What function does a founding mythology perform and how does it work?
Picture a wedding in a traditional church setting. Music begins. Doors at the rear of the church swing open. Attendees rise and turn to face the bride, who enters wearing a bright red dress.
Without further context, no information about the bride or groom, what involuntary initial conclusions might one’s brain form about the situation? How might individual reactions differ based on age, education, religion, ethnicity or class?
Some guests might be genuinely affronted. Some might register little response. Reactions might not withstand rational review. There’s no logical reason someone shouldn’t wear whatever they want to their own wedding. That initial emotional reaction would be involuntary, conditioned by culture, and in the case of our reaction to the color red, perhaps even programmed into our biology. Shared myths give the ceremony its emotional resonance both for the attendees and the participants, cementing the significance of that commitment. Myths have power.
Our political structure presumes that humans are rational actors, carefully weighing pros and cons to achieve a standard of utility. In reality, calculation is mentally expensive. We can afford to perform very little of it. Most of us have to shut down almost every other conscious process to perform a cognitive function as simple as long division. The overwhelming bulk of our thinking is unconscious, like our emotional reaction (or lack of one) to that wedding scenario. Our unconscious reasoning works quite well for us in most circumstances.
To ease the burden of calculation we lean on collective reasoning and programming shortcuts provided by our culture. Much of that cultural programming is stored in our shared mythologies. Relatively little of what we think we know about the world comes from rational, critical evaluation of evidence. Mythologies that help us define “us” and “them,” holding us together as communities and a nation, are absorbed from the environment around us, knitted together out of shared cultural artifacts, and almost entirely unconsidered.
It’s a mistake to think of white supremacy as a belief or opinion. It’s a mythology, a collection of shared narratives, many of a religious or spiritual nature, out of which our mental model of the world is formed. One of the primary functions of a people’s unifying mythology is to help them define “us” and reinforce that “us-ness” through symbols, rituals and shared experiences. Success in replacing white supremacy has less to do with making persuasive rational arguments than with updating these deeply set cultural norms. Almost no one thinks they’re a racist, so logical arguments about the evils of racism never land – they only ever apply to other people. As we try to escape the distorting influence of a founding mythology built on racism, it might be helpful to review how these subconscious biases operate.
Researchers Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky discovered modes of thought they described as System 1 and System 2, or fast and slow thinking. They found that we perform some complex tasks effortlessly, like identifying someone’s mood from their facial expression, finding the source of a sound, or detecting the emotional tone in someone’s voice. These they categorized as System 1 or “fast” thinking, performed effortlessly and sometimes involuntarily. Most of these capabilities we share with other animals, relying on lower brain functions common among mammals.
Asking someone to perform a logical calculation invokes System 2 “slow” thinking, at significant mental cost. Kahneman describes what happened when he asked a test subject to multiply 17 x 24:
The process was mental work: deliberate, effortful, and orderly—a prototype of slow thinking. The computation was not only an event in your mind; your body was also involved. Your muscles tensed up, your blood pressure rose, and your heart rate increased. Someone looking closely at your eyes while you tackled this problem would have seen your pupils dilate. Your pupils contracted back to normal size as soon as you ended your work—when you found the answer (which is 408, by the way) or when you gave up…
• System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
• System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
Critically, one of the functions we perform in System 1 is identifying who is safe and who is a threat. In other words, who should be treated as an “us,” an object of collaboration and trust, and who is a dangerous “them.” This makes evolutionary sense. Threat identification is a crucial tool of survival. Incorporating sophisticated threat identification into fast thinking gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage. What it gives us is an evolutionary burden we call “implicit bias,” unconscious attitudes or stereotypes which distort our reasoning.
We can counter implicit bias, at least to a degree, by resorting to System 2, but it’s not a simple process and it’s no fun. No one likes to have their myths challenged.
While we perform System 2 processes our brains shut off many other functions to conserve resources. Test this. Try crossing a busy street while performing long division. Kahneman and Tversky found that test subjects often missed otherwise blatantly obvious visual cues while consumed in difficult problem-solving.
