Australian General Semantics Society Inc.





Sunday 30th June
10:30am - 4:30 pm
"Urban Myths and Stereotypes -
Master or Servant ?" 

Divining the difference between reality and the fantastic
may not be as simple as it seems. 
Because the world you think you know may not actually exist!
Presented by Robert James

Our Seminar:
was generously hosted at Gav & Pauline's beautiful Bonnet Bay home - Thank you both!

Catching Up
Sharing of triumphs and tragedies and miscellaneous yarns.

GS Diary
In the spirit of "applying general semantics principles" to our lives, as opposed to dwelling in theory, we considered members' accounts of observations and applications relating to the principles and formulations of our discipline.

Today's Discussion: "Urban Myths and legends"

In order to stimulate some preliminary thought on the subject, we had some rather arduous homework to complete, thus:

Grateful your preliminary consideration of some notions of “urban myth”, for
discussion on Sunday.

Could you please think about some of the widely-held notions that we
maintain, which may not have been “rationally” established and maintained,
and which we may not even be consciously aware of?

Don’t worry too much about definitions of “myth”, for example whether these
ideas / notions / assumptions / precepts (as Milton might say) are true or
false, rather just that they are widely accepted without necessarily arising
from careful observation and study For example, Captain Cook declared in
1770 that the island continent was terra nullius “no man’s land”, despite
the presence of probably over 750,000 Aboriginal people in residence there.
So we commonly consider this notion “a myth”. The Biblical account of a
six-day creation of the world ("before God rested on the seventh day”) is
considered by most of us to be mythical. Some people (sadly) do not believe
in Santa Claus: Does that make "him" mythical?

So why do we create stories to explain what we do not understand? Please
consider the few examples below, and some of your own, and answer a few
questions on each, eg:

1. What sort of a statement/question is it, eg: Value judgement / True /
Probably true / Probably false / False / Answerable but unknown /
Unanswerable / Meaningless / Metaphorical?
2. Is it a useful notion to maintain (eg “Does human activity greatly cause
climate change?”) or interesting but not useful (eg “How big is the
3. What general-semantic formulation/s can be brought to bear in considering
this ("Non-allness, awareness of the levels of abstraction, etc)?
4. Can/should we be active in questioning commonly held understandings that
may not be “true”?
5. Is it worthy of the status of "myth" (widely held belief), or just a
statement / question / assertion ... ?

A few examples ...
* “Too much sugar makes us sick”,
* “Smoking causes lung cancer”,
* "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus",
* "Australia: the lucky country",
* "The red peril" (or yellow peril" etc),
* "The streets are more dangerous these days",
* "Modern youth are less respectful / more lazy / selfish / intelligent / idealistic etc) than when I was a child",
* “A million angels can dance on the head of a pin”,
* "Earthquakes are more dangerous than white ants",
* "Freedom of speech is more important than controlling hate speech",
* "Road accidents kill more people than suicide in Australia",
* "Autism is on the increase in Australia",
* "Ned Kelly's last words were 'Such is life' (or similar)",
* "GS is exciting",
* “There is a god/s”,
* "The plant Earth is round (almost spherical).
   etc, etc etc ...

Thanks for your engagement in this exercise!
Looking forward to see yous all on Sunday at B.Bay.

Cheers ...

Well - What's this all about, anyhow ... ?

An urban legend, myth, or tale, can be considered to be a modern genre of folklore. It usually consists of fictional stories associated with the macabre, superstitions  and other narrative elements.

Just as Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks were spread by oral tradition, urban myths are spread by word of mouth; much like traditional folklore, modern myths are embellished or altered as they are retold.

Writing about myths is much like walking through a mine field. No matter what one writes, it is certain to offend many readers. (GS Happiness principle: lower expectations - Expect to be offended.)

Part of the problem is that the word "myth" has two distinct meanings.

•A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.  In the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) there are many stories that meet this definition: Stories about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, God making the Earth and heavens in 6 days and resting on the seventh,  the worldwide flood of Noah, the exodus of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt with the large wave killing all who followed them, etc.

•A widely held but false belief or idea.  False to factual observation.  A person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence, e.g. the Superman myth, The unicorn is a myth.

Contributing to the difficulties associated with myths is that:

People readily identify the myths of cultures different from their own as stories about events that never really happened historically, but which may develop a person's worldview in that culture.

