“If you want to look thin, you hang out with fat people.”
— Thornton Melon
Commenters on the previous post about this rumor were right to argue that I overstated the case in saying that there could be no “innocent dupes” involved in its spread. That’s too categorical. But those few who may have been innocently duped by such an unbelievable tale — the very young, the very old, the very insular — weren’t also among those most active in spreading the rumor. They heard it, and they may have believed it, but believing false witness and bearing false witness are not the same thing. It is those bearers of false witness I’m interested in here.
Those spreading this rumor can be divided into two categories: Those who know it to be false, but spread it anyway, and those who suspect it might be false, but spread it anyway. The latter may be dupes, but they are not innocent. We might think of them as complicit dupes. The former group, the deliberate liars, are making an explicit choice to spread what they know to be lies. The complicit dupes are making a subtler choice — choosing to ignore their suspicion that this story just doesn’t add up and then choosing to pass it along anyway because confirming that it’s not true would be somehow disappointing and would prevent them from passing it along without explicitly becoming deliberate liars, which would make them uncomfortable.
What I want to explore here is why anyone would make either of those choices. In both cases, the spreading of this rumor seems less an attempt to deceive others than a kind of invitation to participate in deception. The enduring popularity of this rumor shows that many people see this invitation as something attractive and choose to accept it, so I also want to explore why anyone would choose to do that.
To briefly review the details of this absurd rumor, the claim was that some nameless CEO of Procter & Gamble appeared on some daytime talk show and declared his allegiance to Satan. This unidentified and unidentifiable Fortune 100 executive told Donahue/Oprah/Sally Jesse that he belonged to a Church of Satan, and that a portion of the company’s profits — every dollar collected from the sale of Tide and Dawn and Crest — went to support its evil agenda.
The origin and organization of this slanderous tale seems to trace back to P&G’s would-be rivals in a cult-like multi-level marketing scheme that coveted the Cincinnati-based company’s market share. That’s a sleazy tactic — marketing by smear campaign — and it betrays a lack of confidence in the quality of the rival product line, but one can appreciate the perverse logic at work. There was money at stake. If the rivals could create a negative association with P&G’s product line, then it would make their own products seem more attractive by contrast.
Such whisper campaigns needn’t be terribly plausible. They work by connotation and association. For every possible X number of people who actually come to believe that P&G supports the work of Satan there will be 3X people who come away with some dim, unexplored sense that the company is “controversial” or vaguely associated with something unsavory (think “Swift Boat”).
The motive of this small core-group of rumor-mongers is thus not terribly complicated or difficult to understand. It’s not even terribly interesting. They were lying for the sake of money. Nothing novel or remarkable about that.
Far more interesting than those greedy sleazeballs, though, are the members of the much larger group of gossips who enthusiastically spread this malicious and obviously false story. This larger group has no financial interest at stake, so what’s in it for them? What motivates someone to accept the invitation to participate in deception, to accept an obvious lie and then to voluntarily tie their own credibility to something so incredible?
To try to understand these cheerful gossips, I’d like to turn to an equally strange, if less malicious, group of enthusiasts — the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition.
Every once in a while, I am sorry to say, some sick bastard sets fire to a kitten. This is something that happens. Like all crimes, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. And like most crimes, it makes the paper. The effects of this appalling cruelty are not far-reaching, but the incidents are reported in the papers because the cruelty is so flagrant and acute that it seems newsworthy.
The response to such reports is horror and indignation, which is both natural and appropriate. But the expression of that horror and indignation also produces something strange.
A few years ago there was a particularly horrifying kitten-burning incident involving a barbecue grill and, astonishingly, a video camera. That sordid episode took place far from the place where I work, yet the paper’s editorial board nonetheless felt compelled to editorialize on the subject. They were, happily, against it. Unambiguously so. It’s one of the very few instances I recall when that timidly Broderian bunch took an unambiguous stance without their habitual on-the-other-hand qualifications.
I agreed with that stance, of course. Who doesn’t? But despite agreeing with the side they took, I couldn’t help but be amused by the editorial’s inordinately proud pose of courageous truth-telling. The lowest common denominator of minimal morality was being held up as though it were a prophetic example of speaking truth to power.
That same posturing resurfaced in a big way earlier this year when the kitten-burners struck again, much closer to home. A group of disturbed and disturbing children doused a kitten with lighter fluid and set it on fire just a few miles from the paper’s offices.
The paper covered the story, of course, and our readers ate it up.
People loved that story. It became one of the most-read and most-e-mailed stories on our Web site. Online readers left dozens of comments and we got letters to the editor on the subject for months afterward.
Those letters and comments were uniformly and universally opposed to kitten-burning. Opinon on that question was unanimous and vehement.
But here was the weird part: Most of the commenters and letter-writers didn’t seem to notice that they were expressing a unanimous and noncontroversial sentiment. Their comments and letters were contentious and sort of aggressively defensive. Or maybe defensively aggressive. They were angry, and that anger didn’t seem to be directed only at the kitten-burners, but also at some larger group of others whom they imagined must condone this sort of thing.
If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.
