Sunday, 1 December 2019
The Mythic Lone Iconoclast
the Civil Religion of Progress which got us here and why it’s so hard for people to let go, quite apart from the normal human tendency to continue to hang on to whatever has worked in the past, I’ve identified a key figure: the “Lone Iconoclast”.
Now, most stories across history have a single hero as the point of focus, whether real or imaginary, e.g. Cuchulain or Myamoto Musashi, but what they all do is exemplify the ideal of the culture or civilization that is telling the story. In the tales of Cuchulain he exemplifies the ideal of a warrior of his tribe. In the case of Musashi, a recurring theme is his misery at being unable to shave his head and so be a proper Samurai even as he perfects his art and works for the benefit of his society. Note that neither one upsets any social order or ushers in great changes.
By contrast, in most of OUR stories in 20th and 21st Century Western, particularly North American culture, the hero is someone who, working alone, works out some knowledge that everyone else has overlooked or ignored or develops some new technology that will change the world (always for the better, of course). The Lone Iconoclast must then overcome resistance from the hidebound and close-minded Authority, particularly those who control the institutions of learning and knowledge, so that this Truth (which is always in conformity with the gospel of Western Science) can usher in some great leap forward.
We see this popular mythology recurs in our stories. In over-simplified history: “Copernicus and the Heliocentric Theory”, or “Galileo discovers the Moons of Jupiter”, or “Mendel proves Genetic Inheritance”. This figure occurs in literature: Mary Shelly’s lone hero “Dr. Frankenstein” and Reginald Rose’s holdout Juror No 8 in “12 Angry Men” and, of course, every comic-book superhero, now translated into big-screen mega-blockbusters. This figure occurs in movies: Gary Cooper stands alone against the town he saves in “High Noon”. This figure occurs in police dramas wherein the rogue detective is right and the Chief of Police is wrong: “Lethal Weapon” and “Demolition Man” come immediately to mind. It’s in political dramas. it’s in medical dramas. Everywhere, we see some individual as the lone iconoclast outsmarting the unimaginative, hidebound leadership.
I perceive two major effects of the iconography of the Heroic Lone Iconoclast:
Firstly, it supports the delusion that any individual is smarter than the collective and smarter than any conventional expert. This, in turn, amplifies the Dunning-Kruger effect across society as a whole, and one result is a general turning away from, and ignoring the advice of, experts. Notwithstanding the fact that so many arrogant, high-profile experts have been so spectacularly wrong about important issues, it does not follow that “anyone” else would have better results. People give themselves permission stop listening to inconvenient facts which challenge their own preconceptions, and magnify out of proportion facts and suppositions to support their claims, because they imagine themselves as being that mythic iconoclast who is right in the face of conventional wisdom. (Even if they hold the most conventional and unimaginative viewpoints, they still believe they are being highly individualistic and creative.) The result, aside from the metastasizing of conspiracy theories in public discourse, is that when experts give advice people don’t like, they tend to ignore it even more than they ordinarily would and thus fiercely resist changing their lifestyle even though it is untenable. It also leaves people peculiarly susceptible to demagogues who pander to these prejudices.
Secondly, it elevates the individual interest over the collective well-being. In Western culture, particularly in North America, the individual now takes primacy over the group. That is at the core of the current culture wars, it is also a big factor in people looking at every possible “solution” for the climate crisis, except to change their personal, entropic, suburban lifestyle, because their comfort is primary. What that portends for the future is that people are even more adverse to considering the idea of reducing their standard of living for the benefit of everyone else, that much less willing to make voluntary sacrifices.
Ironic. Because by working as an individual towards the collective good, in my example, I have continuously reduced the amount of energy I use to the point where I use 40% of the energy the previous owner of this house did, I give the lie to the fear that somehow reducing waste means a reduction in living standards. I find myself an individual, working for the benefit of the group as a whole. I am, however, not the iconoclast, because I am, in fact, joining a growing number of people across this continent who are doing exactly the same thing.