Toxic Mythologies and Deep Narratives

The following elements create belief systems that allow the members of a dominant group to deny, rationalize, or justify systemic oppression (Toxic Mythologies, Scapegoating and Conspiracy Theories, Caricature and Stereotypes, Mockery, Denial and Willful Ignorance.)

Oppression is rationalized and justified through underlying belief systems, including religion, science, and imagined histories. 

Prejudice and bigotry are often anchored in the foundational belief systems of the community. People don’t want to believe that their biases and hatred are based on flimsy stories and lazy thinking, so they seek out deeper justifications for their distrust and hate. There are three powerful forces undergirding belief systems in the modern world:

  1. Religious Belief: People try to root their hate and prejudice in long-standing traditions, dogmas, and mythologies. People interpret sacred texts to show that their hatred is rooted in cosmic truth, or they point to the targeted group’s poverty and struggles and declare that God (or the gods) are punishing them for their wickedness. 
  • Christian Anti-Judaism – concept of “deicide” condemns all Jews as forever cursed for the role of some Jews’ participation in the execution of Jesus. 
  • Biblical Racism – belief that the Biblical ancient tribes of Israel are recognizable in the modern world and that Black people are the descendents of Ham, a cursed son of Noah the ark-builder. 
  • “God’s Chosen People.” Many groups cultivate narratives that place themselves at the top of a hierarchy of humanity. This perceived place of cosmic privilege helps to rationalize policies and actions that benefit their group at the expense of others. 
  1. Scientific Belief: People connect their hate and prejudice to the reigning scientific theories of the day. Since the genetic revolution, people have asserted theories of genetic superiority and inferiority concerning various groups. These theories contradict overwhelming scientific data demonstrating that there is more genetic variation within races than between races – which shows us that “race” is a social construction and not a scientifically valid distinction between human groups. 
  • Pseudoscientific Race theory and Eugenics
  • The pseudoscience of phrenology 
  • Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism
  1. Imagined Histories: Conceptions of ethnic or ideological superiority and inferiority are introduced and reinforced through highly-distorted historical narratives. People are taught to see themselves as part of an epic struggle against chaos, savagery, ignorance, or other terrifying forces of evil, and a targeted group is imagined to be either an obstacle or a direct threat to the safety and success of the striving and heroic protagonists. 

Given that human history contains tens of thousands of years and the lives of billions of individuals, all history is an attempt to synthesize and make sense of an enormous amount of information. Responsible historians acknowledge their limitations and use all of the tools of critical thinking, especially rules evaluating the quality of evidence. They craft narratives that attempt to explain the complicated causes and effects of historical events, while always acknowledging the fact that much will never be fully understood. The rigorous study of history is time-intensive and demanding, which means that many people rely solely on the over-simplified historical myths that are repeated through cultural holidays and pop culture narratives, many of which contain lies and misrepresentations that justify the oppression of targeted groups. 

  • Common US historical myths: Manifest Destiny, Virgin Wilderness, and “Elbow Room,” justifying white supremacist expansion across North America and the systemic oppression of Native Americans. 
  • Hitler’s conception of Lebensraum, or “living space,” justifying the murderous conquest of Eastern Europe. 
  • European Nationalist  “Blood and Soil” movements

Combating these theories requires constant engagement, discussion, and debate to reveal hidden assumptions and to compare competing evidence and values. Mythologies and deep narratives are difficult to dislodge, but there is overwhelmingly more evidence for the truth – that humans are a close-knit family biologically speaking and that there is far more physical and cognitive diversity within groups than between groups. A culture of open criticism and debate fosters critical thinking and might prevent self-serving mythologies from dominating politics and policy.