MYTH-MAKING IN THE TIME OF THE VIRUS

 

Virus ok

Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAMS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ID 23312, 2020

 

In general usage, a ‘myth’ is a statement or fact believed to be true, a falsehood. Myths are given credence and spread by rumours and, increasingly, as ‘fake news’ or ‘memes’.

They usually arise as misunderstandings of historical events, statements, and sometimes as deliberate lies invented and spread for political, commercial or religious purposes

A well-known example of a misunderstood statement is an observation once made by the eminent anthropologist, Franz Boas, about the Inuit words for snow. The myth is that the Inuit people of Southwestern Alaska have more words for snow than any other language.

What Boas actually observed, in relation to the linguistic complexities of Inuit and its dialects, was that there were four root words for snow that might be vastly expanded by their use in a variety of linguistic combinations, or lexemes, that might also include individual semantic flourishes.

This fundamental subtlety was subsequently misunderstood by many to mean that the Inuit did have one hundred distinct words for snow. In fact, they might have one hundred or more lexemes for snow but not one hundred individual words, as the myth has it.

A more significant issue than the number of Inuit words for snow is this: what was it about the Inuit people (then termed ‘Eskimo’), their language and its cultural meanings, that led to the spread of this misstatement and its perpetuation to the present day?

The answer is that it’s all about ‘us’, not ‘them’.

When Boas and others were studying the Inuit in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a widespread fascination with these indigenous people and their inconceivably hard way of life. For a few decades, the Inuit, and other indigenous groups in polar regions, were the darlings of folklorists, anthropologists, filmmakers and journalists. In short, the Inuit were seen through western eyes as ‘exotic others’. ‘Their’ lives were so drastically different from the western norm that something that so clearly and conveniently represented that difference made sense to ‘us’. Of course, such different people somehow surviving in perpetual ice and snow would have lots of words to describe their situation. Makes sense. Mmm.

This small popular delusion is pretty harmless, unlike many other prejudiced and pernicious myths western culture has evolved about exotic others. Perceptions of black people as monkey-like have a long history and have not gone away, for the same reason the Inuit words for snow myth has not. ‘They’ are not like ‘us’ whites.

One popular perception of human evolution is that non-Europeans are further down the evolutionary scale and therefore closer to the apes. Obvious, isn’t it? That’s what Darwin said.

Of course, Darwin said no such thing, but his biological ideas were applied to culture in the perversion usually called ‘social Darwinism, and it was asserted by experts that just as the plant and animal kingdoms evolved through natural selection, popularly understood as ‘survival of the fittest’, so did people. Obviously western culture was the preeminent result of this process and any culture that didn’t have our technological, religious, organisational and (supposedly) moral attainments was obviously at a lower stage of evolution and, therefore, inferior. Closer to monkeys than clever us. Science proves it. Mmm.

Despite the overwhelming abundance of evidence to the contrary, this apparently authoritative explanation provided an expert validation of a prejudice that had existed in European society since at least the medieval era. *

As well as the story itself, mythmaking also depends on those who tell the tale. The role of the ‘expert’ in confirming and spreading myth has recently expanded. Unqualified celebrities, politicians and those with usually fringe political agendas have increasingly taken over from experts as arbiters of opinion, masquerading as ‘fact’. The reasons for this are complex and include the erosion of trust in civil institutions and traditionally prominent influencers since the 1960s. In this century, the internet has accelerated and amplified this trend to its currently dangerous levels.

Right now, we are seeing the influence of the new storytellers in the context of the Corona virus pandemic. Large numbers of people prefer to believe random commentators and opinionists in the mainstream and social media about medical and scientific matters, particularly those related to so-called ‘cures’.

Alongside this we have another example of negative perceptions of exotic others, in this case, the Chinese, who have been blamed for the outbreak due to their culinary habits, alleged poor hygiene, incompetence or, the conspiracy theory version, by deliberately manufacturing and spreading the virus.

There are many other prejudicial myths that originate, evolve, and proliferate through these complex processes of history, ignorance and delusion. They persist because they fill a cultural and psychological need to perceive otherness in usually negative terms.* The particular combination of the progressive erosion of trust, the proliferation and consequences of new communication technology, and the always existing compulsion for humans to see things in terms of ‘us and them’, has now reached a potentially disastrous moment for us all.