When it comes to the myths of their own culture or religion, people often firmly believe them to be true recollections of actual events. For example, there are followers of Abrahamic religions who:
  * Search for the remnants of the Garden of Eden, or
  * Search for the remains of Noah's Ark on the mountains of Ararat near the border of Turkey and Iran, or
  * Try to prove that the Earth and the rest of the universe is only about 6 millennia old or that the speed of light went faster in the past.

Here’s an example of one mechanism:
University of Paris in 13th century tried to answer the question of whether oil left out on a cold winter's night, would congeal by searching the works of Aristotle rather than experimenting to see what real oil would do under these circumstances.
Similarly some theologians searched the Bible (who begat who, etc) to work out the age of the Earth and the Universe (e.g.4004 BC) instead on experimenting on and observing reality to find the answers.

Well - metaphors and Subculture Conflict

“Metaphors we live by” By Lakoff et al, talks about the myths of Objectivism and Subjectivism, which can be related to Bois Epistemological levels 2 and 3.  Lakoff’s solution is very similar to Bois’s level 4.

Lakoff also talks about conflict of subcultures.  For example the Australian culture which tries to have tolerance of personal preferences e.g. tastes in food, music, or cultural preferences, etc.  A recent example in Australia, is a court case about the conflict between religious preferences and sexual preferences.

Myth and GS

Apply principles of general semantics to debunk common myths regarding ‘meaning.’

the “single meaning myth” – that there is a single meaning, THE meaning, rather than possible multiple meanings depending on context, circumstances, and the backgrounds of those involved with their own personal meanings.

the “impersonal myth” – that ‘meanings’ occur or exist apart from the individuals who generate ‘meanings,’ that “things mean” or “words mean” rather than “people mean.”

the “meaning = definition myth” – that a dictionary definition dictates how a term must be used and what it ought to ‘mean’ in the future, rather than noting how that term has been used in the past and how its current usage may be changing. (Dictionaries mainly go on written words.)

the “meaning is spoken myth” – that the significant ‘meanings’ we experience in life can be verbalized, that we can actually describe “how it feels.”

GS SApproaches

People should expect to misunderstand others, and expect to be misunderstood by others; this “communicator beware” attitude will help avoid problems of presumed understanding due to an over-reliance on what the words ‘mean.’

What words, or events, or other symbols ‘mean’ is a function of how each individual interacts with and responds to the word or event; each ‘meaning’ carries with it an aspect of “to-me-ness” determined by the individual.

The ‘facts’ of a news report may be different from the reporter’s own interpretation of what the story ‘means.’

Avoid leaping to conclusions, or rushing to judgment, about what another person ‘means’ by his/her statements, actions, attitudes, etc.

Temper the meanings that we give or the judgments we make with a degree of tentativeness and uncertainty. We cannot know ‘all’ about another’s motivation or intent, just as reporters cannot convey ‘all’ the details of a story in a limited amount of space.

How Myth Continues

It’s like someone telling a group of Medieval Europeans that there is no such thing as the Earth being in the centre of the universe with everything revolving around us. These words would just ricochet off their minds as they prepared to burn the heretic (Bruno) at the stake.

Fortunately we don’t burn people at the stake anymore. But just as with the Christian faith, stating ideas contrary to the popular belief just elicits a greater entrenchment in the myth.  And the “heretic” had better be prepared to take the heat. In this way the power of myth is protected and reinforced.   It doesn’t matter how obvious the facts. The focus of attention will always be on the most attractive image, the image that satisfies the wants and needs of the believer. Not correct symbolism to fact but correct symbolism to desire.

Climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers and other groups who don’t have science on their side bandy about phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in a college class on deconstruction – phrases such as “many sides,” “different perspectives”, “uncertainties”, “multiple ways of knowing”. As demonstrated in the 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, right wing think tanks, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate interests that are intent on discrediting science have employed a strategy first used by the tobacco industry to try to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking. “Doubt is our product,” read an infamous memo written by a tobacco industry executive in 1969, “since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.”

Some Defence Mechanisms that Perpetuate our Myths

Defence mechanisms are a part of our everyday life.  Everyone engages in some form of self-deception at least some of the time.

1. Denial. When you use denial, you simply refuse to accept the truth or reality of a fact or experience. "No, I'm just a social smoker,"; similarly people can apply this to any bad habit they wish to distance themselves from including excessive alcohol , compulsive shopping or gambling, and the like.  In the long run, however, denial can prevent you from incorporating unpleasant information about yourself and your life and have potentially destructive consequences.

