Mythology interpreter Joseph Campbell studied societal behavior from ancient tribal clans to modern industrial nations, and found that the behavior of every society is determined primarily by the underlying mythology of that culture. The way we respond to a given situation may have more to do with our myths and stories than with the immediate facts at hand.
In Hans Christian Anderseon's classic fairy tale the public fails to see that the emperor has no clothes. Why? Because the popular myth that emperors dress in the finest garb is so strong that people discount their own observation. A June 22nd scientific study reported in the New York Times demonstrated that popular beliefs can actually override people's personal visual observations. Through MRI and brain scans, researchers determined that people who go along with the popular myth even when it contradicts what they are seeing show no physiological evidence of lying! Almost half of those studied believed the popularly-accepted fiction over what they were seeing in front of their eyes.
As Plato said: "Whoever tells the stories shapes society." If we want to change the behavior of our society, we have to change the story. We have to change the mythology. In our world, that means creating new stories through the most visceral storytelling media of our times: movies and television.
We've seen the old story over and over: The "fair damsel" goes about her life until the forces of evil place her in distress. Along comes the "hero," who is reluctant to use violence, tries to bravely endure the abuse, but finally has no other choice. Despite overwhelming odds, he blows away the bad guys, achieves a victory that puts the good guys in charge and rides off into the sunset with the girl.
It doesn't matter whether the evil ones are "savages," space aliens or Saddam Hussein. It doesn't matter whether the "fair damsels" are hobbits or 'nerdy' boys or the people of Iraq. The "hero" can be male, female, animal, robot – it doesn't matter. The characters are interchangeable – it is the basic story that stays the same. This Myth of the Hero with the Big Gun, also known as the Myth of Redemptive Violence is so deeply entrenched in American culture, that few dare challenge it.
In the last American election, candidates of both parties sought to wear its mantle. Key to George Bush's reelection, in the face of documentation that he mislead the U.S. into war, was his success in casting himself in the role of the "the hero with the big gun" – the brave warrior, freeing the oppressed Iraqis from the yoke of Saddam Hussein. He was able to clothe himself in the garment of the white knight, armed with faith and morals, keeping the forces of evil at bay and keeping the homeland safe. Candidate John Kerry also tried to wear the mantle of the myth. Remember "We will hunt them down and we will kill them"? But he was far less convincing than Bush.
I've listened to young people in juvenile detention centers tell their stories of how they fell for this myth. They or their girlfriends were picked-on and abused despite all efforts to get the bad guys to knock it off until they finally "had no other choice." They blew away the bad guys. But instead of riding off into the sunset, they found themselves riding off to jail and their friends being carted off to the graveyard. My organization, Future WAVE (Working for Alternatives to Violence through Entertainment) ran programs in detention centers testing out our "bullyproof" violence-prevention program designed to utilize the dramatic arts to empower young people with the tools for handling conflict in more effective ways than violence. Many of the young people lamented that if only they had learned these skills earlier they never would have ended up in jail.
In the REEL world violence is clean, effective and solves the problem. But in the REAL world it almost never works that way. Can you think of a single incident in which you were personally involved in using violence to solve a problem and it succeeded in actually solving a the problem once and for all?
"Well," you may be saying. "I can certainly think of many glorious wars where the good guys beat the bad guys, solved the problems and everyone lived happily ever after." The only problem is, you are not thinking about the actual war, you are thinking about the story of the war, a story that has been spun and polished to fit it into the myth. When you start digging deeper into the real documents, you invariably find that violence only begets hatreds and more violence and plants the seeds of the next war.
The notable exceptions are not the result of the war, but of a new kind of heroism, like that of General MacArthur, who came into Japan after the war and instead of vanquishing and punishing the bad guys, honored, restored, rebuilt and, in effect, killed the old Japanese Warrior spirit with kindness – breaking the cycle of violence.
The myth has led us to believe we have only two choices: fight or flight. We're taught that this is based on biological fact – but one has only to observe the behavior of dogs to see that fight or flight are both rarities compared to the intricate dances of conflict avoidance: looking away from the other dog, exposing their bellies, warning barks, wagging their tails, etc. Nevertheless, Tthis myth has such a strong hold that we fail to see a most powerful force that is right before our eyes.
