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/