False witnesses

False witnesses September 8, 2008

In my past life as an evangelical for social action, I had a much-photocopied dossier in my desk drawer from the Procter & Gamble corporation. This surreal document was the company’s sadly necessary response to the urban legend that the manufacturer of Tide, Crest and Dawn was some kind of satanic cult.

Briefly, the idea was that the CEO of P&G had at some vague point in the recent past appeared on some talk show — Phil Donahue, or Sally Jesse, or Oprah, the story mutated and adapted over time — and declared that he was a Satanist and that a portion of the company’s profits were donated regularly to the Church of Satan. (If you’re not familiar with it, Snopes has a good rundown of the history of this sordid, stupid lie.)

MoonmanThis is a mind-bogglingly silly story. It’s not just implausible, but inconceivable, impossible. It is unbelievable on its face for dozens of reasons that become clear from even a moment’s consideration, and it’s based on factual claims that are easy to check on and quickly disproved. But we don’t need to get bogged down here in the ridiculousness of this malicious rumor, so bracket that for now, that’s not the interesting part.

Procter & Gamble had prepared the dossier to combat this zombie rumor. The company had put together its own documents disproving the story and disavowing any connection to the Evil One or to his church. They had collected letters from Donahue, Sally Jesse, Oprah and several other talk show hosts attesting that no one from the company had ever appeared on their programs, much less attempted to use such an appearance to spread the unholy gospel of Satanism. P&G had also collected an impressive array of letters from religious leaders — the archbishop of Cincinnati, Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, among others — all of whom urged their followers not to believe this stupid, stupid lie.

In retrospect, this desperate, shotgun appeal to religious authority demonstrated why the dossier itself was probably futile. It was an acknowledgment that the people they were attempting to convince were beyond the reach of mere fact or reason — people who did not find reality compelling. The only hope of persuading them, then, was to call upon religious leaders from across the spectrum in the hopes that the pronouncement of one of these random bishops and evangelical pseudo-bishops might be regarded as trustworthy.

If you’re forced to resort to such an attempt then you’ve got to realize that it’s not likely to work either. Any audience so far gone as to require this sort of argument is also likely to have already adopted the mechanisms of self-reinforcing stupidity. Thus if they read that Billy Graham denies the rumor, their response won’t be “Oh, OK, Billy Graham. I trust him,” but rather “OMG! Billy Graham is in on it too!” (cf. “biased media”)

So the dossier was hopeless, but I had yet to come to see that. Thus whenever I came across some group of evangelicals choosing to believe this rumor and spreading it to others, I would photocopy the dossier and send it to them in the hope that good information would correct their misinformation.

That was an old-school, pre-Internet method of doing something that I’m sure everyone reading this used to do via e-mail. You would receive one of those chain e-mails from a parent, friend or coworker, containing some breathless warning against a nonexistent threat. It’d take you a handful of clicks to find the Snopes page debunking the rumor and you would cut and paste the URL back into the e-mail and then hit reply-all.

I say this is something you probably used to do because, I’m guessing, you eventually realized that this approach doesn’t work. It didn’t work for me either when I sent out those photocopies of that slam-dunk, undeniable dossier from Procter & Gamble.

The dossier/Snopes approach doesn’t work because it attempts to apply facts and reason to people who are not interested in either facts or reason. That’s not a nice thing to say, or even to think, about anyone else, which is why I was reluctant and slow to reach that conclusion. But that conclusion was inevitable.

In trying to combat the P&G slander with nothing more than irrefutable facts proving it false, I was operating under a set of false assumptions. Among these:

1. I assumed that the people who claimed to believe that Procter & Gamble supported the Church of Satan really did believe such a thing.

2. I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith — that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.

3. I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.

4. Because the people spreading this rumor claimed to be horrified/angry about its allegations, I assumed that they would be happy/relieved to learn that these allegations were, indisputably, not true.

All of those assumptions proved to be false. All of them. This was at first bewildering, then disappointing, and then, the more I thought about it, appalling — so appalling that I was reluctant to accept that it could really be the case.