For 40 years America prepared to fight the Soviet Empire in the ultimate battle, a nuclear war, the final Armageddon. But then ordinary people tore down the Berlin Wall, the Solidarity movement toppled the communist dictatorship in Poland and propelled trade-union leader Lech Walesa from jail cell to presidential palace. A velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia overthrew the communist government and swept playwright Václav Havel to the presidency.
In Moscow, August of 1991, hardliners sought to crush the reformist Gorbachov by arresting him and sending Red Army troops to rout Boris Yeltsin from their "White House." As we in the West watched on TV, we braced for a bloodbath. But instead, tens of thousands of ordinary people surrounded the white house, put flowers in the barrels of the tank guns, and appealed to the soldiers to join the democracy movement. They did! The coup by the old Communist Party leaders failed. It was People-Power that toppled one of the most powerful and oppressive police states on the planet!
The "Evil Empire" was blown away, not by nuclear bombs but by the unarmed will of the people. This event was so outside of the the prevailing myth that commentators didn't know what to say. It was almost like a non-event. There were no movies-of-the week, no reenactments of the heroic journey, no commemorative parades for one of the greatest events of the second half of the 20th Century.
"We don't have an adequate word in the English language for the singularly explosive power that Gandhi unleashed when he defeated the mighty British empire with what he called Satyagraha or "soul force," Jonathan Schell told me in a recent interview.
"The closest we come is "non-violence" – but that sounds like something passive, – a word defined by it's negative, not a word evocative of an incredible power that has brought down the most powerful and oppressive empires in the world."
Schell's book The Unconquerable World, details an eye-opening history of how colonial powers, violent regimes and dictators have been brought down on every continent around the world through non-violent struggles–actually the norm rather than the exception.
Even the American Revolution, Schell points out, was an all-out nonviolent struggle waged by people in the American colonies united in defiance of the British. "The Boston Tea Party was a little bit rough," Schell says, "but no one was killed or injured. It was an inspired symbolic act, part of a struggle of non-cooperation and defiance that had effectively ended British control before the 'shot heard 'round the world'. The revolution was over before the war began–a war by Britain to try to force the new country back into its empire."
If we want to create new kinds of heroes who wield more advanced means than violence, if we want to create stories that awaken people's ability to claim their innate power, we must first find an archetypal foundation upon which to ground such stories. What better underpinning than to employ the earthshaking new myth that our forefathers had the wisdom to give to the planet– that we-the-people are born with inalienable rights, that we are the ones who grant sovereignty to the governments of this planet, and that we have the right to take it back if governments fail to serve our needs for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
If we look at the prevailing myths, we notice that not only have they given us ineffective means – violence – they have also given us ineffective ends: change rulers. There are very few stories that give us a vision of a people-powered planet. There are plenty of cautionary tales, but very few visionary tales.
For large numbers of people to begin to understand and claim their power, they need stories of new kinds of people-powered heroes taking us on journeys into new kinds of visionary futures.
Writer/director Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences and a past- president of the Writers Guild of America, put it this way in his commencement address to the 2003 USC film school graduates:
"Movies are to our civilization what dreams and ideals are to individual lives: they express the mystery and help define the nature of who we are and what we are becoming.... Go and make cinema and TV that express our history and our ideas and that foster respect for a civilization in real danger of self destruction. Be decision makers with dreams and hopes instead of raw ambition. Tell stories that illuminate our times and our souls, that waken the sleeping angel inside the beast"
Visionary people in Hollywood now have the opportunity to do more than sign petitions and give money. They have an opportunity to brainstorm, sponsor screenplay competitions, have story meetings, develop seminars and run training programs to enable writers, producers and directors to learn how to create new kinds of stories – stories featuring peaceful warriors who use techniques more advanced than violence. They have the opportunity to take audiences on fantastic journeys into the abundant, balanced, dynamic, ecologically-sustainable and friendly "glocalized" (global and local) future most of us dream about. If movies are the dreams of our culture, they should give young people dreams that inspire hope in the future. As Walt Disney said, "If we can dream it, we can do it. "
When they start creating such visions, they may just find that they are breaking box-office records. Then all the imitators will start to follow. And soon they'll have planted the seeds for a new story, a new mythology.
Arthur Kanegis is a filmmaker
©2005 Arthur Kanegis
©2004 Publication Scene4 Magazine