Modern-Day Myths

It seems to me that sometime shortly after Man began taking his first tottering, uncertain steps without using his knuckles, he became totally, utterly bored.  Reality was so disenchanting and dull.  The tribe was unimpressed by the truth of the deer Grog brought back from the hunt: sick from disease and weakened by thirst and fever, the animal fell behind the pack and just sort of laid down on the ground and Grog just hit in the head with the big rock.  It’s Truth, but it is also Dull.  So one day, Grog decided to embellish the story just a little: now, Grog let fly with a rock just as the majestic deer was in mid-leap across the stream that would forever deny the lucky tribe their tasty venison, and his powerful throw that struck the deer in the head saved them all from starvation.

On the one hand, it’s true: Grog hit a deer in the head with a rock, killed it, and took it back to camp where everyone fed.  It’s just the circumstances behind the Truth that are subtly changed.  And thus, as Man realized how exciting the world could be, he began to copulate like mad to fill this exciting new world.  And along with all of the children who would, millenia later, be genetically honed to become department-store perfume salespeople and middle managers, the Myth was born.

It might have happened something like that.  The Truth is undoubtedly more dull and obvious.

Man is almost defined by the myths he creates.  One of the most potent social forces in the world, for good (rarely) or ill, is Religion, which is of course nothing more than a Myth that you happen to believe in.  Traditional thought is that early Man, lacking as he was in Scientific Fact and Knowledge, crudely created myths to describe the world around him, to craft a narrative that enabled him to make sense of it all.  Personally, I believe that early Man, having no video games, TV, DVDs, cartoons, or even a room to send them to, made up the stories to get his whining pack of bored children from roasting each other for something to do.  Just imagine yourself, with your whole extended family around you, stuck in some cave for 2 months after a heavy snowfall, nowhere to go and nothing to do.  Either there’d be one fat but lonely person left, or a cubic shitload of bullshit stories would have been told or grunted or whatever just to keep the goddamn kids out of your hair and to stop them from running around the cave for five stinking minutes and JESUS CHRIST GROB QUIT BURYING YOUR SISTER UNDER THAT CAIRN, SHE ISN’T EVEN DEAD YET.

See?  It’s why I don’t have kids.

Nowadays, we think about Myths as something relegated to the mists of time, those things that people created in their ignorance.  They are historical anecdotes, trifles we can hold up to chuckle about how backward those early people were.  A god using his chariot to pull the sun across the sky (guffaw), the edge of the world being the place that you fell off of into oblivion if you went to far (ludicrous), an all-powerful god coming to earth to impregnate a virgin, creating a being that would later join it’s father in the land of the god (preposter- hey, wait a second).  Myths, those things the Ignorant Savages used before there was the Light of Reason.

Heh.

See, Man doesn’t exist without his myths.  We call them by different things, like fish-stories or the Bible.  Seriously, that last example I used above – I was describing Hercules (or any of a dozen similarly deity-sired figures of legend), but it is no different, at its core, than the story of Christ, which a whole hell of a lot of people believe is absolutely and unutterably true, and would happily stone you to death or burn you at a stake if you scoff at, depending on your current geographical location.  Modern myths persist, because we can’t live in this dreadfully dull world otherwise.

And I’m talking about just religion, either, nor the sad remnants of a once-rich tapestry of the supernatural beliefs we once held.  Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, alien visitors – all of these are the pathetic remains of that dangerous otherworldly Unknown that existed on the outside of our night-fires.  Sure, some people still believe (or claim to believe – I think a lot of people don’t believe what they actually say they do, but whatever) in ghosts, or vampires, or magic, or some of the other long-ago trappings that gave an exciting flavoring to the tales around the campfire.  Those myths still persist in their degraded form, but they have little real resonance in the modern world.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plethora of myths in today’s world: quite the opposite.  Instead, our myths are so pervasive that we hardly even think about them: they are just the things that form what it is to be Man.

Take Kitty Genovese.  Everyone knows the story.  An innocent woman, in full view of onlookers, is stabbed to death over the course of three separate attacks in full view of onlookers who did nothing to lift a finger to save her as she screamed for help.  It is a modern day story of the callousness and indifference of Man to Man, especially as we spread out from our families into densely-packed cities full of strangers.  It coined a term of its own, the Bystander Effect, which was used to illustrate this psychological phenomenon.

Is the story true?  Well, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City.  That much is true.  Everything else is myth.  From Wikipedia, the source of Truthiness:

While Genovese’s neighbors were vilified by the article, “Thirty-Eight onlookers who did nothing” is a misconception. The article begins:

“For more than half an hour thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.”

The lead is dramatic but factually inaccurate. None of the witnesses observed the attacks in their entirety. Because of the layout of the complex and the fact that the attacks took place in different locations, no witness saw the entire sequence of events. Most only heard portions of the incident without realizing its seriousness, a few saw only small portions of the initial assault, and no witnesses directly saw the final attack and rape in an exterior hallway which resulted in Genovese’s death. Additionally, after the initial attack punctured her lungs (leading to her eventual death from asphyxiation), it is unlikely that she was able to scream at any volume.