One came away from that comment thread with the unsurprising but reassuring sense that the good people reading the paper’s Web site did not approve of burning kittens alive. Kitten-burning, they all insisted, was just plain wrong.
But one also came away from reading that thread with the sense that people seemed to think this ultra-minimal moral stance made them exceptional and exceptionally righteous. Like the earlier editorial writers, they seemed to think they were exhibiting courage by taking a bold position on a matter of great controversy. Whatever comfort might be gleaned from the reaffirmation that most people were right about this non-issue issue was overshadowed by the discomfiting realization that so many people also seemed to want or need most others to be wrong.
The kitten-burners seem to fulfill some urgent need. They give us someone we can clearly and correctly say we’re better than. Their extravagant cruelty makes us feel better about ourselves because we know that we would never do what they have done. They thus function as signposts of depravity, reassuring the rest of us that we’re Not As Bad As them, and thus letting us tell ourselves that this is the same thing as us being good.
Kitten-burners are particularly useful in this role because their atrocious behavior seems wholly alien and without any discernible motive that we might recognize in ourselves. We’re all at least dimly aware of our own potential capacity for the seven deadlies, so crimes motivated by lust, greed, gluttony, etc. — even when those crimes are particularly extreme — still contain the seed of something recognizable. People like Ken Lay or Hugh Hefner don’t work as signposts of depravity because we’re capable, on some level, of envying them for their greed and their hedonism. But we’re not the least bit jealous of the kitten-burners. Their cruelty seems both arbitrary and unrewarding, allowing us to condemn it without reservation.
Again, I whole-heartedly agree that kitten-burning is really, really bad. But the leap from “that’s bad” to “I’m not that bad” is dangerous and corrosive. I like to call this Thornton Melon morality. Melon was the character played by Rodney Dangerfield in the movie Back to School, the wealthy owner of a chain of “Tall & Fat” clothing stores whose motto was “If you want to look thin, you hang out with fat people.” That approach — finding people we can compare-down to — might make us feel a little better about ourselves, but it doesn’t change who or what we really are. The Thornton Melon approach might make us look thin, but it won’t help us become so. Melon morality is never anything more than an optical illusion.
This comparing-down is ultimately corrosive because it bases our sense of morality in pride rather than in love — in the cardinal vice instead of the cardinal virtue. And to fuel that pride, we end up looking for ever-more extreme and exotically awful people to compare ourselves favorably against, people whose freakish cruelty makes our own mediocrity show more goodly and attract more eyes than that which hath no foil to set it off.
Melon morality is why if the kitten-burners didn’t already exist, we would have to invent them.
And, of course, we do invent them. After a while the buzz of pride we get from comparing ourselves to the kitten-burners begins to fade and we start looking for a stronger drug. Who could possibly be even worse than the kitten-burners?
How about Satan-worshippers?
In the first post on this topic, I mentioned that the Church of Satan aspect of the Procter & Gamble rumor seemed a bit too outrageous and over-the-top. But while that outrageousness makes the story less plausible, it’s also what makes it so compelling. The pride that fuels Melon morality is an addictive drug, and the mythological Satan-worshippers of the P&G rumor offer that drug in its purest form.
Whether or not there actually is any such thing as the or a Church of Satan needn’t concern us here. This story has nothing to do with any actual religion or cult or the actual doctrines espoused by Anton LaVey or any other publicity-seeking character who has claimed the name of Satanism. This story isn’t about that. It’s about the idea of Satanism — the lore and legends of this enduringly popular bogeyman.
That lore does not arise from or relate to any actual belief system or actual believers. It is, rather, the stuff of legend as recounted in a hundred Jack Chick tracts and heavy metal album covers, in urban legends and campfire stories, in the flim-flammery of Mike Warnke and Bob Larson, and in low-budget Z-movies like the classic Satan’s Cheerleaders.
From sources like those, you already know the basic outlines of “Satanist” lore. Black robes, candles, pentagrams and strangely shaped knives feature prominently. Those knives, of course, are used for ritual human sacrifice.
The very idea of ritual human sacrifice is shocking and horrifying, which is why it tends to be included in stories told by people seeking to shock and horrify. When that is your aim as a storyteller the tendency is to constantly up the ante. What could be more shocking and horrifying than ritual human sacrifice? How about the torturous ritual sacrifice of children? And what could be even worse than that? The sacrifice of babies.
This is what “Satanist” signifies in the P&G rumor. It means people who kill babies — sweet, innocent, adorable little babies. Here, from the article linked above, is an excerpt from a 1991 fundraising letter from the Anti-Satanist “ministry” of con artist Bob Larson:
I watched them rip apart a newborn baby and take the heart while it was still beating. I can’t forget the screams. I still hear them every night!
That’s supposedly eyewitness testimony from someone saved out of the depraved Church of Satan thanks to the ministry of Bob Larson. It reads more like something out of a horror story than like something out of a fundraising solicitation for a Christian ministry. It’s not quite a horror story, but it works in a similar way.
Satanist stories, much like stories about ghosts or vampires, tap into big mythic fears — the sense that there is real evil in the world, that the innocent often suffer, that we may be powerless against the powerful. We tell such stories because we are afraid — reasonably afraid — of powerful, unnameable things. These stories give those fears a shape and a name and a horrifying face, and somehow that can be more reassuring than allowing such fears to remain amorphous and existential.