 

* For a useful overview of this process see https://theconversation.com/comparing-black-people-to-monkeys-has-a-long-dark-simian-history-55102

* For a more detailed look at the complex psychological and cultural processes involved in mythmaking, see David Robson’s The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes https://davidrobson.me/the-intelligence-trap/

 

A TIME FOR HEROES Anzac Day 2020

poppy-1479509759UKR

This year, no public events will mark Anzac Day. The COVID-19 pandemic has done what only a world war has previously accomplished, when the event was cancelled in 1942.

These random coincidences remind us that today, as then, Australia has been fighting a war, in fact, several wars. The disastrous bushfires of 2019-20 and the Corona virus pandemic, have taken on some of the characteristics of mass conflict. They include the language of war, emergency coordination between the Commonwealth and the states, deployment of the defence forces and a range of restrictions on personal and civil liberties and activities.

Like all wars, these have produced heroes.

Over a summer of flame, ash and smoke, tens of thousands of firefighters, mostly volunteers, battled infernos in New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, as well as in other states with fewer serious blazes. Some – ‘the fallen’ –  lost their lives. Many of the survivors will have ongoing health issues due to burns, smoke inhalation and trauma. Heroes.

These brave men and women were supported by emergency services of all kinds and by doctors, nurses, paramedics and all other hospital staff. Neighbors and strangers also performed acts of dangerous generosity, saving properties and people. Heroes

Then, just as the fire wars were easing, an insidious virus began felling people around the world and in our country. Once again, medical and hospital professionals, police and other services were called to the front line as infectious passengers were unfathomably allowed to depart cruise ships and others jetted in from foreign parts. As often happens in wars, there was a shortage of equipment – masks and gowns, as well as ventilators and beds – but they went to the fight, regardless. They are at the front as I write this. Heroes.

The mostly volunteer diggers of World War 1 and World War 2 were the founders and bearers of the Anzac tradition, subsequently carried by Australian soldiers up to the present. Whatever else Anzac might be about and whatever your personal views of it might be, there is no denying that it is the predominant bearer of Australian notions of heroism. It happens that these ideas were formed in war, but it now seems that the same ideals – glorified and mythologized though they often are – have become attached to ordinary men and women just doing their jobs, or as civilians volunteering.

So, let the ‘silent Anzac Day’ of 2020 be dedicated to the unique recognition and long remembrance of our new heroes.

Graham Seal

 

 

THE RETURN OF TYPHOID MARY

Mary_Mallon_(Typhoid_Mary)

‘Typhoid Mary’

 

Now she is called ‘Public Harm Auntie’ – in South Korea. In the 1980s and 90s she was known in the western world as ‘AIDS Mary’, a virulent and reckless transmitter of the HIV virus. In the twentieth-century America she was known as ‘Typhoid Mary’.

These creatures of twisted history and folklore were – and are – said to be spreading deadly disease. In early 2020, Public Harm Auntie is wantonly infecting South Koreans with Corona virus, or COVID-19.

How durable are these mass delusions, the spawn of fear and misinformation? Mary Mallon, born in Ireland in 1869 migrated to the USA where she worked as a domestic and cook for wealthy households. In 1906, it was discovered that the families she worked for had developed typhoid. It turned out that Mary was a carrier of the disease, and immune to it herself. Authorities quarantined her and later let her free on condition she never worked as a cook again. Unfortunately, Mary did. When she was discovered, she was again quarantined – for twenty-three years until her death in 1938.

Over this period, a worldwide typhoid epidemic raged, killing one in ten victims. Assisted by the press, panic erupted in America centred on Mary’s grim reaper status. Hysteria, misinformation and prejudice did their usually dirty work and Mary became the cause of untold typhoid deaths across the country.

As always, the reality was much different. Mary was a carrier who never contracted the disease herself, as were about fifty others. Mary only infected 33 people, three of whom died of the disease.

AIDS Mary (sometimes ‘Harry’) was, according to popular belief, at least as lethal. But, unlike Mary Mallon, she never existed. And while Public Harm Auntie appears to be an actual person, the alleged number of her infections with COVID-19 is undoubtedly swelled through the transmission of rumour as much as the virus.

Typhoid May, AIDS Mary (Harry) and Public Harm Auntie were [products of the pre-digital era. Now we have the greatest transmitter of falsehood, ignorance and fake news ever invented. The World Wide Web will ensure that this information virus spreads much faster than the disease itself.

REFERENCE:

David Mikkelson, ‘Did Typhoid Mary Cause the Deaths of Thousands of People?’, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/typhoid-mary/. The Snopes investigative and fact checking site is highly recommended as a vaccination against bullshit.