On this day in 1915, the great philosopher Roland Barthes was born. The truth is that I don’t know his work that well. I know one thing, Mythologies. It was an extremely powerful book to me when I was a young man. The broad idea is that things in our culture have meanings that go far beyond their concrete significance. No one would question that the Eucharist has symbolic content that far exceeds the simple act of eating a wafer. But that such symbolic content would be every bit as powerful in the purchase of laundry detergent was a revelation to by 17-year-old mind.
In the years since first reading Mythologies, it has come to dominate the way I look at sociology. At one time, we lived inside a mythical framework where gods created thunder and other things that we have since developed more general naturalistic theories to explain. But we still live inside a mythical framework. I often wonder about my own blindness, and I have a few ideas of where some of the more obvious elements of this exist. But there are many things I see in society as a whole that are entirely and nakedly mythical. Yet most people are wedded to them and react violently when they are pointed out.
The most obvious of these is the treatment of drug users. I must admit to having evolved so far on this issue that I don’t even understand many people. It is still quite common for people to think that there really is something dangerous about cannabis, even while they have no problem with alcohol. What is clear — and has been for hundreds of years — is that this is pure ethnocentrism. I’ve noted before how supposedly reasonable David Frum continues to be against cannabis legalization until he has some ultimate scientific proof that it doesn’t lead to other drugs. It is curious how he uses the language of science and argument to justify what is nothing more than cultural elitism.
Of course, this issue is slowly dying as more and more people have direct experience with cannabis. At the same time, this experience does not make the cannabis user any more open minded to other categories of drugs. We continue to see a shift from an alcohol-nicotine society to an alcohol-cannabis society. The other “harder” drugs are still seen as unacceptable. But they are unacceptable not because of their pharmacology but because of their cultural significance. “Crack” and heroin are unacceptable because of their associations with underclasses. And the move from “addiction” being a criminal justice problem to being a healthcare problem is meaningless, because they are both concerned with controlling “foreign” behavior.
A far biggest mythology that I think society is just on the edge of considering — and I am only beginning to understand — is our belief in meritocracy and the idea that one human deserves to live better than another. I understand that there may be practical limitations on how a society approaches this. But it is simply immoral that some people have more money than they could ever spend while children starve to death. Yet we have created elaborate systems of myth, which are increasingly implausible, to avoid seeing this. (See Scale, Profits, and Inequality for an economic overview of the problem.)
All of this comes directly from what I learned from Barthes. It doesn’t provide a way to find the truth. I’m afraid Plato was right on that issue — we will always be blinded by our delusions. But it does provide a way to cut through our most obvious myths. The key is to recognize that we have such a strong tendency to create such myths. And culturally, we doubtless need them. But they are often pernicious. And with greater advertising sophistication, it is easier and easier for the powerful to use our myths against us. So I will always be grateful to Barthes for showing me this.
In addition to everything else, Mythologies is great fun. Here it a bit from one of the essays in the book, The World of Wrestling:
Happy birthday Roland Barthes!