Friday, March 05, 2010

Barrows Dunham and Social Myths


Man Against Myth, a 1947 work by Barrows Dunham, holds up remarkably well in 2010.

Dunham was a trained philosopher who felt a responsibility to use philosophy as an instrument for conversation, as a way to help citizens notice and examine the ideas that help or hinder us. The book wields a pin, with enjoyable wit, and pops a number of social myths that have, all the same, endured long after Mr. Dunham.

Myths about human nature, wealth and poverty, racism, the ethic of selfishness, and many more are explored and released in puffs of humor and reason. More importantly, it is an amiable demonstration of the way social myths, unexplored, amass themselves and conceal unambiguous truths about the social arrangements that divide and oppress human beings.

In his own words, introducing the 1962 edition:

Every one of the myths in this volume has been used, directly or indirectly, to palliate, to excuse, or to justify human slaughter -- the violent extinction, that is to say, not of hundreds of men but of millions. The refutation and abandonment of these myths has thus become necessary to the survival of our race. In so dangerous an epoch of history, one will feel less a civilized Voltairean joy in the extirpation of error than an ardent and hastening wish to save mankind, so far as intellect can save it, by plain exposition of the truth.


Intellect cannot 'save' mankind. The most beautiful and cogent explanation of a myth does not stop the masses from embracing it. This is especially true in an era where, politically, the notion of a consensus reality has been dispensed with, and it is considered part of our politics to choose your own reality. (Dunham does have a chapter on the myth that "thinking makes it so," yet one wonders what he would make of our media culture.)

Until there is a willingness and a courage to try viewing things more as they are, and to learn how to see past our own filters, the mythologizing endures. Precious few are really interested in waking up, and opening up the can of worms of how to use insight and compassion in the world humans have made.

Sadly, Dunham is not here to help us pierce the myth that we can have an infinitely expanding economy on a planet of finite resources. That may be the myth that finally threatens our existence, or exposes us at least to a large reduction of population.

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