By Tom Peterson
Years ago, waiting with my younger son in the elementary school auditorium for the holiday program to begin, I ask what he learned in school that day. “VCCV,” he says. “VCCV? What’s that?” You know, Vowel, Consonant, Consonant, Vowel. He looks at a banner on the auditorium wall that reads PROGRESS! “Like O-G-R-E,” he says. I laugh. I had never noticed the “ogre” in “progress.” But there it is, right in the middle, as big as, well an ogre!
In folktales ogres are usually large, hairy, human-like giants. They’re crude, ugly and smelly. They’re dangerous, cruel and feed on humans. The ogre is a universal creature: Native American lore includes people-eating giants, for Odysseus it was Cyclops, and in Japan it’s the oni. The ogre is a metaphor for that dreaded monster that lurks in our world and has to be subdued if we want to move forward.
Ogres are always in the center of progress. Every social movement—ending slavery, the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, improved labor laws and others—had to take them on. Of course, these social struggles are not just found in history books, they go on around us every day. Sometimes ogres have attack dogs, guns, prisons and sophisticated propaganda machines. They may choose to kill us if we threaten them.
On another level, the ogre is inside us, part of our shadow. It wants to block us from changing a habit or taking on an important challenge. When the ogre eats the children, it’s eating our creativity, our possibility and our new beginnings. It stands between us and our own powerful growth.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell tells stories from different parts of the world where ogres are the “threshold guardian.” The threshold stands for the “limits of hero’s present sphere, of life horizon. Beyond them are darkness, the unknown, and danger.”
One had better not challenge the watcher of the established bounds. And yet—it is only by advancing beyond those bounds, provoking the other, destructive aspect of the same power, that the individual passes, either alive or in death, into a new zone of experience…. The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky; yet for anyone with competence and courage the danger fades.
Ogres obstructing the polls
We like to think of the United States as the nation that got democracy right. But a big obstacle to progress has been limited franchise. Who could vote? Since the Constitution was written most people at various times and places couldn’t vote: Native Americans, African Americans, women, anyone who didn’t own land, people under 21 (though they could be drafted to fight a war), non-Protestants, poor people, those in jail, residents of Washington, D.C. (for congressional representation) or Puerto Rico, felons (even who’d served their time), and others.
One by one the ogres who kept most Americans from voting have been taken on. To fight them people planned, made alliances, appealed, marched, were imprisoned, were beaten. And many died. Women fought for decades to win suffrage. So did Blacks, and in 1965 voting rights legislation brought down giant barriers.
But the ogres persist. Over the last decade, disingenuous legislators around the country have been passing laws to create new voting barriers. They do this under the bogus guise of guarding against voter fraud, even though study after study concludes it basically doesn’t exist! Now, for example, in many states if you’re a person without an acceptable photo ID, like a drivers license or passport, you can’t vote. The intended result? Keep the poor and minorities from participating in democracy. This dishonest legislative trend is one of many created to distort elections to favor the wealthy and powerful.
Are these powers evil?
These days we are reluctant to use the word evil. Why? Maybe it feels too judgmental— judge not least you be judged. Every bad impulse that manifests itself in the world is also found to some degree in ourselves. Evil sounds so harsh and so definite. Or maybe it’s too religious. Dictionaries define evil as profoundly immoral or malevolent, causing injury or pain, wicked.
When it comes to powers that oppress, kill, profit from others’ suffering, the word evil may apply. Consider the beheadings by ISIS or Mexican drug lords and try to pretend evil doesn’t exist, isn’t on a rampage. You could fill a book with examples. Many are extreme. Others are less obvious. For example, a company that in the name of profit spends millions to convince us, and our children, to smoke or consume drinks or food that will make us sick. Or requiring a photo ID to vote. Is that evil? Is it immoral?
To fight the ogre, we first have to recognize it, to know its name and call it out for what it is. And we need to understand it. What lies on the surface may be misleading. We need to grasp how this particular ogre works. We can seek the intelligence of people who have met this ogre before. What did they do? What worked? Then we develop our plan and (without getting devoured) stand up to the ogre. Sounds deceptively easy.
“The community today is the planet, not the bounded nation,” said Campbell. “The national idea, with the flag as totem, is today an aggrandizer of the nursery ego…. And the numerous saints of this anticult—namely the patriots whose ubiquitous photographs, draped with flags, serve as official icons—are precisely the local threshold guardians… whom it is the first problem of the hero surpass.”
Nationalism is a danger to humankind. It’s an ogre. So are racism, sexism, classism and any other ism that exploits or that lessens anyone’s dignity. Injustice and inequality are also ogres. They all guard the thresholds between immoral power and a world full of life.
When Franklin Roosevelt gave his first inauguration speech in 1932 the country was in the depths of its greatest economic crisis, with 13 million unemployed. Environmental disaster had turned broad swath of the nation into an enormous dust bowl. Fascism was on the rise in Europe. The nation was facing giant ogres. The new president told his concerned listeners, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
To move forward we can’t avoid the ogres. Yet change is hard and uncomfortable. Confrontation is even harder. The starting point is mustering some courage. But we already have within us, and within the community, the ability to defeat them—to progress toward a better world.
You may also want to read this post about courage.
Art: various images from Creative Commons.