is not just that myth still occurs in a complex society. The more complex a society, the more it needs myth to function. Myths only appear quaint to us because we look at myths from past civilizations. They no longer resonate with us, and we find it hard to fully grasp how much of a grip they had on society.

The power of myth

A myth is anything but a quaint story. It is an organizing principle that makes it possible for a society to coalesce and function as a society. When they are alive, myths are not perceived as myths but as self-evident truths.

For instance, money is a myth. Not because it is a quaint fantasy (it is not). In economic terms, it is the metric by which we measure just about everything. In this sense, it’s about as real as it gets. But it is a myth in the sense that it is an abstraction that requires people to believe in it for it to be effective. A dollar bill has no inherent value. It’s not even that useful as a piece of paper. You can’t write on it or wrap a lot of stuff in it. The only thing that makes it worth something is the social convention that you can use this piece of paper to acquire something you want.

Our dollar bills state that “in God we trust.” It might be more accurate to say that we need to trust in trust for money to perform its function. If people stopped accepting paper money, then its value would crumble. The value of money is a foundational myth so profoundly ingrained it appears to us as a self-evident truth.

So yes, money plays a significant role in our world, and it is also a myth, which is why it works. It is the interweaving of objective reality and the mythical quality of experience that makes us human and makes our world what it is. Much of what we perceive to be self-evident truth may be illusory social constructs. But these illusions do have meaningful consequences. The world as we know it would not exist without the myths that enable us to function as a coherent society. For instance, we cannot even conceive of a complex society that could work without the myth of money.


All this is a pretty long digression from the image of Trump as Rambo. Let’s come back to it with the notion of functional myth instead of an objective representation of reality. To the Trump supporters who feel inspired by this poster, it captures what they see as an essential quality of his: an ability to break through obstacles that would stump mere mortals.

As somebody who has a different opinion of Trump’s abilities, I am very aware of how different this picture is from the obese man that Trump is. So it is tempting for me to look down on people who are so taken by their myth that they are seemingly unable to face reality.

But, as this whole article shows, belief in myth is not something that only afflicts the weak-minded. It is an essential characteristic of our species. It is the cornerstone of any organized society. And the more powerfully it affects us, the less we are aware of it as a myth.

I want to remember this. When I see somebody else’s myth as a myth, I want to take it as an invitation to be curious about the myths that move me. Not as a way to dismiss them as “just myths.” But to better understand what it is that makes me tick.

Finding common ground

Opinions are subjective. I want to stay mindful of that. When I am involved in a political discussion, I want to override the natural tendency to argue.  Instead, I want to focus on the opportunity that the discussion gives us to understand each other better. Instead of narrowing the discussion by focusing on the topic, I want to broaden it by sharing what this topic brings up for me. I would like us to share how our experiences led us to form the perspectives we hold.

In other words, I would like to change the focus. That is, to shift from a discussion of abstract ideas to an opportunity to know each other better by sharing our experiences.

Published September 2020. See also related article: How to depolarize political conversations.