And just like vampire and ghost stories, Satanist stories have their own sets of rules, details and basic outlines with which we’re all familiar. These give the stories their own kind of reality. (Ask most people, “Do you believe in vampires?” and they will answer No. But ask those same people if vampires can be killed with a wooden stake and they’ll tell you Yes.)
None of these stories work as stories if we undercut their impact by acknowledging that there’s no such thing as ghosts or vampires or Satanic detergent executives. To tell these stories well, we have to pretend these things are real. To hear these stories well, our readers have to agree to go along. This is a familiar, but dramatically necessary, convention in horror stories from Sleepy Hollow to Amityville. This conceit usually involves only the willing suspension of disbelief, but for those who really get caught up in them — those particularly afraid already — that storytelling suspension of disbelief can turn into the expulsion of disbelief, the abandonment of skepticism in real life. The fearful and the fear-prone come to almost believe that the ghost stories and urban legends are really true. They come to almost really believe that someone out there is really killing the innocent little babies. (Almost.)
So maybe that’s all we’re dealing with when it comes to the P&G rumor — the same mixture of storytelling and suspension of disbelief, with the usual subset of listeners/readers who fail to make that distinction. Maybe the people passing along this rumor are no more malicious than that gullible friend of yours who still thinks The Blair Witch Project was a documentary.
Maybe. Maybe for some few of them. But the problem with this horror-story explanation is that the P&G rumor isn’t told the way we tell horror stories and ghost stories. It’s told in well-lit supermarkets and Sunday schools, not in dark rooms just before or just after bedtime. And it isn’t really told as a story at all. It’s presented, instead, as more of an argument or a lecture, the way someone might tell you, for example, why you shouldn’t eat foie gras.
In it’s usual forms, the P&G rumor is told and retold without any of the flair or artful detail that we expect from storytelling. I’m not sure it even qualifies to be grouped in with urban legends. Compare it to any of the stories we usually think of as urban legends — the subcutaneous spider-eggs story or the missing-kidneys and bathtub-of-ice story — and it just doesn’t measure up. Those stories are retold, in part, because you don’t have to believe them to appreciate that they’re good stories. The P&G rumor, by contrast, is implausible and unforgivably dull. It’s just not a very good story.
But while the P&G rumor can’t really be considered a horror story, it is clearly about horror or, at least, about fear. Consider, for example, the variation of the rumor that Snopes provides on their page debunking it. Try to count all the things the author of this particular lie is afraid of:
PLEASE MAKE A DIFFERENCE
The President of Procter & gamble appeared on the Phil Donahue Show on March 1, 1994. He announced that due to the openness of our society, he was coming out of the closet about his association with the church of Satan. He stated that a large portion of his profits from Procter & Gamble Products goes to support this satanic church. When asked by Donahue if stating this on t.v. would hurt his business, he replied, “THERE ARE NOT ENOUGH CHRISTIANS IN THE UNITED STATES TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”
That’s as pure a distillation as you will ever find of the nightmares and bogeymen that terrify the religious right, complete with the attempt to justify those fears because those people are really Satan-worshipping baby-killers.
Perhaps the deepest fear lurking in that e-mail has to do with the persecution complex of American evangelicals we’ve often discussed here before. The fear here is not that Christians in America might face persecution, but rather the fear of what it might mean that they don’t. The supposed effort to prove that there are ENOUGH CHRISTIANS … TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE is an expression of the fear — or the recognition — that the people sending and resending this e-mail are not CHRISTIAN ENOUGH TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. They’re shouting because they’re frightened — truly frightened of the truth about themselves, which is always far more frightening than any fear of what might be lurking outside ourselves in the dark.
The response to that fear is a desperate grasping at Melon morality in the most extreme form they can imagine — trying to prove to themselves that they are different enough to MAKE A DIFFERENCE by contrasting themselves with baby-killing Satan-worshippers. With baby-killing Satan-worshippers that they know are purely imaginary.
That requires more self-deception than any of us is capable of on our own. That degree of self-deception requires a group.
This is why the rumor doesn’t really need to be plausible or believable. It isn’t intended to deceive others. It’s intended to invite others to participate with you in deception.
Are you afraid you might be a coward? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel brave. Are you afraid that your life is meaningless? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend your life has purpose. Are you afraid you’re mired in mediocrity? Join us in pretending to believe this lie and you can pretend to feel exceptional. Are you worried that you won’t be able to forget that you’re just pretending and that all those good feelings will thus seem hollow and empty? Join us and we will pretend it’s true for you if you will pretend it’s true for us. We need each other.
You can’t be doing well if it seems like an improvement to base your life and your sense of self on a demonizing slander that you know is only a fantasy. To challenge that fantasy, to identify it as nothing more than that, is to threaten to send them back to whatever their lives were like before they latched onto this desperate alternative.
That suggests to me that if we are to have any hope of disabusing them of their fantasies, then we will need to recommend some third alternative, something other than the lie or the reality that had seemed even worse.