Of Teflon and Velcro: Constructing a High-Impact Narrative
By Robert Franklin
June 22, 2013
What I’m going to say today is about the role modern – and not so modern – mythology plays in everyday public discourse, in lawmaking and in the way our issues appear in the press and popular culture. I’m going to tell you that we advocates for men’s and fathers’ rights, those of us who campaign against a criminal justice system that seems to never have enough people behind bars, rely too much on science. We pay too little attention to the use of fictional narratives, and characters – heroes and villains – to convince our audience – those who don’t eat, sleep and breathe our issues to fight with us.
- In 2011, Scott Ritchie lost custody of his son who was 7. Scott had been a stay-at-home father all of the boy’s life while his wife brought home the bacon. In giving custody to his wife, the judge said in open court that he just couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact of a stay-at-home dad.
- In 2010, Canadian Nicole Ryan was acquitted of attempting to have her husband murdered. She admitted doing so, but claimed he was abusive toward her. Despite the fact that there was no evidence of abuse apart from her word, and the fact that she lied literally dozens of times, the trial judge said he credited everything she said and let her go.
- In 1989, five young boys were arrested for the brutal beating and rape of a jogger in New York’s Central Park. They were bullied by police and prosecutors into pleading guilty despite there being no evidence connecting them to the crime and much evidence of their non-involvement.
- Last year, a British father abandoned his career as a nanny and daycare worker due to false allegations of child abuse.
What do these stories and countless others like them have in common? They all stem from a modern myth – the myth of the virtuous female and the brutal male. It’s taken root over the last 40 years to the great detriment of men, women, children, the family, our system of justice and society generally. Those of us in the Men’s and Fathers’ Rights Movement fight that insidious narrative every day. I want to describe how such a narrative could achieve the influence this one has. In my explanation lie the seeds of how to combat that myth of male corruption and female virtue that, among other things, results in a criminal justice system that’s been shown many times to treat men more harshly than women. I cannot offer easy answers, but I can present a framework that will allow all of us to think about the matter and arrive at solutions.
Humans are Artists and Scientists and the Two are at War
One of the most important things we can realize about ourselves as humans is that we’re both artists and scientists and that those two mental disciplines are often at war with each other. The finely-wrought cave paintings in southern France of almost 30,000 years ago bear witness to the origins of our artistry. With language, this artistic bent created stories and songs that were told and sung around campfires for thousands of years.
People are scientists too, albeit primitive ones for most of history. The slow but incessant march of technological progress shows we’ve long been scientists. How do you start a fire, chip a flint, hunt a bear, a rabbit? Try it this way and see if it works. If it does, try it again. If it doesn’t, try something else. It’s not sophisticated, but it’s the scientific method in action.
What I see in humans, both individual and collective, is a constant vacillation between our artistic and our scientific selves.
Because I’m a writer and speaker, and most of our efforts to redirect public discourse involve those two means of communication, I’m going to talk about the storytelling, the mythmaking aspect of humans’ creative drive.
Now, when I refer to myth, let me be clear about what I mean. I’m not talking about stories that are necessarily religious and I’m certainly not talking about myth in the sense of that which is not true. When I say “myth,” I mean a story whose importance does not reside in its facts but in it message.
And that, for my purposes today, is the key difference between myth and science.
When a scientist creates a hypothesis, he tests it to see if it holds up. If the hypothesis is about the effectiveness of a drug, it is tested and if the drug isn’t effective, then it’s back to the drawing board. That is, in science, facts are all-important; if they contradict the hypothesis, then it’s adios to the hypothesis.
With mythology, the opposite is true. The facts are unimportant; it’s the message we embrace.
The Value of Myth
Consider the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus. Daedalus was the father of Icarus and the two were imprisoned on an island. Daedalus collected feathers of birds and, using melted candle wax, formed wings. Before flying off their prison island, Daedalus cautioned his son to fly neither too low nor too high.
But Icarus, being young and impetuous, didn’t heed his father’s advice, flew too close to the sun, the wax melted, his wings fell apart and he plunged to his death. Meanwhile, Daedalus continued on the middle path to freedom.
