Much has been made of Donald Trump’s wanton deployment of myths in the place of facts in recent months. To the dismay of his opponents, challenging these myths with rational evidence or “fact checking” simply does not cut through to his supporters. This disheartening truth-myth gap is playing out in reactionary politics everywhere, as anti-immigration and anti-Islamic sentiments (among other things) surge across the Western world and beyond.
Visceral and often unfounded narratives seem to resonate with the sentiments of large swaths of the global populace – and no amount of social scientific data seems able to dispel the myths. All this points to a fundamental problem: humans don’t make good statisticians and we’re rarely inspired to act on the basis of facts alone. What we’re good at is making myths. We are wired with an ability to combine ideas and observations into meaningful narratives – factually accurate or otherwise. It’s what gets us out of bed in the morning. But since the Enlightenment, we’ve been taught not to trust myths. Instead, the rationale goes, we should act solely on the basis of evidence.
This attitude has become a core tenet of politics too. Whereas mainstream political parties once derived their legitimacy from the ability to spin a meaningful narrative about where their country is headed, they now increasingly turn to social scientific methods to observe what people want – or at least, the wants of voters in decisive constituencies. They make the same calculations when formulating policy. This approach is thoroughly alienating, not only because it makes for dull politics, but because it ultimately enables a university-educated elite to ignore the real concerns of ordinary people.
Empirical, calculated politics just doesn’t work – and those seeking to stem the tide of reactionary politics across the world neglect the power of myth at their peril. Despite all our training not to trust these instincts, we still yearn for something deeper, and this is why electorates are so susceptible to almost anyone who can offer a story with some meaning. And once a myth takes hold, no amount of rational evidence is going to change our minds.
Instead, those on the progressive side of politics need to realise that myth can only be countered with myth. Myths of division can only be forcefully met with myths of solidarity. Rather than simply debunking the “alternative facts” of reactionary politics with fact checks, it would be better to develop counter-myths: of diverse people living together in harmony and fighting side-by-side for social justice.
The good news is that even in these reactionary times, plenty of progressive groups out there are already putting myths of solidarity to work.
How it’s done
One excellent example is Citizens UK, who try to empower ordinary people to agitate for change in their neighbourhoods, cities and nations. They do so by working from the ground up, drawing on the ability of local institutions to assemble people into various actions, from street demonstrations to listening campaigns, that hold governments and businesses responsible for the difficulties faced by ordinary people.
This undiscriminating focus on what the group’s organisers call “relational power” means that any organisation can be involved in the struggle – a church, a mosque, a school, a trade union. By bringing these diverse groups together, Citizens UK is able to overcome divisions in society to exert pressure in the service of change.
The work of online activists matters too. Myths of solidarity pervade the Twittersphere: @FaithMatters cites cases of Jews protecting Muslims from attack and Muslims defending Jewish cemeteries. @pulseofeurope demonstrates people all over the continent rallying together to celebrate Europe’s common values. Even though the individual cases they point to are very real, neither account claims to reflect the worldwide norm; they simply offer exemplars, glimmers of hope.
The effect is cumulative. As people of all religions and none work together in common cause, they realise that only by working with others can they really challenge the status quo, and that what divides them is far less significant than what unites them. As people begin to glimpse of a different way of living together, each small action fuels the next – and in time, today’s actions will become tomorrow’s myths.
With small contributions to actions like these, whether on the streets or online, people can slowly begin to challenge myths of division with myths of solidarity. In a post-truth world, it is myth, not truth, that will set us free.