Greetings from Mythtown
And the 3-step process to stop lying to yourself
Did you know that giants are real?!?
At least, that's what a non-zero percent of the internet will tell you. Recently, a bit of an oddball theory has sprung up on Instagram and Twitter: that giants are real and that the CIA is hiding them from us.
The post that sparked it all
It all started with this video, allegedly showing "proof" that giants are real. Never mind the absurdity of the claim, the fact that it's been proven to just be a communications tower, or the reality that people lie on the internet all the time, this claim actually gained traction and now enjoys a niche yet existent following.
The people's boogeyman
It didn't matter that this was just shown to be a tower on a hillside to some people. No, they claimed, that tower was put there after the fact by the CIA who are trying to cover things up! It doesn't hurt that the original creator of the video posted clearly staged videos of them being "stalked" by the CIA in order to hide the giants. Now an obituary has been posted in a local newspaper for him. It's not clear if he's dead, given how easy it is to submit an obituary to said paper. But now, if you search his name on Twitter, you're met with a litany of people claiming the American government killed him to hide their secret.
The world is complicated; myths aren't
You see, when someone wants to buy into a specific narrative, it's incredibly easy for them to invent additional reasons and see fake patterns wherever they look instead of stepping back for a minute and thinking things through. This is the power of mythology.
Myths started as stories to explain the world
If you think about the reasoning behind a lot of ancient myths, there's a clear pattern of myth and folk tale as a way to explain worldly phenomena. Before we knew the real reasons why the sun rose and set or why it rained, we had folk tales about gods and goddesses and monsters that explained exactly why certain events occurred. They also were used to explain why people experienced hardships or were bestowed with good fortune: clearly they made the gods happy or mad!
We create myths every day
While it may be easy to look back at ancient peoples or internet crazies as ignorant or foolish for relying on mythology to make sense of the world, we all engage in mythmaking every day! It doesn't matter who you are or how rational you believe yourself to be, myths are powerful and enticing. Their draw is irresistible.
We need to believe in something
Thinking is exhausting
Myths are so easy to believe because of the exhausting nature of thought. It might sound a bit silly to say that thought is exhausting, since it's what humans do all day. But consider the last time you had to slog through a tough book, or had to consider a complex issue. Serious thought is difficult to engage in for long periods of time. It's hard to give the focus required to a fully comprehend a subject for a significant duration. This is one reason why various time management systems like the Pomodoro technique exist.
If deep thought is unsustainable then, is it surprising that we get fooled from time to time? As we switch from subject to subject, it's impossible to have thought deeply about every single subject we stumble across in the time we spend away from our pillows.
A world with a plot feels better
Because of the difficulty of thinking in depth about the entirety of existence, there is much about the universe that is known to others but not to us. Maybe, in some cases, we can guess the gist of why something happens. If we know what gravity is, and we know what pain is, we can probably guess that it would be a bad idea to hoist a heavy weight above our heads and let go.
But sometimes we guess wrong! Sometimes, when the task of thinking an issue through appears so difficult, we search for the most viable alternative. This is one way that conspiracy theories rise. It may be difficult for some to consider the fact that the world is round but looks flat to us because it's just so dang big. So the easy alternative is to watch a YouTube video explaining that it actually is flat!
A magical world is alluring. It's more fun to believe in a world that has purpose than facing the reality that we exist on a rock in space with certain immutable laws. It's more fun to think about the story of the world in the context of heroes and villains, knights and princesses, golems and wizards. So instead of the boring story of "oh, it's just a communications tower on the side of a hill," we invent an evil government coverup of a conspiracy to hide giants from the global population for millennia. This in turn necessitates the invention of a shadow government because obviously this was still hidden before the United States government existed. So instead of the CIA being just a bunch of people trying to keep their country safe from their offices, they become the arm of a cabal of shadowy elites hiding magical creatures and aliens from the people.
It also feels better for the world to have a plot when we can be the heroes or victims. Why introspect and consider whether you're a good person when you can claim that "the Matrix" is out to get you? If you're enough of a narcissist, it appears that you can be made believe that we live in a simulation more easily than you can be convinced that you're just kind of a jerk.
Myths exist everywhere
The mythical billionaire queEst for world domination
One of the most popular myths is that of the billionaire set on being emperor of the world. We see it as the plot of most superhero movies, and we see it play out on social media any time there is a remotely divisive issue that arises.
