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David Bouchier: We Are All Fabulists

Jeff Chabot

We human beings are credulous creatures at any age. We love to believe in marvels and miracles, and sometimes I think we will believe anything. In fact, the less likely it is, the more we want to believe it. I’m thinking of politics, of course, and the stock market, and the social media and certain TV news programs. The psychological mechanism that allows us to swallow the most implausible rubbish is both simple and ancient. Julius Caesar expressed it succinctly, although in Latin, 2,000 years ago: “Men will gladly believe what they want to believe.” And I’m sure that women have the same talent.

The remarkable ability of our species to believe the improbable and the impossible is, on one level, quite entertaining. Hollywood depends entirely on our inability to distinguish fact from fantasy. On the more trivial level, it allows all kinds of amusing and usually harmless myths to flourish. We’ve all heard these urban — and even suburban legends about alligators living in the sewers, innocent travelers who are drugged and wake up minus a kidney, contaminated phones and poisoned Halloween candy. These are the fairytales of our age.

The advertising industry competes with Hollywood in the production of vivid, colorful lies. Our minds are so muddled that we might even come to believe that sales are real sales, that discounts are real discounts, and that our shiny new car really will fly through beautiful landscapes along totally empty roads. Mythical and magical thinking are back in fashion as in no time since the Middle Ages, perhaps because the other kind of thinking is harder, and comes up with unwelcome answers.

The frontiers of credulity are constant being expanded. There are hundreds of thousands of social media hoaxes and conspiracy theories: Osama bin Laden is teaching sociology at Harvard, there are mutant chickens in your fast food, that Bitcoin is a real currency, and so on and on.

History assures us that people in past times were almost as credulous as we are today. The ancient Greeks, and after them the Romans, were champion myth makers, and the stories they told were extravagant, yet oddly familiar. The myths of Pandora, Orpheus, Sisyphus, Midas and of course Narcissus are all part of our culture, sometimes acting as warnings, sometimes as role models. In fact our entire culture seems to be based on ancient myths and superstitions, the way a coral reef is made out of ancient sea creatures. No wonder we have the habit of inventing new ones.

We are all fabulists, inveterate creators and consumers of folklore and fantasy. First we make this stuff up, then we believe in it. The French wit and cynic Voltaire predicted, back in the 1700s, that all this silly superstitious and mythological thinking would soon vanish in the light of pure knowledge, leading to a fully enlightened and rational society. Some people believed him then. Some people still believe him, which just goes to show that we really can believe anything.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.