OK, so who believes the empirical facts of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus? Who believes they actually fashioned wings and flew? We all know that, as a scientific matter, that can’t happen. So why is the myth still with us? The answer is that it makes a point that has survived in our human understanding for 2,500 years or more – that freedom lies not in extremism, but in moderation, that the extremist is soon destroyed by his extremism while the moderate survives.
The point is that we retain the message while ignoring the falsity of the facts. Science doesn’t permit that; myth demands it.
But why tell a story at all? Why not just say “moderation, not extremism, is the path freedom?” The reason is that we’re humans and for us, the message is more readily received if it comes packaged in a story. We respond to the story; it moves us, it involves our imagination, we can feel the youthful exuberance of Icarus, the caution of the older Daedalus. So we easily accept the message in the story because it invokes our own experiences. The story rings true; it speaks to us.
Meanwhile the intellectual statement, “moderation, not extremism is the path to freedom” is dry, not very interesting and most importantly, invites skepticism. It’s an important thing about science. Science is itself a skeptical discipline. Do we really know A? Were we right to conclude B? Statements of scientific fact urge us to doubt them.
Myth is the opposite. For the believers of a myth, it is the myth that’s important, not the facts. Myths encourage belief, not skepticism.
The myth of Icarus and Daedalus is an ancient one, but I assure you that we humans, infinitely creative souls that we are, are always busy making new ones. To show you that, as well as the astonishing power of myth in our everyday lives, allow me to give you an example.
Myth is Modern; Myth is Powerful
Among the peasantry of southern Mexico and Central America, a modern myth persists. It holds that American doctors go down to those parts of the world on the pretense of volunteering their time and expertise to alleviate suffering. But what they’re also doing is kidnapping children, murdering them, eviscerating them and harvesting their organs for transplant operations in the United States.
This myth is pervasive in that part of the world. Among those people it has the value of truth.
And yet it is completely false. There is no evidence that any doctor has ever done what the myth describes. Indeed, the simple mechanics of doing so and getting the body parts out of one country and into another in the short time required for them to be useable, make it, for all practical purposes, impossible.
The myth persists despite facts that clearly show it is not true.
In 1994, an American woman travelled to the mountains of rural Guatemala. She insinuated herself into a community and was often seen holding babies for whatever reason. Unknown to her, a rumor about her, based on the myth of the American doctors, flew around the town. A crowd developed and the woman was attacked with stones. She fled to the little police station in the town seeking shelter, but the police were unable to stand up to the mob. She was attacked, beaten and stoned. She barely survived, but years later, remained in a coma in a hospital back in the United States.
Tell me, has a scientific proposition ever created such passion, such intense, powerful feelings as did the myth of the American doctors? For example, we accept the theory of evolution, and may sneer at those who profess “creation science,” but we don’t attack them with stones. Our acceptance of evolution doesn’t move us to hatred, fear and violence. You see the tremendous power of myth to spur people to action.
And just look around. There are plenty of other examples. What were Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists doing in Germany in the 20s and 30s but creating a myth of the corrupt and sinister Jew? What was the reality? Did Jews really suck the vitality from the German people and deprive them of their “rightful” place as a super race? Please. Again, the facts contradicted the myth, but the myth spurred a nation to action.
Where do our Modern Myths Come From and Why?
Where do these myths come from? How did National Socialism convince Germans of such nonsense about Jews? It was able to do so mostly because conditions were right. Germany’s defeat in WWI and the humiliations of the Versailles Treaty, the financial madness of the Weimar Republic and a German romanticism that claimed for Germany an utterly unrealistic place in history meant that large numbers of Germans eagerly bought what the National Socialists were selling. The German people were primed for belief in a myth of their own victimhood at the hands of sinister forces. What followed was the most destructive six years in the history of the world.
The point is that circumstances created conditions in which the right myth could take root and flourish even in the hearts and minds of a highly intelligent, educated and worldly people. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere and does, albeit usually with less dramatic results. Many Germans wanted to believe the mythic narrative constructed by the Nazis; they needed to believe it, so they did.
The Utility of Myth in Everyday Life
The National Socialist’s narrative made sense of experience, it rationalized reality. And it is that utility, I believe, that is mythology’s greatest function. It provides a narrative that makes sense of a seemingly senseless world. That is what appeals to us. To adopt a coherent narrative is to impose order on events that often seem to be “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.” Myth provides that sense of comprehension and control that is indispensable to happiness and contentment.
