Photo: Nicholas Green / Unsplash
Calling democracy a myth might seem like a provocative idea. But I do not mean it as a derogatory term, implying fraud or delusion, far from it. I am inspired by Yuval Harari’s groundbreaking book, Sapiens. For Harari, myths are the glue that binds societies together, small tribes as well as countries or supranational entities.
I prefer to think in terms of “Collective Implicit” rather than “myth.” The phrase “Collective Implicit” is an echo of the “self-evident truths” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. It is a cornerstone of society, a “truth” so evident that it need not be examined, and usually is not. We take it for granted.
Specifically, the Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
This truth is self-evident only within a specific context. For instance, it was not evident in feudal society, or colonial America before the revolution. The framers themselves, while having the lofty idea that all men are created equal, left out women or Africans who had been enslaved.
The notion of equality itself is not universally self-evident. For instance, for societies influenced by Marxism, true equality would be to give to every one according to their needs as opposed to according to what they produce. The framers of our constitution did not share this perspective.
Underneath any self-evident proposition, some assumptions are not necessarily visible to us. It is easier to notice this when we look back in time: we see the blind spots of previous generations. It is more difficult to notice it when we deal with the differences among the various “tribes” that make up our contemporary society.
When there is a conversation about, say, gun rights, or abortion, we come to it with the tenets of our tribe’s Collective Implicit. My version is not necessarily the same as yours, even if they somehow overlap. So, trying to discuss these ideas objectively amounts to ignoring the role of the Collective Implicit.
Thinking in terms of myth or Collective Implicit makes it clear how dependent we are on social consensus for society to function. The implications are terrifying: It could all disintegrate the same way as other constructs of the collective imagination, such as the gods of Ancient Greece.
This may be why it is so hard to hear political, economic, or social perspectives that are at odds with what we believe to be true. We get a scary glimpse of what would happen if the social consensus were to collapse. It is as if the very foundations of the world were in danger.
Seeking greater depth
Thinking in terms of myth, or Collective Implicit has the potential to change how we deal with politics. The conversations we have about politics would be much more satisfying if we did not limit them to a discussion of issues. The richness lies in discovering the many strands of meaning behind the opinions we have. Not as a means to the end of finding ways to convince people of our beliefs as a way of opening up the dialogue in new directions.
Myths, and all that is implicit, are in the realm of the subjective. We cannot make sense of them through linear logic. Trying to understand other people’s myths through what these myths mean to us is doomed to failure. We need to make an effort to know what they mean to the people who subscribe to them. Then, and only then, can we build bridges.