Yes, there really are people who believe that George Soros donated to the Black Lives Matter movement because he wants the US to collapse into chaos, or that Bill Gates supports vaccines because he wants to control the population count of the Earth. Because again, why believe in a world of well-intentioned people who sometimes get it right and sometimes get it wrong when we can rely on the narrative of a maniacal elite hellbent on ruling over the ashes of our society?
Trump's mythical electoral victory
It's also easy to fall into mythmaking when our worldview is proven unpopular. Anyone who has spent serious time monitoring the tabulation of mail-in ballots in a registrar of voters' office can tell you that Trump's claims of a stolen election are as unbelievable as the claims that giants are real. And yet, only one in four Republicans believe that Biden's election was legitimate!
It's too difficult for someone to wrap their heads around absentee ballot counting procedures, chains of custody, and the process of challenging an absentee ballot. It's also too difficult for some hardcore believers of a given ideology to question why most Americans disagree with them. So the sexy, easy to consume narrative of a Deep State colluding to steal the election from Trump with late-night ballot dumps proliferates. It doesn't matter that it's laughably false, that it's been repeatedly disproven, and that no large-scale electoral fraud has ever been proven to exist. The myth persists because it just feels so much better to believe that you are the hero/victim in a quest against evil, and that the forces of evil are colluding against you.
More believable myths
But again, we're not like those people! We understand how vaccines and elections work! Surely we're smarter than those fools who buy into fake news!
Are you sure?
How many times have you worried about your political opponents "trying to control X"? Whether you believe that pro-life politicians actually just want to control women, or that liberals are trying to ban gas stoves because they want to control you, you're probably engaging in mythmaking. Because the boring reality is that there are people who genuinely believe that abortion is murder, or that burning gas indoors is such a health hazard that it's a good idea to get rid of gas stoves.
The boring, difficult to understand reality is that people who disagree with us actually disagree with us! It's so much easier to believe that Republicans/Democrats are trying to implement a fascist/socialist regime than it is to believe that they just might have read different books that influenced them differently at a formational moment in their lives that caused them to follow a different line of reasoning. That's not sexy enough!
It's also easy to believe that someone in your personal life wronged you because they're evil, or vain, or narcissistic when the reality is that they didn't even know they were wronging you. No, your in-law/step-sibling/customer who was rude to you is actually not the spawn of Satan, sent to destroy you. They're actually someone who's just trying their best but stumbles every once in a while. Or maybe—just maybe—they're just having a bad day.
How to bust your own myths
Okay, so we've established that myths are seductive, and that we all have our own myths that we let fool us. So what? What do we do about them? Fortunately, there are only 3 steps to myth busting:
1. Ask yourself what would make you change your mind
This first step is simple: For any belief you have, identify what would make you change your mind. Do this before you research in depth. This is your hard line that if crossed, you are promising yourself that you will change your mind. Seriously consider this for a few moments, think of all the potential outs you might give yourself and excuses you might provide, and identify the thing that you could not possibly explain away.
Write it down. Keep track of it.
If you can't identify a hard line that would convince you to change your mind, you probably believe in a myth.
2. Try to go find it
If you've ever been in an online discussion/debate/argument/mudslinging contest, you've almost certainly googled some variation of "reasons why my argument is correct." Whether it's searching "reasons Lebron James is better than Kobe Bryant" or "why Calvin Coolidge was a good president," you've probably at some point sought out sources which confirm your biases. While helpful in some situations, these searches often only help in reinforcing your myth.
Start by searching for the inverse of what you believe. Look up why Kobe is better than Lebron, or why Calvin Coolidge might be a bad president. Always consider your hard line.
3. Try harder
Your first pass was probably not good enough for the same reason that you're often convinced by the first link in Google that agrees with you. Dig deeper. Go past the first page of Google. Look at academic resources. Talk to the person you think hates you. Get uncomfortable and do the hard work. And if at the end of all of that, your hard line is still not crossed, congratulations! You can be confident that your view isn't a myth!
It's critical to understand that this final step is a long-lasting one, and is one that is never truly complete. Your main enemy here is your own ego. It's easy to quit when you're ahead. But if you're trying to figure out the truth, this is the opposite of what you want. You should constantly be revisiting your assumptions, your hard lines, and the sources that are confirming your biases.
I know, it sounds exhausting—and we've established that it is! But would you rather believe the myth?
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