Given that, it’s no surprise that, when facts contradict a mythic narrative, those facts must fall by the wayside. To accept those facts would be to threaten one’s sense of control and understanding. To jettison them is to give order to an orderless world, make peace out of conflict, sense of the senseless.
As Hitler and the Nazis proved in Germany, many myths come and go and can be constructed for the crassest of political motivations.
Myth in Today’s Politics
Indeed, close observation not only of the political scene, but of public discourse in the U.S., reveals the vying of numerous mythic narratives for importance in the public imagination. In politics of course, this is done quite consciously. Joan Didion noticed the phenomenon in her book of essays entitled “Political Fictions.”
Since we’re into politics, consider Republicans and Democrats. The widely accepted myth of the two parties is that Republicans are the party of the wealthy, while Democrats supposedly are the party of “the little man,” blue-collar people.
The effects of the mythology about the two major parties can be seen in the contrasting receptions given Ronald Reagan’s attempt to reform welfare and Bill Clinton’s success at doing so. Reagan’s plan was far less restrictive on welfare recipients than was Clinton’s, but the Gipper’s was shot down amid outraged cries that it was too punitive toward the poor. Barely a decade later, Clinton signed welfare reform legislation that was far more punitive than anything Reagan ever proposed, but Clinton’s caused barely a ripple of public protest. How was that possible?
In a word, mythology. Because mythology holds Republicans to be a bunch of fat cats, Reagan’s effort at welfare reform was perceived to be a Dickensian act of the wealthy abusing the poor. But since Democrats are supposedly the party of the common man, Clinton got a pass. Barely three months after signing the law, liberals voted for Clinton en masse.
VelCro and Teflon
That brings us to Velcro and Teflon. Remember the election of 1992? One of the great non-events of that year involved President Bush supposedly marveling at a scanner in the check-out line at a supermarket. As the story was told, Bush had never seen such a thing; he thought it was a brand new and marvelous invention. The claim was utterly untrue. Bush of course knew what a check-out scanner was, but the story fit the myth of the wealthy man, out of touch with the lives of everyday people, so well that it stuck – like Velcro. The myth demanded that he not know, and that’s what many people believed.
A similar bug bit John Kerry in 2004. The Massachusetts senator had served honorably in the Viet Nam War and was decorated for valor there. But in his attempt to capitalize on his military service in his run for the presidency, he found the facts trumped by the mythology of the Democrat as wimp, as peacenik. George McGovern and Michael Dukakis hung around his neck like an albatross. In his case, the facts of his military service slid off him like Teflon.
Back in the 90s, it was common to wonder at the Teflon/ Velcro phenomenon. Why was it, some commentators wondered, that some facts or allegations clung to one public figure like Velcro while others slid off like Teflon? Why did some facts – whether true or false – take root in the popular imagination while others vanished into thin air?
The answer is that every time there’s a Velcro or Teflon moment, there’s a myth at work. Look for that myth and you’ll find the reason why factual claims – good or bad, true or false – either cling doggedly to a person or are ignored as unimportant. To find that myth, look at which facts become part of public discourse and which don’t. In every case, facts that remain in the public consciousness – whether true or not – are those that agree with and perpetuate a myth. Those that vanish – again whether true or not – are those that contradict the myth.
I work mostly in the field of family court reform; others emphasize reform of domestic violence laws. Still others oppose radical feminism’s promotion of the so-called “rape culture.” Many more seek to correct prosecutorial abuses. Well, we all face the problem of Teflon and Velcro. We’ve faced it for decades. We face it every day.
How many of us have banged our heads against the wall because the facts of our particular issues are all on our side, and yet they scarcely seem to matter? In the area of child custody, the social science is essentially unquestionable; children do better with two parents in their lives. So what do family laws and family courts do? They do the exact opposite of what the facts dictate; they overwhelmingly give sole or primary custody to mothers at the expense of everyone, particularly children. The facts of child well-being slide off like Teflon.
