Six unhealthy myths of the modern world 'that need to be challenged'

'We Need New Stories' is a brave book

09 March 2020 - 10:22 By Sonja van der Westhuizen
'We Need New Stories' by Nesrine Malik.
'We Need New Stories' by Nesrine Malik.
Image: Supplied

In the late 19th century Joseph Chamberlain was credited with the following words: “I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety.”

More than a century later little has changed. In 2020 our objects of anxiety haven’t decreased, and we now live in an age where it’s considerably easier to spread falsehoods and perpetuate myths, subsequently creating even greater anxiety.

Nesrine Malik believes it’s time to break conventions and challenge the old frames of reference. According to her, six myths have taken hold, and in We Need New Stories she challenges the toxic myths behind our age of discontent. These myths have settled comfortably into our daily lives and lodged their roots in our society’s core. We’ve grown accustomed to them, seldom questioning their validity.

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But how are we doing in terms of gender equality? According to Malik, the myth is that in the West we are already advanced in creating a society in which women have secured all the rights they need – sexual freedom, contraception, maternity leave and marital choice, so obviously if there’s still inequality, it’s biology’s fault. All that can be done, has been done.

Despite this common myth women’s rights are still severely lacking. In the UK and US women still don’t have control over their reproductive decisions. They are still being told to dress differently to avoid being harassed or assaulted – shifting responsibility away from men’s behaviour.

In Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift, she identifies six shocking facts about gender equality. Even though it sounds like click-bait the facts revealed are indeed an eye-opener. For example, are you aware there are 104 countries where certain jobs are off-limits for women? This is above and beyond discrimination women are faced with daily in the workplaces around the world. The US, a first-world country, is one of only eight countries where women do not receive paid maternity leave.

A second myth that has been amplified over the past few years is political correctness. For clarity, the definition of political correctness is "the attempt (just the attempt) to create a framework of equality of treatment, of opportunity and of respect to all, to challenge 'default settings'". In a moral world, political correctness would have no use, but since that’s an unrealistic ideal, we’re stuck with it. However, according to Malik, we have moved to the other extreme where political correctness manifests in a moral panic which is a response to an assault on racism, sexism and hatred. Old prejudices are merely replaced by new ones, and being PC becomes a cultural weapon.

Latching on to the myth of political correctness is that of freedom of speech. Here we can lay much of the blame at social media’s feet. With the arrival of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, having a voice and airing your opinion became considerably easier. In addition views which were previously on the political fringes and would have never been published by traditional media gradually seeped into mainstream media. Anyone with an internet connection felt the need to express and defend their opinion which, instead of healthy conversations, led to online battles.

Despite free speech and the right to be able to do and say many things in public, there still have to be limits in a democratic society. Just because you have the right to express your opinion does not mean you have the right to encroach on and silence someone else’s.

“The claim that free speech is under attack is often a mask for other political frustrations and fears.” – Will Davies

We Need New Stories isn’t light, bedtime reading, but Malik presents her theories in an accessible, insightful format. It’s a brave book. She’s not afraid to speak her mind, whether it’s about Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or highly acclaimed, popular linguist Steven Pinker, yet all her opinions are substantiated. She achieves what she, possibly, set out to do – to make us pause for thought and reassess our set ways of thinking. The new stories that need to be told need new narrators, and it’s up to us to step to the plate.