The myth of the outlaw stretches back to ancient times. Odysseus travelled beyond the boundaries of society. He defied various gods and descended into the underworld. Bound to the mast of his ship, he heard the sirens’ call, struggled against his bondage, and gave a glimpse of a modern man bound to society’s regulations and restrictions.

The myth of the American outlaw is older than the constitution. In the United States, the very term patriot refers to someone willing to buck the system on the strength of their beliefs, usually rationalized as an appeal to natural law. Americans love an outlaw because American independence was built on the idea of a law greater than a government. Constitutional independence contradicted a law based on a sovereign, a figure (king tied to church or land) or body (parliament) from whom a government gained authority. 

In the 1960’s, during a time of cultural and social upheaval driven by the rapid development of popular culture, the antihero became emblematic of American identity. Many people felt alienated by the concepts of tradition made ubiquitous by television, radio, and advertising. Others felt the same media representations validated their repression, their sense of order and propriety. The polarities of alienation and validation defined the culture of the twentieth century. Modern myth, the myth of tradition, manifested as a simultaneous sense of cultural coherence and division.

The Civil Rights Movement exposed society’s lie.

We’re all equally valid and equally protected under the law. Equality, of course, is a fiction, but it’s the fiction on which representational democracy is based. Difference, the very thing that makes life worth living and that defines culture, belies the premise of equality. We all have the same worth, but there is no way to measure two individuals as the same, except by counting the singularity of individuality, which denies individual identity.

That’s the road we as a culture took to arrive here.

It’s epistemologically impossible to feel something beyond direct experience. I can’t feel another person’s body or identity; I can only feel something “about” another person. People care that they’re supposed to care about issues of difference—race, sexuality, gender, and identity. By caring “about” we abstract, which means our biases are expressions of something else, something we do feel, usually something that has more to do with ourselves than with anyone or anything else in the world.

Humans use arbitrary distinctions to evaluate one another. We always have, and, for better or worse, we always will.

Humans feel themselves unworthy. No matter our shape, color, creed, orientation, or identity, we look for reasons to matter, and we look for reasons to judge. Our sense of inadequacy fuels our biases. 

The myth of the outlaw provided an identity for transgression. Cloaked in outlaw myth, we could break rules for the sake of breaking rules. We could matter because we existed outside the system of submission and subjugation. Strangely, in a culture without a traditional center, few rules appear worth breaking and our biases become the only raft to which we cling.

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