The same is true in the domestic violence arena. The facts are known; men and women are equally likely to perpetrate and be victimized by domestic violence. Over one-third of the victims of severe domestic violence are men, and yet male victims are rarely even mentioned in the public discourse about DV and there are essentially no public services for them. The facts slide off like Teflon. The false facts peddled by the domestic violence establishment cling to public discourse like VelCro.
How can these things possibly be? How is it possible that our society can on one hand brand fatherlessness and domestic violence issues as of the greatest importance, and on the other ignore well-known facts about them?
By now, you know the answer. Myth is the thing whose message is more important than the facts that contradict it. When faced with countervailing facts, believers in a myth will do handstands to avoid those facts. They’ll do the same to embrace those that agree with the myth, whether true or not.
Who here hasn’t experienced the infuriating methods our opponents use to avoid confronting the obvious? Do we point out that women commit domestic violence too? That’s “victim blaming.” Do we say that children need both parents? That’s “giving custody to abusers.” Those canned answers have little to do with the point and of course make no effort to engage in constructive discourse. Doing so isn’t the point; the point is to avoid facts, avoid science. The point is to perpetuate the myth.
The Myth We Combat Every Day
What myth? The myth that gender feminism has been patiently constructing for the past 50 years or so. To say the least, gender feminism is not about science. It’s not about defined terms and rational debate; it’s about the creation of a mythic narrative. That’s why it embraces facts when they agree with that narrative and shuns those that don’t. It’s why it began claiming years ago that only men commit domestic violence. It’s why it claims that fathers can’t be trusted to care for children, despite well-known facts to the contrary.
And therein lies its great success. For those who want to believe, gender feminism provides a story, a coherent explanation for human behavior that’s easy to accept because it meets the deep-seated needs of the believer.
One of the most successful aspects of feminist mythology is its victim narrative. According to it, women are eternally victims of men in all aspects of life, from dating, to marriage, to the workplace, to the school room, to the military. This is the “damsel in distress” narrative and it’s proven to be highly effective.
Why? For one reason, damsels in distress have a powerful effect on men. In the presence of such a damsel, men magically become “white knights” to save her. Therefore, for decades now we’ve had overwhelmingly male legislatures passing the most questionable laws to save those damsels. Let feminists cry “harassment!” “domestic violence!” and lawmakers from far and wide come running, eager to pass more laws, provide more funding. And it’s not just lawmakers; the news media and popular culture can be counted on to unquestioningly relay their untruths, half-truths and shaky studies to the public.
It’s no accident that the terms “damsel in distress” and “white knight” so accurately describe this process of feminist recruitment of male authority to its bid for power. Those terms clearly refer to mythic narratives dating back hundreds of years to the earliest days of chivalric codes. Four hundred years ago, they were so well established that Cervantes made fun of them. Centuries later, they were still viable enough for Dickens to make use of them. We still see them every day.
Underpinning the damsel narrative was that of the single most important female figure in the history of Western culture – the Virgin Mary – whose veneration formed the basis of chivalry’s honor of women. From the elaboration of her myth over 2,000 years, we’ve constructed woman, particularly mothers, as eternally virtuous and therefore worth saving by the white knight. Did Jesus’ mother beat him with a belt? Did she stick a knife in Joseph? What we know of actual mothers is that she may have, but the mythic narrative of the serene, peaceful, nurturing mother of God will have none of it.
The point is that feminists have successfully built on existing mythic narratives of female innocence and virtue to garner enormous power by recruiting male power to their side.
Fighting the Myth With Science
Men and fathers have always fought the feminist narrative with science. And why not? Science is on our side. The feminist narrative has women as the only victims of domestic violence. But science has shown for 37 years that it’s not true. Feminists attack fathers as brutal and useless to children, but the facts show that mothers do twice the abuse and neglect of children that fathers do and that children across all boundaries of race and class do better with a father in their life.
Who wins those battles? So far the feminist narrative has swamped us and the human embrace of myth shows why. Feminists got a long head start on establishing their own myths about mothers and fathers, men and women, so when we confront those narratives with contradictory facts, many people simply toss the facts aside. Again, it’s what we humans do. Only facts that agree with the myth are permitted to survive.
The obvious and necessary thing for us to do therefore is to locate and recruit to our cause narratives of our own that the public can embrace and use as a spur to action.
