Gossip, Rumor and Superstition

Gossip, Rumor and Superstition February 18, 2021

What are we to make of these reports: see here and here? What does it tell us about evangelical discipleship and training? What should the pastor of a typical or average evangelical church take away from these reports? How should it make them feel? Yes, I get it. What if the pastor/priest believes the same sort of nonsense? 

We live in a very peculiar time. We think, of course, we are modern people—and we are in a certain sense. We have personal computers and phones, the likes of which dwarf the initial electronic computing capabilities of, for instance, NASA.  And yet, we have intelligent people who believe things that amount to nothing more than rank superstition. 

Social media didn’t create the phenomenon that goes back, no doubt, to the dawn of communities, but it has certainly amplified it. That phenomenon is the power of gossip, rumor, and superstition to move people. Those who grew up living in town, in track housing, probably remember their parent(s) periodically talking to their neighbors over the fence.  

Even now, for those of us who as adults live in track housing, we no doubt experience the same.  If one lived in the country, it was often the neighbor stopping their car and speaking to people in their yards, on the porch, or even side-to-side in their cars on some back road. My point is that social media is much the same phenomena, except for the exponential growth/size of the neighborhood and the fact we don’t know everyone as well or at all. 

The problem is that much of what was shared was gossip, rumor, and superstition. Hopefully, one had rational and honest neighbors. But there is something about sharing informally, over the fence, in semi-privacy—that sort of allows a lot of embellished information to mix with the true. Most people don’t mean any harm and most know to take what they hear with a grain of salt. After all, just like the game telephone, we know what we’re hearing has already passed through several recountings. 

However, sometimes it is harmful. In 1692, in Salem Massachusetts, three girls, between the ages of 9 and 11, blamed a black woman, a homeless woman, and an older poor woman for their “odd” behavior. It speaks rather tellingly that they chose those three. What (superstitions—no doubt) had they heard from their parents, or in church, or from their neighbors about such people? 

What started in Salem soon spread throughout the region. Before it was all said and done, here was the result: 

“Governor Phipps…eventually pardoned all who were in prison on witchcraft charges by May 1693. But the damage had been done: 19 were hanged on Gallows Hill, a 71-year-old man was pressed to death with heavy stones, several people died in jail and nearly 200 people, overall, had been accused of practicing ‘the Devil’s magic.'”  

Looking back, we might, out of our supposed modern sophistication and scientific understanding think to ourselves, “Wow, what ignorance and superstition.” And yet, here we are. What was the storming of the Capitol on January 6th but the culmination of the very same forces that produced the Salem Witch Trials? 

Conspiracy theories and cults like Qanon exist, at least partly, due to gossip, rumor, and superstition. Another example is the “pizza-gate,” story back in 2016. The entire story was based upon online rumor and gossip, started by a completely anonymous source. This “source” conned people into believing total nonsense based on the deciphering of supposed coded messages in emails about pizza.  

Which then led to this: 

“On Oct. 28, 2017, someone calling himself “Q” and claiming to be a high-ranking intelligence officer began posting on 4chan. The messages expanded on Pizzagate by claiming satanic pedophiles controlled not only Comet [name of the restaurant] but the world, drinking children’s blood to stay young. Q promised that Trump and other government insiders would bring them to justice.” 

Guess what: Anyone can claim to be a “high-ranking intelligence officer,” on the internet. I could. You could. And, if perhaps we had served in the military or were total military nerds (think Tom Clancy fans) and spent years reading about such, we could probably convince quite a few people we were for real. We could speak the language. 

Here’s the problem: So what. There’s no way of knowing if such a source is who they say they are, or has actual proof of their claims, without some way of verifying it beyond their mere word for it. Who would believe such a person, especially someone making such outrageous claims, based upon their word alone? There has to be outside, objective verification.

Most of us know our neighbors fairly well, depending obviously upon a number of factors. If we knew our neighbor to be rational, intelligent, and sane—and they were to then tell us the Q story over the fence one afternoon, we might believe them. We would be sure to ask them how they knew such and the evidence for it, but we might be open to the story. 

But who would believe such when it’s coming originally from some random person on the internet they don’t know, nor know anything about, except what the person tells them? Well, apparently, many would. What does that tell us about the critical thinking skills, logic, and rationality of many in our nation? 

For some reason, we have almost an entire generation of people, both old and young, who think if it’s online, on some electronic device, it’s different than what a neighbor might tell them over the backyard fence, over the phone, or in a coffee shop. And not only believe it but hold it strongly enough to commit violence. But guess what? There is no difference. It’s just gossip, rumor, and hearsay. To act on it, certainly violently, is to leave all reason and ethics behind. 

We are now living through our own Salem Witch Hunts-Trials. A Q follower might respond, “Well, witches don’t exist, but pedophiles do.” True. But every decent, rational and ethical person is against such already—in fact, they are against any harm to a child. Clearly, there is something else going on here. Most people don’t need to believe an irrational, nonsensical, and bonkers conspiracy theory to be against human trafficking or harm to children. 

No, the Q conspiracy theory exists for other reasons, these primarily: To demonize those who disagree with them politically and to promote white nationalism. The, “But, the children!” clutching their pearls part is just to con the simple, anger them, and exploit our natural bent to protect children.  

People that harm children do obviously exist. It’s why we have laws. But there is no compelling or legitimate evidence a global cabal of powerful people as described by Q exists, or participates in the type of activities they are accused (the equivalent of which is: “They’re witches!”). It’s a superstition at this point; it’s part of an anti-Semitic slander that goes back, at least, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the blood libel myth. 

Here we are. It’s 2021 and many of us “modern” people are as ignorant and superstitious as the people in the 17th Century who hunted and killed “witches.” And who has time for actual research and learning when we can just listen to gossip and rumor over the back fence, or, in our time, through social media/non recognized or respected internet sources. It’s the new back fence, party telephone line, or hair salon/barber shop. 

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr was right: The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Here’s something that hasn’t changed: “You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness.” Exodus 23:1

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