But it is the case. Let’s go through that list again. The following are all true of the people spreading the Procter & Gamble rumor:

1. They didn’t really believe it themselves.

2. They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.

3. They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.

4. Being told that the Bad Thing they were purportedly upset about wasn’t real only made them more upset. Proof that the 23rd largest corporation in America was not in league with the Devil made them defensive and very, very angry.

Again, I’m not happy to be saying such things about anyone, and I’m only doing so here reluctantly, yet this is the appalling truth.

Maybe you’re also a bit reluctant to accept this. Maybe you’re thinking Hanlon’s/Heinlein’s Razor should apply — the axiom that reminds us to “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

I wish that applied here. As I said above, I spent a long time distributing that dossier on that assumption that I was, in fact, dealing with stupidity rather than malice. But the spreading of this rumor cannot be adequately explained by stupidity. Stupidity alone doesn’t make one hostile to irrefutable facts. Stupidity cannot account for their vicious anger when the rumor is debunked — anger at the person doing the debunking, and anger at the whole world for not turning out to be the nightmare they wanted it to be.

But in any case, no one is stupid enough to really believe such a story. The coworkers or relatives who fill your inbox with urban legends and hoaxes may not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but none of them is stupid enough to believe this. And neither are those people who claim that they do believe it.

Go back and unbracket all of the implausibilities and impossibilities of this story. It just makes no sense. Why would a member of a secret evil society of evil go on national TV to tell the world about it? And why would this proudly evil company now deny the very same thing? Why does the name of the TV host keep changing while the CEO himself is never named? And how come no one can seem to find anyone who actually saw this alleged broadcast? And …

And why are we even bothering to discuss the holes in this story? It’s nothing but holes. Any one of those holes should stop the hearer short, preventing them from passing this ridiculous story along and adding their approval to it.

If a person is smart enough to comprehend this story and then to repeat it, then that person is, by definition, not stupid enough to really believe it.

I used to believe that maybe some people were that stupid. They were acting that stupid, so I went along. I believed that the people I was sending that dossier to were merely innocent dupes.

But in truth they were neither innocent nor dupes. The category of innocent dupe does not apply here. No one could be honestly misled by such a story. The only way to have been misled by it is dishonestly — which is to say deliberately, willingly and willfully. They are claiming to believe a foolish thing, but they are not guilty of foolishness. They are guilty of malice.

They are just plain guilty.

Which brings us to the interesting and complicated question: Why? Why would anyone choose to pretend to believe such preposterous and malicious falsehoods? What’s in it for them?

For some few of them, the answer to that doesn’t turn out to be all that complicated or all that interesting. They did it for money.

The P&G rumor seems to have originated among rival soap-sellers — people affiliated with a giant multilevel marketing scheme with roots in the evangelical subculture (it rhymes with “Spam Ray”). Their marketing model is based on old-fashioned social networking, which partly accounts for why the rumor remains so widespread among American evangelicals. It also explains why the rumor seems to have been tailored to appeal to evangelicals in particular — with the CEO allegedly declaring his allegiance to the Church of Satan rather than to, say, the American Nazi Party or the Klan or communism.

The people who created this rumor, in other words, employed it as a way of convincing prospective buyers to purchase their detergent instead of Tide because Tide worships the Devil. That seems hamfisted and over-the-top doesn’t it? A vaguer, less extreme rumor might have seemed likelier to work better — something subtler than the ultimate trump card of claiming that P&G was literally in league with Satan.

But the rumor was effective. Spectacularly effective. It went viral years before most of us had ever thought to use that term that way. And it lives on, still surfacing and resurfacing after decades spent trying to kill it through truth-telling dossiers and aggressive litigation.

Confronted with the runaway success of such an absurd and over-the-top claim, the reflexive response is to think something like, “Wow, a lot of people really are gullible and stupid.” But again — and this is my point here — this has nothing to do with either stupidity or gullibility. The widespread promotion and pretend-acceptance of this rumor cannot be adequately explained by stupidity. It can only be attributed to malice.

