During the office hours for a medieval literature class, my professor (and in case it wasn’t clear that I was a poor, poor academic, I was taking this class remedially, as I had flunked out of that same professor’s Chaucer class) told me something I’ve been turning around in my head ever since– that people in the Dark Ages read the world allegorically.
What the hell does that mean? Well, first you need to consider that folks in the olden days didn’t read words so much. Literacy was a tool reserved for Jesus nerds (clergymen) who would read, and then interpret, the Bible during mass. To be a good Christian, one has to read the Bible faithfully. So how does an illiterate farmer accomplish that?
According to my professor, a farmer dude might look at a tree and contemplate it as an allegory for Christ. He’d see the roots planted firmly in the ground, the branches leaning into the sun, and I don’t know, he’d see an apple or something. And he’d interpret that to mean by firmly grounding oneself in faith (roots), seeking truth in the God’s word (light, sun), one is rewarded (fruit, salvation).
And then he’d go stick some leeches on his butt because a barber told him that cured syph’.
Basically, the gist of it is that they saw the world as a manifestation of The Bible, that the world had the Word of God coded into its every corner.
It’s a common misconception that people in history were dumb. We have a tendency to think because we’re progressively marching towards a fairer world and have smart phones, that we’re smarter than we used to be. We’re not, exactly. Our phones are. The human brain hasn’t changed much in thousands of years (except the relatively modern trend of shrinkage). The farmer doesn’t have the tools of literacy, or a socially aware history, or access to modern medical science. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
But what I think that story speaks to is that farmer still had a critically thinking brain, and he applied it to the world around him using the lens of religion to understand and interpret that world.
Despite all of our technology, despite the lowest global illiteracy rates we’ve ever seen, I’m beginning to think that we still read the world allegorically. You’d think that it’d be the other way around– that we view something, we interpret it, and then we write our piece on it. And maybe that’s true some of the time and probably definitely true in early development. But I’m thinking that maybe our brains become wired to hold certain schemas (primed by upbringing, advantages or disadvantages, and media) about how the world works such that we interpret events before they happen– or rather, we justify events to fit our preexisting schemas.
Children do this naturally and intentionally– I personally crafted my life to reflect a reality of Calvin and Hobbes, pretended to be a pirate after watching Hook, and I would fight hundreds of invisible foes after watching 3 Ninjas. That’s until I discovered video games, after which, I made swords and shields out of errant pieces of metal lying around my house. I threw Pokéballs at bugs. I’d watch the ocean, hoping to see a dragon. I wanted these things to be real to the point that I was willing to let my imagination redirect reality into a personal narrative. At least until playtime was over.
Writers have a tendency to do this in adolescence in a very meta sense– writing fan-fiction using pre-existing fantastical universes to access their own emotions and frame their own internal struggles with something familiar. (Uncomfortable example: “Oh nooo,” said Professor Umbridge. “It seems I’ve dropped my quill.”)
Now we live in an age of information bubbles, where two polarized sides of America can watch the same news story play out and offer two completely disparate interpretations, each one validated by their home base.
How does that happen? Well, we’re all aware of the concept of confirmation bias, right? That you only seek out the information that serves your views and ignore or discredit that which opposes your views. That’s the psychological mechanic behind reading the world allegorically. It’s just that The Bible we’re priming ourselves with now includes literature, movies, the news, memes and social media. Our brains understand the world around us through what we watch and read and consume on a daily basis.
Astrology is a good example of this in action. Let’s say you’re a Libra and are interested in dating a Leo (Hey, I’m a Leo! It doesn’t matter.) because you know and love Leos. You two go out for a drink. Despite this Leo being generally uptight and reserved, you might find yourself ignoring this and focusing on what makes them appear to be gregarious and outspoken. (“They laughed at my joke! Leos love jokes! This is going to work!” or “They were such an asshole to the bartender! Classic Leo! This is going to work!”)
Or maybe your Horoscope informed you that you would find someone who had been missing from your life and advised to stay away from tenuous situations. Then a friend from high school wanders into your workplace and orders a coffee (you’re a barista in this example, because, of course you are). Later, a dispute breaks out between coworkers and you choose to separate yourself from it. You get home and remember your horoscope, and wouldn’t you know it, it came true! Didn’t it?
Well, these are examples of shoehorning a paradigm into something benign– or in the dating example, a special kind of color blindness that sees all flags as white. Not to get into too much of a tangent on the cookie-cutter advice Horoscope writers dish out (not that it’s ever bad, per se, but it’s just common sense. Avoid tenuous situations? One of the reasons human beings are still alive is our capacity for risk assessment), but wouldn’t it have also been true if you read, say, a Cancer’s ‘scope and it said something like, “You will reclaim a memory you thought you had lost and cool heads prevail under times of duress?”
When it matters, it’s when the situation isn’t so benign. Look at it from a political perspective, because apparently it’s impossible not to these days.
On the right: If your news, your friends and family, your Mark Wahlburg movies and favored political leaders are saying that Islam is a religion of war, you’re going to look at the world, afraid, and find examples to justify that fear– because examples of violence are there, and the natural tendency is to extend that example to all examples. But you’d be ignoring the 99.994% of the global Muslim population who aren’t extremists and the 94% of terroristic attacks carried out on US soil by non-Islamic extremists because that doesn’t fit the narrative.
On the left: If your news, your friends, perhaps not your parents, your comedians and favored political leaders vilify red state voters, you’re going to find examples of white supremacy, misogyny, and hate– because examples are definitely there. But you’d be ignoring the plight of former industrial workers who can’t get a job because governmental interests have left their economy to rot and their towns are in the valley of too populous yet too small to accommodate customer service jobs like cities and suburbs can. They chose the devil they didn’t know, because the last one screwed them in their perspective.
Obviously, I fall onto the left side of the spectrum. But I want everyone to recognize that our minds, beautiful machines capable of astounding works that they may be, are reactionary to precedent information which perhaps interprets the world for us, before we can even take a moment to breathe.
Psychological schemas are solid, but not unshakeable blueprints. We’re constantly updating (usually buttressing) the designs, but never lose hope that the most hateful of people can come around to a reasonable understanding as long as we remember that people are people and have always been people.
The only thing I can think to prescribe is a careful and well variegated media diet. I’m not saying you should listen to Alex Jones– I’m pretty sure no one should– but perhaps by entertaining– not necessarily believing or ascribing to– a palette of perspectives, we can understand each other’s personal allegory. Because our brains will favor a story over reality every single time.
Failing that, remember what Socrates said: “I do not think I know what I do not know.”