In reality, people did call the police, from the original attack on.  The police didn’t respond in time.  But the banality of the Truth is too dull and depressing.  Shit happens.  Dude killed a lady, and there was no Spider-Man to Batman to help her, no one leapt from their bed to defend the lady’s honor, and the cops didn’t take it seriously enough at first.  Lady died.  Shit happens, and something like it happened yesterday, and the day before that, and probably every day for the last 8,000 years.  The truth doesn’t resonate.  But the myth?  It lives, and has replaced what actually happened with An Event.

How about the McDonald’s Coffee Lady?  The one that everyone smirks about when they look at the lid of their hot coffee and reads the warning that Contents Are Hot.  “No shit,” goes the smirk, and someone will relate the story about that daffy broad who spilled her coffee in her lap and sued like she didn’t know it was going to be hot and somehow got millions of dollars and Christ that’s just stupid.  It’s just another example of the frivolous BS lawsuits that clog our court system and make millionaires out of idiots. 

The truth is, a woman did get coffee spilled in her lap, and she did sue, and as part of that suit the warnings were put in place.

Of course, there is also more truth:

On February 27, 1992, Stella Liebeck, a 79-year-old woman from Albuquerque, New Mexico, ordered a 49¢ cup of coffee from the drive-through window of a local McDonald’s restaurant. Liebeck was in the passenger’s seat of her Ford Probe, and her grandson Chris parked the car so that Liebeck could add cream and sugar to her coffee. McDonald’s required franchises to serve coffee at 180–190 °F (82–88 °C). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. Prior to her lawsuit, there had been approximately 700 other burn cases involving McDonald’s between 1982 and 1992. Stella placed the coffee cup between her knees and pulled the far side of the lid toward her to remove it. In the process, she spilled the entire cup of coffee on her lap.  Liebeck was wearing cotton sweatpants; they absorbed the coffee and held it against her skin, scalding her thighs, buttocks, and groin.  Liebeck was taken to the hospital, where it was determined that she had suffered third-degree burns on six percent of her skin and lesser burns over sixteen percent.  She remained in the hospital for eight days while she underwent skin grafting. During this period, Liebeck lost 20 pounds (nearly 20% of her body weight), reducing her down to 83 pounds.  Two years of medical treatment followed.

Liebeck sought to settle with McDonald’s for $20,000 to cover her actual and anticipated expenses. Her past medical expenses were $10,500; her anticipated future medical expenses were approximately $2,500; and her loss of income was approximately $5,000 for a total of approximately $18,000.  Instead the company offered only $800. When McDonald’s refused to raise its offer, Liebeck retained Texas attorney Reed Morgan. Morgan filed suit in a New Mexico District Court accusing McDonald’s of “gross negligence” for selling coffee that was “unreasonably dangerous” and “defectively manufactured”. McDonald’s refused Morgan’s offer to settle for $90,000. Morgan offered to settle for $300,000, and a mediator suggested $225,000 just before trial, but McDonald’s refused these final pre-trial attempts to settle.

Other documents obtained from McDonald’s showed that from 1982 to 1992 the company had received more than 700 reports of people burned by McDonald’s coffee to varying degrees of severity, and had settled claims arising from scalding injuries for more than $500,000.  McDonald’s quality control manager, Christopher Appleton, testified that this number of injuries was insufficient to cause the company to evaluate its practices. He argued that all foods hotter than 130 °F (54 °C) constituted a burn hazard, and that restaurants had more pressing dangers to warn about. The plaintiffs argued that Appleton conceded that McDonald’s coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.

That Truth, however, doesn’t fit The Narrative.  Acknowledging the Truth behind the story would undermine the point the speaker was trying to make.  The Truth is too dull and drab for a catchy storyline, or to teach a black-and-white point of morality.  The Truth isn’t fun or interesting.

We get new myths fed to us every day.  Now, we call them Spin, or Talking Points, or different names, but they are all the same thing: take a kernel of truth, add a humongous dash of self-serving bullshit, and you have The New and Better Truth.  Historians love pointing at Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda as how truth can be distorted into lies that aim for a certain end.  The truth is, we surround ourselves with the exact same thing every day.  Death Panels.  Scanners that will display our naked bodies for leering TSA attendants.  On and on and on.  We pay to be exposed to myths.

Why?  Because the simple Truth is boring.  Life is boring enough as it is.  So today, for fun, see how many myths you can find in the headlines, or the sports broadcasts, or the stories people around you tell.  There are a lot less murderous denizens of the dark and virgin-copulating gods, but they’re still out there.

About Alan Edwards

An indie writer who does accounting full-time on the side.

Posted on December 10, 2010, in Philosophizin' and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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