This story, as with the many others like it, is spread maliciously. The people spreading it are not fools. They are not suffering from a mental defect, but from a moral one. They have chosen to bear false witness, and they do so knowingly.

So money was one motive for those who first created and began to spread the P&G rumor. Theirs is the easiest case. Greed is relatively mundane and uncomplicated. But what of the others, what of those who pretend to believe this rumor and enthusiastically spread it to others without the possibility of financial benefit?

Theirs is a far more complicated, and more interesting, situation. Too complicated to get into this morning, so this post will have to have a Part 2.

(Keep reading: False Witnesses 2.)

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  • Tonio

    Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King…yeah, definitely eschatological theme.
    I still don’t understand. The lyrics could just as easily apply to the First Coming as they could to the Second Coming. For the song to be eschatological, the lyrics would have tie directly into the tribulations in Revelation. Imagine a Christmas hymn that mentioned the breaking of the seal and the Beast and deaths in the billions.
    But then, as it was explained by bemused mainline protestant clergy to this benighted (but not bareback…at that time…) southern baptist, advent is in fact an end-time concept.
    My families of origin were Presbyterian and Lutheran, and I never heard of that description of Advent. In fact, I never even knew what Advent was until a Catholic explained it to me.

  • Cowboy Diva

    I still don’t understand. The lyrics could just as easily apply to the First Coming as they could to the Second Coming.
    pick any answer (hint; go with D):
    a) Second coming? Why on earth would we need a second coming? The presence of christ is here now, right?
    b) First Advent or Second Advent? This would be the fun of advent; after all it is a coming.
    c) in using this phrase, Isaac Watts is echoing the phraseology of the revelation on purpose; advent and apocaplypse all in one.
    For the song to be eschatological, the lyrics would have tie directly into the tribulations in Revelation. Imagine a Christmas hymn that mentioned the breaking of the seal and the Beast and deaths in the billions.
    This is an amusing discussion on whether Isaac Watts was a dispensationalist, or just reworking Psalm 98.

  • Problem with historical stories is that they are never true enough. History is a frustrating science.
    Yup. And no one knows better than those of us who have chosen to study it…
    And, for the record, my comment wasn’t and shouldn’t be construed as an attack on you. I just found it funny that apparently the first thing that came to mind in your explanation of stories you were told that were true was one of the places where the “historically true” accounts are not to be trusted completely.

  • Tonio

    a) Second coming? Why on earth would we need a second coming? The presence of christ is here now, right?
    I’m simply addressing what I know of PMD doctrine, which appears to separate the earthly birth and life of Jesus from his return at the End Times.
    This is an amusing discussion on whether Isaac Watts was a dispensationalist, or just reworking Psalm 98.
    Thanks for the link. I admit when I first read the title of the song in question, I was prepared to dissect the intentions of a different lyricist, Hoyt Axton.

  • hapax

    Tonio: For the song to be eschatological, the lyrics would have tie directly into the tribulations in Revelation
    Apocalyptic tribulations are only one element of the Eschaton (‘culmination’) and a pretty minor one in most Christian eschatology. More important is the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is much more explicit in the later verses, e.g. “Joy to the earth, the Saviour reigns”; “No more let sin and sorrow reign, nor thorns infest the ground”; “He rules the world with truth and grace” etc. — all of which manifestly do NOT describe the present dispensation.

  • inge

    Geds: And, for the record, my comment wasn’t and shouldn’t be construed as an attack on you.
    Haven’t read it as such, and it is funny. Also, illustrating the problem of telling any true tale worth telling to a pre-schooler.
    I had been going through my memories for stories my mother told me at an age when some kids believe in Santa and which followed a common theme when chosing the examples, and I noticed that anything from history made for a pre-schoolers comprehension did significantly lack on the “all the truth and nothing but the truth” side. (I also remember that I drew Nero watching the circus games on TV and was somehow dissapointed with the universe at large when told that they hadn’t TV in Roman times.)

  • Tonio

    Apocalyptic tribulations are only one element of the Eschaton (‘culmination’) and a pretty minor one in most Christian eschatology.
    I was referring to the eschatological imagery in the larger culture, which is strongly influenced by PMD fiction and by secular fiction that borrows from Revelation, such as the Omen movies.

