What is a Social Myth?

First, what is a myth? A myth is a story created to explain something--a physical situation, an attitude, the way things are. Think of the Greek myths, for instance. They explained why the world was the way it was.

So, a social myth is one, like the Greek myths, that is common to a large group of people--as opposed to an individual myth.

Myths of Skepticism, an excellent paper with good documentation and bibliography... Some quotes from the article:

"I think that myth is the exact word to describe these beliefs. My copy of Merriam-Webster 9th Collegiate Dictionary gives as the second definition of myth: ``a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone, esp. embodying the ideas and institutions of a segment of society.'' These myths also contain a kernel of truth. That is, they are incorrect only in their simplistic form. The purpose of this talk is to point out the weakness of the simple versions of these myths, and provide guidelines for a stronger, more general and robust version of the same ``ideas and institutions'' embodied in the original myth."

For an example of a social myth, let's look into Ryan William's book, Blaming the Victim. The following are some notes from pages 20-21 in his book: "In late-nineteenth century America there flowered another ideology of injustice that seemed rational and just to the decent, progressive person... Social Darwinism... One can scarcely imagine a better fit than the one between this ideology and the purposes and actions of the robber barons, who descended like piranha fish on the America of this era and picked its bones clean. Their extraordinarily unethical operations netted them not only hundreds of millions of dollars but also, perversely, the adoration of the nation. Behavior that would be, in any more rational land (including today's America), more than enough to have landed them all in jail, was praised as the very model of a captain of modern industry. And the philosophy that justified their thievery was such that John D. Rockefeller could actually stand up and preach it in church. Listen as he speaks in, of all places, Sunday school:

"The growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest... The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working-out of a law of nature and a law of God."

"This was the core of the gospel, adapted analogically from Darwin's writings on evolution. Herbert Spencer and, later, William Graham Sumner and other beginners in the social sciences considered Darwin's work to be directly applicable to social processes... The central concepts of "survival of the fittest," "natural selection," and "gradualism" were exalted in Rockefeller's preaching to the status of laws of God and Nature. Not only did this ideology justify the criminal rapacity of those who rose to the top of the industrial heap, defining them automatically as naturally superior.. but at the same time it also required that those at the bottom of the heap be labeled as patently unfit--a label based solely on their position in society. According to the law of natural selection, they should be, in Spencer's judgment, eliminated. "The whole effort of nature is to get rid of such, to clear the world of them and make room for better."

"For a generation, Social Darwinism was the orthodox doctrine in the social sciences.. [it] was not the product of an academic quack or a marginal crackpot.. It came directly from the lectures and books of leading intellectual figures of the time, occupants of professorial chairs at Harvard and Yale. Such is the power of an ideology that so neatly fits the needs of the dominant interests of society.

"... Ideologies are quite often academically and socially respectable and in many instances hold positions of exclusive validity, so that disagreement is considered unrespectable or radical and risks being labeled as


Ryan, William Blaming the Victim. NY: Random House, 1976.

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by Colby Glass