Living in myth

A few weeks ago, the mailman came into my office and asked all of us sitting there if we had our guns. Such a statement would ordinarily cause alarm; instead, there was a collective unease.

He did not mean that we were in danger; instead, he was inviting us to share an opinion, that, on the surface seems to be about safety, but instead is political. There was another mass shooting the week before, and the mailman’s eventual argument (that if he came into the room with a gun, if we all had one, we could stop him) was a common one; although we have exponential ways and forms of expressing opinion to a large public (through comment sections and social media posts), it seems the content of these have a sameness.

How we express reaction and remembering about history, even a history that is in creation, has significance. I am reading Jill Lepore’s book, The Name of War, a second time, and I find again that one cannot really re-read a book…sections have become new, inviting and challenging. Leopore writes about language, focusing on a war that happened pre-media, “before television, film, before photography”, the war known as ‘King Philip’s War’, which began in 1676, between British colonists and Native Americans.

By placing her focus on this earlier period, Lepore can get at questions of how history itself is constructed. In one section, there is discussed the concept of ‘literall advantage':

“People who communicate orally can understand the past only in terms of their present day face-to-face relationships; thus they create ‘myths’ that emphasize continuity between past and present”

We can see the motive behind such an argument already: Westerners, as literate peoples, have a superiority because, with their written histories, “cannot fail to notice the distinction between what was and what is”, and thus have intellectual advantage over those whose histories are orally transmitted.

We therefore can have the argument that “while Europeans think in terms of history, Indians think in terms of myth”. Modernism has toppled this theory, by proving both its grounds wrong: oral history can, indeed, create a significant historical consciousness; and that literacy does not rule out a reliance on myth.

The latter is true, for the mailman’s narrative was myth, ignoring a recent troubling history. We can play out his scenario, that he did have a gun, and we were armed. We would logically conclude that we would have to expect the mailman to do the extraordinary (shot us instead of deliver mail), a prediction that would be hard to make as it would be extremely unusual. Not only would we have to predict it, our bodies would then have to react faster than he could, which would again seem unlikely as his intention would trump our response.

To go on like this, though, is to fall into the myth, to describe violent, nightmare scenarios. These are not unusual to us in the sense that, if one turns on the television at 9:00pm, there is bound to be portrayed a gun battle on some station. In those dramas, it often is the case that a lone person (a superhero) is able to perform such actions, handily defeating villains with seeming ease. Why we do this after a shooting is perhaps understandable; we want to believe we could escape what the victims could not..we want to believe, too, that someone would arrive to do what would not be able to.

Malcolm Gladwell, writing about mass shootings in the New Yorker, claims that guns are only part of the sources of violence; he argues a bigger source is narrative: early mass shootings became part of historical consciousness, and thus began to be seen by more and more people as something possible to do. He compares mass shootings to riots: that one person may be bold enough to throw a stone through a window during a riot; her doing so allows someone who was considering doing it to do so; and her doing so allows someone who would never have done so, to do so. This narrative effect would create more mass shooters, and would again be another myth.

When I discuss the possibility of non-violence, some respond that it is an impossibility, even that it goes against human nature. This, then, is my myth. And, I don’t want to argue my myth is better than other myths; who am I to say? But for a moment, pretend the mailman came in and talked about the importance of community, about caring for each other. What if politicians talked about that too? It took me much too long to realize that politicians only repeat what we say, or speak what we desire; they know our myths, and encourage our belief in them. That Donald Trump has popularity is only a reflection of our society, as difficult as this is for some to accept. Donald Trump is our experiment gone wrong, and we are Dr. Frankenstein, wondering what we have done. David Foster Wallace argues that it is not necessarily the moment of conversion, the moment of an act that is defining, that is important; it is the story of what led that person to it. We can tell ourselves a myth that the world can be nonviolent, and, even if it’s untrue, I argue we will arrive at a different and far better place.