We don’t generally like to be nudged into System 2, finding it unpleasant and reacting with irritability. Most of us avoid slow thinking as much as possible as a simple evolutionary imperative. Rational thought consumes a great deal of energy and compromises our capacity to perform other tasks.
Through training and experience, tasks which began as mentally taxing System 2 processes can become rote. Human beings can be trained to live marginally more considered, rational lives, just like we can be trained to perform other non-innate tasks like juggling, performing multiplication, reading, operating a car, or typing on a keyboard.
For example, no one is born knowing how to ride a bike, but with appropriate training it becomes…like riding a bike. Learning to ride a bike leans heavily on System 2. Someone may have given you some instructions, which you try to remember as you peddle and balance and steer. Especially if you’re learning as an adult, if someone tries to engage you in conversation while you’re performing this process, you’re likely to become irritable, at best. But with persistence, this originally alien activity can become a learned, reflexive, System 1 process performed almost unconsciously, at minimal cognitive cost.
There are limits to this capacity. As we train ourselves toward more and more critical thought, our ability to perform this kind of thinking grows marginally easier, perhaps even enjoyable, but there are limits. I may learn to love running and my range may expand, but it won’t expand endlessly and the harder I push, the greater the long-term toll on my physique. Just as our muscle capacity isn’t infinite, our capacity for conscious thought has limits. Using System 2 has costs.
An 18th century poet coined the phrase, “ignorance is bliss.” Pushing people to use their expensive, critical faculties when they’d rather be living in System 1 won’t make you popular. Thought is expensive. Sometimes it’s even painful. Until fairly recently suicide was assumed to be a dysfunction of educated urban elites, especially those alienated from the comforts of a religious mythology. Kahneman & Tversky’s research sheds some light on why this might have been the case. Mythologies fill our world with comfortable, digestible answers. Asked to evaluate every little bit of incoming data, we grow exhausted, or worse.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a language you’ve probably experienced the mental strain of using System 2 to hear a sentence, then recompile it mentally and translate into your own language. It can be exhausting. If you persisted long enough and developed enough exposure, more and more of the language became rote. “Absorption” in a language reduces the mental toll of using it. With enough training you can communicate in this new language using “fast” System 1 processing. Once you’ve learned one language, adding another tends to come easier as much of the architecture of this process has been reduced to rote.
There may be no place in our culture where we see the burden of a white supremacist mythology more acutely than in policing. Threat detection is wired into our System 1 “fast” thinking, and police work relies heavily on threat detection. A dominant mythology that defines light skin as safe and dark skin as a threat will permeate almost every decision an officer makes, in many cases regardless of that officer’s race. Almost all of the officers responsible for killing Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015 were Black or Hispanic. People of all backgrounds absorb much of the dominant mythology of their culture.
When our grandparents were young, few people had to perform System 2 mental gymnastics on a regular basis. Much of education was rote. A mass of workers in repetitive manufacturing or agricultural work seldom faced the need to absorb a new concept, perform complex calculations, or apply critical analysis to suspect data. There were few outlets or rewards available for those who wanted to engage in these tasks. The percentage of humans who delved consistently into the painful slog of slow thinking likely hadn’t budged for millennia.
In 1950, 7% of adult men and 5% of women had completed a college education. Barely half had completed high school. Today more than a third of adults have completed college, 60% have attended college, and a high school education is nearly universal. For children born today, a college education (or its equivalent) will likely be more of a foundational expectation than high school was for our grandparents.
Mass education is changing how our world works. As more and more people become more comfortable with System 2 thinking, our relative collective dependence on unconsidered mythologies declines. This is another good news, bad news story, with an uncertain outcome.
It’s only in slow thinking that we begin to apply critical thought to our founding myths. Like athletes experiencing the rush of their bodies at work, some find the exploration and deconstruction of these mythologies exhilarating while others recoil in horror.
An emerging generation of more highly educated System 2 workers is undermining the influence of a unifying mythology, helping to destroy white supremacy. However, as we look for ways to replace white supremacy with something more just, we may find that mythologies of all kinds are less powerful. The same forces that doomed one unifying mythology may complicate our path to a new one.