  • Amaryllis

    True dialogue, between father and young daughter whom I decline to identify:
    Daughter: Daddy, the Easter Bunny isn’t real, is he?
    Father: Well, no, he isn’t…Actually, it’s a man dressed up in a bunny suit who hides the eggs in our yard. There’s an Easter-bunny man for each town.
    Daughter: Oh. *brief pause* Daaaad! You made that up! It’s just you and Mom!
    *much giggling*
    Maybe that was “messing with her mind,” but by that time she knew enough about the world to recognize the implausibility of the man in the bunny suit sneaking around town each Easter, and to recognize her dad’s storytelling manner. Most kids do figure it out without trauma.
    My nephew, on the other hand, was more disturbed by the possiblity that Santa did exist, than that he didn’t. He didn’t like the idea of a stranger, no matter how benign the stranger’s intentions, mysteriously in his house while he was asleep. He was told the truth early. It all depends on the kid.
    Though it would be nice if each infant came with an instruction booklet, letting you know what model you have.

  • cjmr

    Though it would be nice if each infant came with an instruction booklet, letting you know what model you have.
    Yeah. That’d be great.

  • Though it would be nice if each infant came with an instruction booklet, letting you know what model you have.
    I pre-ordered the manual in an attempt to be prepared. Unfortunately, mine came in a language I can’t read; all I’ve deciphered so far is something about “kaddulu fhtagn”. It’s repeated a lot, too.

  • Jeff

    But do they produce a black hole?
    No, a eucatastrophe

    Just one more example of why we love you so! (I think certain facts get in the way, but I’m suddenly liking the idea that you’re the Secret Slacktivixen.)
    you should adapt your storytelling to their different needs if Johnny isn’t going to be at a disadvantage.
    and become … bom bom BOM … a serial killer!
    I pre-ordered the manual in an attempt to be prepared.
    “It’s a cookbook!!!!!!ZOMG!!!”

  • JayH

    hapax asks: Sheesh. Why do people have so little faith in their own children?
    Because we’ve all seen the adults they grow into.

  • JayH

    Sarah Jane wrote: And what about the ever-more-complicated stories that must be created to explain how Santa can go down all those chimneys at once, or how he will get the presents there if there is no chimney and no fireplace, or how he will know where to find the child if the family is at a relative’s house for Christmas?
    Oddly enough, I wrote a one-act play, and later a screenplay, on just this topic. We shot it this year, and it’s just waiting on the animation to finish. Search YouTube for “Waffles for Virginia trailer”. (Shameless self-promotion!)

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    “I’m not sure if the author of this article is lying to himself or simply trying to fool a gullible audience. (From what I understand, Conservapedia is intended primarily for home-schooled middle-school students.)”
    No reason it can’t be both. To sell a defective product, I’ve been told it helps to convince yourself it’s worth buying.
    And any sufficiently advanced stupidity is indistinguishable from malice. (I didn’t make this line up. I suggest it be referred to as the Bush Collorary to Hanlon’s Razor.)
    For people who’ve glanced at Conservapedia and were fascinated by its trainwreck-like properties, there’s an entire OTHER wiki devoted to all the criticism, corrections and mockery that got people banned from Conservapedia: http://www.rationalwiki.com
    I find the place fascinating–it’s the most naked display of the Right Wing Authoritarian Mindset I’ve heard of that didn’t involve a body-count.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Geds said: “Although I totally don’t get the entire attempt to freak people out over the LHC.”
    This one seems on topic: A youtube rant about the LHC: LHC SATANS STARGATE. (As it fits with the crazy P&G chain-letter-type craziness.)
    And, much more fun: The Large Hadron Rap.

  • John

    Christians, Jews, and Muslims (and any other monotheists) can disagree on the nature of god all they like. What they can’t do (and remain monotheists) is imagine that each worships a different god.

