THE BLOG
11/30/2014 09:21 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

Ferguson and the Mythology of Racism

The evidence released regarding the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri shows that most of the eyewitness accounts of what happened contradict each other. They mostly follow one of two scenarios:

1. Brown was yet another innocent black victim of a racist and trigger-happy white police officer.

2. Wilson was a beleaguered police officer forced to shoot Brown based solely on Brown's actions.

According to the grand jury that chose not to indict Darren Wilson, his account, choice #2 here, was the one that was best supported by physical evidence, so they chose not to indict based on that account. Some other accounts described Brown shot while fleeing with hands up as he ran from a murderous white officer. While this depiction may or may not be factually accurate, it is an apt metaphor for where we are with race relations today. On the day of the grand jury announcement, President Obama said, "The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color." Because the Brown as victim story fits better with the big picture of race today, eyewitness distortions of detail have skewed toward that narrative.

All people seek to understand the world around them and their place in it. One of the ways we do it is that, once we find something that works, we start to spread the word among our contemporaries, and to pass it down to our progeny. When effective and necessary life lessons are shared widely within a community, they follow one of two basic formats.

One is technical and instruction-based, formatted like a recipe or directions for assembling an Ikea bookshelf. Speed limit is a good example. There is not literally a speed limit of 55 miles per hour anywhere. You can go faster. But, we have accepted it and we agree with our neighbors that speed is to be limited. It informs, like a code, without characters and without narrative. This format is always created with intention to communicate something specific.

The other, more popular format for conveying truths within a community is via highly accessible story and metaphor. This is mythology. It can come to life intentionally, as when an author writes a novel; or unintentionally, as we are seeing happen in Ferguson.

In yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali follow the technical, non-fictional format. The sutras are short statements about how things are and what humans can do to make things feel better. A typical statement in the sutras is, "Future suffering is to be avoided." That statement is the lesson. In this case, the instruction informs part of a practice, and the practice itself gives insight into the experience and origins of suffering, which teaches how to avoid future suffering. This format works when the instructions inform a practice that teaches necessary lessons.

While an instruction-based format lends itself toward precision in detail, and allows for wider interpretation, it is not very juicy as a relic to be shared. That is why there is another, more popular way to teach and learn life lessons: with a living, breathing mythology.

The collected life lessons that are taught via story constitute a community's mythology. In contrast to the dry and technical Yoga Sutras, India has the much more popular Bhagavad Gita, an epic with a huge cast of characters and a lot of drama. The Gita teaches the same lessons as the Yoga Sutras, but it does so like a movie does- by inviting imaginary participation in a narrative. But, mythology isn't reserved for the East, and it's found far outside of anything that looks like religion. Mythology happens in all human cultures at all times. Many of us learned that slow and steady wins the race by hearing about a steadfast tortoise and a procrastinating hare.

The main difference between teaching with instructions like the sutras and teaching with stories like the tortoise and the hare is not that one is fiction and one isn't. The details are almost irrelevant. Instead of relying on historical accuracy to teach, myth teaches by adjusting details as needed in order to generate certain feelings in the listener. Hearing the tortoise and the hare story evokes what I would feel if I squandered my resources and ended up failing when I could have easily succeeded. If I were to simply read the instruction: "Slow and steady effort is better long-term than periodic bursts of effort are", I would be less interested because it is harder for me to place myself in it.

American mythology expresses American ideals with accounts of Paul Revere's midnight ride and, more recently with many of the events that happened September 11, 2001. September 11 really did happen, and there is really only one accurate way to recount the events. Yet, the facts have been re-packaged, distorted and exaggerated to support certain archetypes, sometimes in ways that highly contradict each other. Each of these iterations of the story is a myth that works for the community that generated it and propagates it.

One of the ways that myth is created is that a story is found to express a necessary solution to the problem of the day. The late mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that a function of myth is to "support the current social order, to integrate the individual organically with his group". (Footnote: Campbell, Joseph (1991). Occidental Mythology. Arkana. p. 520. ISBN 0-14-019441-X.) When we settle the remembered details of Ferguson with a bent toward supporting the narrative of racial injustice, we are participating in euhemerism, the process of distorting the account of a real event so that a certain viewpoint is expressed. While such myth creation can happen intentionally, it more likely develops slowly and organically as little details change over time to better illustrate whatever point is at hand. And because it has happened organically in almost every culture since the beginning of time, it is probably safe to assume that is is necessary and effective. What is necessary now, and what will happen whether we mean to do it or not, is to shape the mythology that moves society toward racial harmony.

Which is really true: what actually happened or what you remembered? Did Michael Brown die as a victim of a racist system or did Darren Wilson shoot as a last resort to defend himself?

Both stories are true in the sense that they are both based on real things that are actually happening. In the U.S., skin color is statistically a major determining factor in whether or not a white police officer shoots you unnecessarily. And, it's certainly very difficult to make life and death decisions as quickly as police officers do.

No matter what happened in Ferguson, the story that lasts will be the one that describes Brown as a victim. That is because it describes a more problematic pattern than the story of how hard it is to be a police officer. It is an officer's job to do difficult things. It is not the job of color to determine quality of life.

And, if this Ferguson story isn't the one that continues to teach into the coming centuries, another one will. Just as the myth of the American dream was born to teach that hard work nets material wealth, we are experiencing the birth of a shared vision of an America that is powerfully and overtly racist. The stories about race that are going to take root and inspire positive action will be the ones that describe how racial inequality goes against our ideal of a fair social order, and that resolving those issues is necessary for us to live with integrity. And that may bring some harmony to our culture, which is what mythology is for.

We need stories, even those that aren't true. Maybe the Ferguson story will be the one that is told the longest- maybe it won't. But, it is, if only temporarily, expressing and evoking feelings of injustice that will inspire the actions that the race problem needs. The Ferguson eyewitness accounts, true or not, are a part of our current race mythology. And they were told earnestly to describe real things- even if those real things weren't specifically why Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown.

For the grand jury, accuracy matters. The grand jury did their best to make a decision based on actual fact. But the direction that this culture moves is based on how we collectively view the world -- whether it's accurate or not. Finally, the majority of the public seems to see that American racism is prevalent and damaging. So, even if it's not remembrances of Brown's tragic death that motivate action in the future, some story, whether factual or not, will.