2. Repression.  This involves simply forgetting something bad. You might forget an unpleasant experience, in the past, such as a car accident at which you were found to be at fault.  Repression, like denial, can be temporarily beneficial, particularly if you've forgotten something bad that happened to you, but as with denial, if you don't come to grips with the experience it may come back to haunt you.  So you forget the information that discredits the myth you like.

3. Displacement.  Here you transfer your original feelings that would get you in trouble (usually anger) away from the person who is the target of your rage to a more hapless and harmless victim. For example: You've had a very unpleasant interaction with your boss or teacher, but you can't show your anger toward him or her. Instead, you come home and, "kick the cat" (or dog).  Any time you shift your true feelings from their original, anxiety-provoking, source to one you perceive as less likely to cause you harm, you're quite possibly using displacement.

Unfortunately, displacement may protect you from being fired or failing a class, but it won't protect your hand if you decide to displace your anger from the true target to a window or wall.  So the falsifying data about the myth gets displaced onto something else.

4. Projection.   You may have the assumption that to recognize a particular quality in yourself would cause you emotional pain / negative emotion.  For instance, you feel that an outfit you spent too much on looks really bad on you. Wearing this outfit, you walk into the room where your friends stare at you perhaps for a moment too long (in your opinion). They say nothing and do nothing that in reality could be construed as critical. However, your insecurity about the outfit (and distress at having paid too much for it) leads you to "project" your feelings onto your friends, and you blurt out "Why are you looking at me like that? Don't you like this outfit?" See how silly that was? In a less silly case, you might project your more general feelings of guilt or insecurity onto friends or people who don't know and love you with all your projected flaws.  Let's say you're worried that you're not really very smart. You make a dumb mistake that no one says anything about at all, and you accuse others of saying that you're dumb, inferior, or just plain stupid. The point is that no one said anything that in reality could be construed as critical. You are "projecting" your insecurities onto others and in the process, alienating them (and probably looking somewhat foolish as well).  So the errors relating to the myth are not yours but the other person’s errors.

5. Intellectualization.  Here, you think away an emotion or reaction that you don't enjoy feeling. For instance, rather than confront the intense distress and rejection you feel after your friend tells you information that would disprove a myth you hold dear, you conduct a detailed analysis of how much benefit you can get from the myth. Although you aren't denying the information, you're not thinking about its negative consequences and just keep looking at the positive ones.

6. Rationalization. When you rationalize something, you try to explain it away.  It involves dealing with a piece of bad behaviour on your part, like foolishly believing in the false myth, rather than converting the negative emotion into a more neutral set of thoughts by changing your theory. People often use rationalization to shore up their insecurities or remorse after doing something they regret such as an "oops" moment. It's easier to blame someone else than to take the heat yourself, particularly if you would otherwise feel shame or embarrassment.  So they blame the person who challenged their myth.

Biases that help keep myths alive
Assimilation bias: Viewing the world through schema coloured glasses.
Confirmation bias: We seek only confirmation data ignoring contrary evidence.
3. Belief perseverance effect:  We interpret an attack on the belief as an attack on ourselves.
Hindsight bias: predicting something after the event so as to support the myth.
5. Availability bias, distorts our views based on what we remember most easily.
Mental heuristics like the representative bias which saves our cognitive load,
    but limits the amount of information we look at to support an idea.



See Colin Campbell - "The 'Myth' of General Semantics":

ABC News "Factcheck"

Joseph Campbell Foundation Mythology of the First City States

“Metaphors we live by” By Lakoff

Thank you:
  * To David for his research and thoughtfulness in compiling material for today's event!
  * And to all the others who contributed their wisdom and experience to our deliberations.  :-)


Next Meeting:

Saturday 24th August, at Towradgi:
"How How to Negotiate to get What You Want!" -
based on the book "Getting to Yes", and maybe a bit from "Choose to be Happy"

Presented by David Hewson.
nd our AGM)


Disclaimer: This "summary" is a collection of notes derived from our discussion by a number of means.  It is by no means a scholarly dissertation on the subject as presented.  It does not purport to be the "policy of AGS".  Comment and criticism (constructive or otherwise) is welcome.  If anyone has been misquoted, copyrights infringed or confidences betrayed, please Contact us.



Updated by Robert James
30 June 2019

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