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Children Are Not Lying, They Are Making Myths
Last Updated: Saturday January 1,2001
Perhaps you never made something up as a child, nor as a teenager, nor as an adult. Never massaged the sensory evidence in order to avoid getting in trouble, or to make yourself look better in other's eyes, or just because it felt better than the sensory truth. You are not human. Also it must be dull on your planet.
Sometimes someone will write to me saying how much they like mythology, because they like all things which are not true. This is where it gets sticky...because I believe mythology is trying to replace one way of seeing things with another. It is replacing one part truth with another part truth. I talk about truth but many people who write for a living use the word 'lie' without qualification.
"The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of Art."
-- Oscar Wilde in "The Decay of Lying"
"[I] lie like the truth"
-- William Defoe
"The truest poetry is the most feigning."
-- William Shakespeare"
"Semiotics is concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign. A sign is everything which can be taken as significantly substituting for something else...thus semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything which can be used in order to lie. If something cannot be used to tell a lie, conversely it cannot be used to tell the truth: it cannot in fact be used 'to tell' at all"
-- Umberto Eco in "A Theory of Semiotics"
A lie can like any other tool be used to do good or evil. The worst form of mythology is that which is used to maintain the status quo of very greedy and monstrous humans. "The well-to-do never have excessive appetites, which is why they are well to do." Of course the well-to-do can satisfy their appetites which is why they do not have appetites most of the time.
"Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people want dinner do not just ring the bell."
-- William Bagehot
Judge Dee, the famous T'ing Dynasty one, once was investigating a case before him in his usual manner of going amongst the common people in disguise. As part of this particular investigation he poses as a transient worker visiting a prostitute, whom he believes knows something of the case he is investigating. Almost at once he begins to question her as she serves tea. She laughs at him, and says if he wants truth from her he must give truth first. He wonders what she means. She tells him that he is no labourer. He must be a rich man with many wives and concubines. Only such a person would not immediately try to 'jump her bones'. Judge Dee laughs and admits his deception.
All myths have a purpose, and a consistency. Once the myth is integrated people resist changes to it. Noam Chomsky noted that you can say anything that a thousand other people have said, unquestioned, in the media, and you will get people nodding their heads in agreement. However if you try to say something contrary to that 'truth' you spend hours, days, or weeks proving your assertions. And then the majority still do not believe it. This can be sinister. John Lister (or was it James), chief of surgery in a Edinborough hospital in 1790 was a very famous and well thought of surgeon. Part of his reputation came from the speed at which he did surgery. An above the knee amputation of a leg in less than 2 minutes for example. Why was that important? There was no anesthetic in use in those days. James (or John) Lister noticed that most of his patients did not die in the surgery, but somewhat later from infections. He came up with the use of carbolic acid to disinfect everything ("Listerine" is a modern product which bears his name for his antiseptic protocol). The after surgery mortality of his patients fell greatly. His fellow surgeons in the hospital refused to follow his example saying that had nothing to do with the hygenic process Lister followed. 'Just good luck' they said.
It would be sad if it was the only case. The are thousands of examples. In Dr. Frank Ryan's book 'The Forgotten Plague', he tells how the antibiotic treatment of strep fevers by the German researcher Domagk was ignored and not tried by clinical doctors in many places at first. A large New York hospital he quotes as saying 'It is good that this patient [who was treated with the antiobiotic in 1936 at the insistence of her parents], for if her recovery had happened in a small hospital they may have concluded that the chemical treatment her parents insisted on had something to do with her recovery.' A myth can be very blinding.
We still have plenty of these dangerous myths: Lewis Hyde in 'Tricksters Make this World' says this about American capitalism '[The links in the myth are:] Valley Forge, atomic power, the family, free trade, white bread...the story [in the end ] is always that George Washington did not tell a lie; the cigarette always has a natural flavor.'
The good news is that constructive myths to further justice are as resistance to change once accepted. One more quote:
"[The truth] is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, anthropomorphism, in short, a sum of human relations which were poetically and rhetorically heightened, transfered, and adorned, and after long use seem solid, canonical, and binding to a nation. Truths are illusions about which it has been forgotten that they are illusions."
-- Friedrich Nietzsche
There is for example the famous story of Krishna when he was a child. He walked into the pantry and ate the butter from a crock. His mother Yasoda caught him with his greasy mouth, and his hand in the jar. First she reminds him that she told him not to steal the butter. He creates several myths to explain the sensory evidence. 'There were ants on the butter, I was trying to keep them out. And as I did that, I found that the bracelets you gave me chaffed my wrists so I used some to soothe them. I cannot steal this butter anyway. Does not everything in the house belong to us?" Yasoda by now is laughing at the old rule: 'Thou shalt not steal the butter' is no longer certain because of all the real exceptions that Krishna, a trickster, has come up with.
As I was a poor myth changer as a child, I will tell one illustrative story about how I changed expectations as an adult:
A male task in my family is washing laundry. So when I got married I did the laundry for the two of us. However as I never took 'Home Economics' in high school, my wife found my washing and drying technique cavalier, not very respectful of the hundreds of strictures, sometimes outright covenants concerning laundry. For example:
The apatheid rule: whites and colored must never be mixed.
The unmentionable rule: 'Delicates' (read underwear) must never be mixed with
The what-the-hell rule: Polyesters must never be washed in more than lukewarm water,
nor dried more than a gentle tumble.
I once figured that in 10 years, over 500 hours was spent in separating, choosing settings on the machines, deciding on the detergent and bleach/not bleach combintation permitted with a particular batch of clothing. 500 hours is the length of a three week vacation. I would rather have a three week vacation that sort, select and choose. However some knowledge is a good thing. My wife had a large wool knit sweater-coat. I put into a hot water/warm water wash/rinse. It survived that. I then put into the dryer and set it to normal (high temperature) cycle. At the end of the cycle I pulled out this very small wool jacket. As I was holding it up, my wife walked in to the laundry room.
"What have you done," she screamed. "You have destroyed it beyond any hope of repair."
"It is not!" I retorted, creating a new way of looking at this event.
"This will be perfect as a jacket for our first child."
This I believe is the best use of mythology. To rationalize what needs to be done, to provide justice when the rules work against it, to provide another more constructive way of living.
So with respect to human, the truth about humans is that they make up myths all the time. So for me, mythology is which stories I consciously wish to pass on so that people can be helped, not injured; empowered, not enslaved; amused, not depressed.
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