September 14, 2005

The Myths of the 20th century

The first half of the 20th century was dominated by the myth of human inequality. According to this myth, human beings could be ordered in a scale of worth, with some individuals and groups being deemed superior and others inferior.

The second half of the 20th century was dominated by the myth of human identity. According to this myth, human beings were inherently the same, except for cosmetic external differences and the sexual differences necessary for procreation. Any observable differences in health, intelligence, personality, or beauty were deemed to stem from prejudices of the observer or the effects of environmental influences.

The first myth was a consequence of widespread means of transportation, which enabled the meeting of races and cultures. It was also a consequence of quantitative anthropology which enabled the measurement of human beings, and their classification according to measurable quantities such as the cephalic index or the facial angle.

The second myth was a result of the great emancipation movements. Previously marginalized groups, such as women and minorities found themselves in possession of the same rights as white males. It was believed that their previously socially inferior position would soon be changed, and that once people became unprejudiced and educated, then all genders and races would exhibit similar outcomes in life.

The myth of human inequality was the common-sense reaction to the previous Christian worldview of equality of men. People could no longer hold that view once faced with the dramatic differences in appearance, culture, and behavior between different groups. It was common-sense, but wrong, because human beings are not single-dimensional entities and cannot be ordered on a unique scale.

The myth of human identity was the moral reaction to the old society which subjugated a good portion of its population. It was wrong, because the power structures of society are not only the result of prejudice, oppression, and opportunity, but also a manifestation of innate differences between human individuals and groups.

Today, neither human inequality, nor human identity are any longer tenable positions. So, what will be our new myths for the 21st century?

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