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From studies of mythology and past civilizations done by Joseph Campbell, at least five functions stand out as needing to be fulfilled by images, rituals, and institutions of a society. They are the mystical, the cosmological, the sociological, the pedagogical or psychological, and the editorial functions.
I’d like to zero in on that last function, which doesn’t appear elsewhere in Joseph Campbell’s work:
In its editorial function, the myths and images of a culture define some aspects of reality as important and credible, hence to be attended to, while other aspects are seen as unimportant or incredible, hence to be ignored and culturally not seen. For example, the anthropologist Malinowski reported that the Trobriand Islanders believe that a child inherits his physical characteristics only from his father. Hence, the Trobriands simply do not observe or notice any resemblance between the child and his mother, although to Malinowski, such similarities were quite evident.
I believe it would be fascinating to consider how that fifth function applies to contemporary society. What do we in “first world” societies not see about ourselves due to the default setting supplied by our dominant mythologies?
That’s a difficult question to answer. Hard to see what’s in our blind spot (which is what makes it a blind spot); hard to make the unknown known when we don’t know it’s there.
What first surfaces for me are matters of gender and race. My parents, for example, were at the tail end of generation upon generation of Europeans with a built-in bias against women. They had no idea they were biased – there were just certain things that it never occurred to them that women could do (like preside over a governing body, or run a corporation). This has cultural bias has been gradually changing, thanks to the concerted effort of women and their allies in securing the right to own and control their own property, the right to vote, even the right to sexual climax (in the 19th century women who enjoyed sex were labelled nymphomaniacs, or hysterics, and considered mentally ill, often finding themselves confined to asylums or being forced to undergo cliterodecotomies – surgically removing the clitoris).
It was difficult for my parents dealing with this huge societal shift. When San Francisco Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in 1978 by a former city supervisor, my dad seemed less upset by the murder than by the swearing in of Board of Supervisors President Diane Feinstein as the new mayor (the legal order of succession), because women were just incapable of governing.
Similarly their attitudes toward race. I recall in the 1980s, when my mother was scheduled for an operation, she was dumbfounded to learn her surgeon was black. She wasn’t upset by this, but genuinely surprised (which she expressed often in his presence as she was recovering), sort of like finding out the dog can talk – not a bad thing, but strange and wondrous because it goes against nature. She couldn’t understand why her children were a touch embarrassed by this expression of unconscious racism; she didn’t consider this racist at all – what’s bad about recognizing he is a credit to his race – whereas we thought this as odd as being surprised a doctor is white.
Go back a few generations, and my parent’s perspective was pretty much the default setting for American society – there were just things we could not see about race.
But these examples strike me as falling short of how the editorial function operates – in large part because there have been many individuals in our history who did not buy into the dominant paradigm. This seems very different from Malinowski’s Trobriand Islanders: it’s not like there are a few dissidents in that culture who aver there are similarities between a child and her or his mother; rather, no one sees it at all.
So what are our blind spots? What don’t we see – or can we even discuss this, because we are incapable of seeing?
tie-dyed teller of tales
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