Let me be clear. I’m not suggesting that we should jettison our science-based arguments. I still believe that they’re ultimately our strongest position. In fact, I compare mythology and science to a rocky shoreline and the ocean. Mythology appears strong, but over time, science wears it away. And indeed, who now believes that the earth is flat or that it was created in six days 6,000 years ago?
Fighting the Myth with Myth
But to make our message carry more impact, to make it more likely to strike a chord with the public, state legislators, the news media and the like, it is our job to find our own mythic narratives and to place our arguments within them. Let me give you one small example.
Fathers’ rights organizations promote equal parenting bills in state legislatures every year. We bring the science on child well-being to the legislative process and we fail every single time. But we’ve come to learn something important – who’s there in the trenches every time opposing equal parenting is the state Family Law Bar. More even than feminists, opponents of equal parenting turn out to be lawyers.
Well, every good story needs a villain, right? And what better villain can there be than a lawyer, particularly one who lines his pockets while harming children? In short, family lawyers are the perfect villain of a set piece in which Dad struggles heroically against all odds to keep contact with his daughter, Little Nell.
I’m no Charles Dickens, but I wish I were. That man would have taken down family courts the way he did Chancery ones years ago.
So, rule one for those of us writing or speaking about equal parenting, whenever possible, include the villainous lawyer angle. It’s a well-established narrative that people respond to.
Who’s another good villain? How about the government? That “plays well in Peoria.” When writing about domestic violence or prosecutorial misconduct, always try to bring in the specter of the vast, intrusive power of government. Show how the woman recanted her charge, but the DA went ahead with it anyway. Show how the kids lost their father because the state issued a spurious restraining order.
I’ve done over two dozen radio interviews on the subject of prosecutor misconduct and, without exception, the thing that gets the most attention is the concept of overreaching by the government. Feminists have constructed the narrative of the damsel in distress at the hands of the brutal man. They then recruited the power of the state to serve as their white knight. That white knight often wears the three-piece suit of a prosecuting attorney who wields the awesome power of the state. And people are becoming more and more alarmed by it. A heartless thug of a government is one of the best villains going.
As sure as every good story needs a villain, it also needs a sympathetic protagonist. Americans love an underdog, so show how prosecutors bully the poor and uneducated. Show how African-Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to be arrested, charged, denied bail. Show how they’re more likely to receive a custodial sentence. Remind people that in many states, those convicted of a felony lose their right to vote and therefore their ability to oppose bad laws and rogue prosecutors.
Always remember who the public is likely to view as worthy of sympathy, e.g. kids, the weak and downtrodden, and recruit them to your side. Always remember who the public is likely to view as a villain – lawyers, bureaucrats, the state, anyone who abuses power and make sure you’re on the opposite side.
Remember too that the feminist assault on our understanding of men is really only a few decades old. What changed for the worse in 40 years can change for the better in 40 years. So don’t forget that every myth has not only a villain, but also a hero. Within fairly recent memory, we’ve had television shows like Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver and the like, that showed dads to be benevolent, kind and wise. They aren’t far back in our cultural memory. So don’t forget to include their types in your writing and speaking. The man as protector, the firefighter, the first responder, the father who will do anything for his kids, all of these and of course so many more, are the truth about men and fathers and they’re also the mythic figures people want to believe in and will if we give them the chance.
And after all, what choice do we have. The attack on men and fathers has been going on unabated for decades. We either recognize that attack for what it is – the creation of a false narrative – and fight it with a true one, or we wait for the mass of science to finally wear it down.
A recent poll by the Huffington Post showed that only 20% of Americans identify themselves as feminists. Another poll in the UK showed the public to be fed up with media depictions of men and fathers as incompetent boobs, uncaring about or dangerous to children. I read those to mean that people are hungry for a new narrative, one that’s less hateful and more honest.
And, speaking of feminism, let’s not forget the myth of Icarus and Daedalus that shows the danger to extremists of extremism.
In short, now is our time. It is our job to find and use those narratives of both masculine and feminine virtue that can lead us to real equality and lasting peace between men and women.
Presented at the 2013 SAVE/CPI conference on false allegations. ©Robert Franklin