    That’s rather weaker than it might be. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same god – Yahweh (although Allah, I suppose, was originally an independent God who became identified with Yahweh). It’s not like we have a case here of different groups independently coming up with the idea of a single God, who then might be identified together. We just have three religious groups all with a common origin, who the three groups believe somewhat different things about.
    It would be odd to say that Jews worship the same god as Zoroastrians, even though Ahura Mazda shares a lot of characteristics with Yahweh – they have distinct origins, and are not the same god. But the three Abrahamic religions actually do worship the same God, and traditionally they have all accepted this (although western Europeans took a while to realize this about Islam – c.f. the Song of Roland, where Muslims are polytheistic heathens who worship Muhammad as a God and apparently also worship Apollo. I don’t think the Byzantines and Eastern Christians were ever so ignorant.)

  • Bugmaster

    Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same god – Yahweh

    I know some Christians, Jews, and Muslims who would vehemently disagree with you.
    What you seem to be saying is, “all three religions descended from the same root religion”, which may be true, but is not terribly useful. Human religions — at least, those that survive today — are all related, some more closely than others; some elements (such as the Flood story) date back all the way to ancient Sumeria. So, in a way all theists worship a mishmash of stuff, just in different proportions.

  • Caravelle

    I know some Christians, Jews, and Muslims who would vehemently disagree with you.
    What you seem to be saying is, “all three religions descended from the same root religion”, which may be true, but is not terribly useful.

    There are some Christians, Jews and Muslims who will say anything. It’s true all three religions descend from the same root, but it’s stronger than that : Christians recognize that the God of the Old Testament is the God of the Jews, and I don’t know much about Islam, but if it’s true they believe Jesus was a prophet (but not the son of) Allah, then they also believe in the “same” God. They may believe Christians and Jews got the true nature of God wrong, but they’re still worshipping the same God.
    I’m not so sure it goes both ways : though Christians might say they worship the God of the Jews, it’s just that the Jews are totally wrong about Him, I don’t think as many Jews would say the same thing of the Christian God.

  • hapax

    It’s sort of ridiculous to argue whether or not Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God if you don’t think there is anything there to be worshipped. It’s rather like arguing whether or not Santa Claus is the same person as Father Christmas is the same as St. Nicholas, and are Los Tres Reyes a Trinitarian version of the same being or a totally different set of benevolent midwinter sprites?
    Almost all Christians, Jews, and Muslims agree that they are worshipping the same God, although most also think that the others are badly wrong in their understanding and practices, and are even willing to argue, fight, and kill over their differences. Some, but not most, also think that Buddhists, Hindus, and indeed all religious peoples are also worshipping the same Deity.
    But the focus of most proselytizing to the non-Abrahamic religions is that they are ignorant and need to be informed. Proselytization BETWEEN the Abrahamic religions (well, except by the Jews, who don’t generally do that, which I personally think is a Good Thing) is that they are wrong and need to be corrected. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

  • anon

    Thanks. I think it’s a combination of stupid and bad morals but, yes, for years I thought “Stupid!” but recently I’ve been thinking “Malicious!” And, yeah, bad morals frequently trump the stupid. It’s perhaps worth noting that this kind of crap has made me more skeptical about various lefty rumor sources as well. FWIW, I’ve long thought the Bush/GOP outreach to churches has some similarities with Spam Lay, it’s a carefully constructed pyramid scheme where all the profits flow up.

  • I don’t really buy this argument completely. As a form of “proof” I’ll offer an example that I often hear down South. Many people believe that “if you get cancer, don’t let them cut you open and cut it out, because once the air hits it, the cancer spreads and you die every time”. I knew a sweet old gullible hippie type who had something of a low IQ down south who wouldn’t allow his cancer to be treated because of this rumor. And I understand that many others forego cancer treatment because of this rumor. At least when the poorer uneducated people tended to have good insurance and could have gotten the treatment before George Bush. I don’t think it’s a perfect analogy to disprove this thesis, but close enough.
    Epidemiology wise, there is a sliver of truth in the rumor. When cancer is cut out, certain cells in the bloodstream that attached to that cancer are let loose and tend to seek another place in the body to congregate. But that’s no more difficult to morph into the wild rumor here than the somewhat silly symbols on P&G products, which seem to come from another time and place and do have a certain pictorial elements that are similar to some books I have seen that cause children to be scared of monsters in the dark.
    Besides all my reservations about your thesis, I do believe it has a great deal of truth in it. It just don’t think it’s universally true of every wild story for every one of the people who “believe”.

  • Brian

    One aspect I think no-one’s touched upon is that a rumor like Soapy Satan gives believes one thing they’ve always craved: recourse. If you can wage war on Satan just by throwing out the old soapbox — well what a feeling!

  • Former P&G employee

    I worked for Procter & Gamble from 1982-1995, and this rumor surfaced periodically back then. The irony of it is that P&G is such a stiflingly conservative organization that anyone who knows anything about it would know the very idea is laughable! We used to joke about sacrificing black goats in the fileroom on our coffee breaks. Ah, good times.

  • Good story and analysis, but I still think there’s a mixture of types involved: Some immoral ones at first/the top, and later many mostly just silly purveyors who don’t know any better (as I gather about many of those who tell me such things etc.)
    The latest example of interest, is that Obama designed a special, alteration of the American Flag with his trademark “O” on it. Dextronuts were pummeling this as if they couldn’t even take a moment to Google for the design etc. It turns out, it was the Ohio state flag (technically, a “pennant”) behind him at a speech.
    Here is a post with interesting comments including from me:
    One of the commenters reminded about Slackivist, which I should visit more often.

  • tenubdqms sunp kczlqw wzcljrdvt hzbjysdmn adplvxuok yqmjsea

  • Ryan

    Ooh, a code! Who will decipher it first?

  • Hi everyone. The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.
    I am from Turkmenistan and also now teach English, please tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “Drug alcohol treatment services.To find rehabilitation centers for alcohol and alcoholism, drug abuse.”
    With love 8), Suzanne.

  • Hi everyone. Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right.
    I am from Hungary and now teach English, give true I wrote the following sentence: “Heck, if anything, I expected a movie about honor crimes would be made before ever seeing anything about a jordanian lesbian.”
    With respect 8-), Jelani.

  • You neglect the fact that for many religious people, believing impossible things is a test of faith.

  • Alan

    I didn’t have time to read your article, but what’s up with that satanic picture on this post?  13 stars and one damn freaky face picture of beezlebub himself!

  • Stringy J

    I’m in suspense – did Part 2 ever get written? Could it be linked at the end of this post, please?

  • Jameson Quinn
  • Ali

    Does the author of this piece know that the Church of Satan has nothing to do with worshipping the devil, and characterising the organisation as “a secret evil society” is as disingenuous and misinformed as the phenomenon he’s railing against? The COS has its own webpage and is extremely open about its goals and objectives, and what it stands for (which it makes clear is not about being evil or worshipping Satan).

  • Yes, read part 2 for a specific mention of that.

    But who cares about the Church of Satan*? It’s not relevant. This post is not about the Church of Satan, it’s about the RTC perception of the CoS.


    * I assume there’s more than one organisation bearing that name.

  • Ali

    Thanks – just read part 2. The author does make the distinction between what people think Satanism is and what it actually is (and why the former is always going to be more important in the spirit of this whole self deception and commitment to the false), and I take your point about it not being the focus of the piece.

    However in the interests of fighting ignorance it would have been nice if he’d been a bit clearer on this point, and personally I think it reinforces his overall point. There is, in fact, only one organisation called the Church of Satan. It’s an established religion founded in 1966 and registered with the US government, and there has yet to be any record discovered of an organised set of people referring to themselves as Satanists in Christianity’s history with a belief system any more complicated than “look how naughty we are saying that we hate god!”.

    The book “Lucifer Rising” by Gavin Badderly explores the history of Satan within various cultural traditions and the (lack of) Satanism in Christianity, as well as the founding of the COS. There have, to be fair, been some splinter groups that came after LaVey but they are mainly comprised of people trying to get a piece of a pie that had already been baked, if you get my meaning.

    Digression over :4)