‘False Witnesses’ revisited

‘False Witnesses’ revisited June 6, 2024

I want to follow up on a recent post here — “Why the Satanic Panic Happened When it Did” — by re-posting an older post on that same topic.

Or, really, on the same two topics. Because you can never begin to understand the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and ’90s unless you connect its outrageous, hysterical bearing of false witness against our neighbors to the simultaneous rise of Manichaean abortion-is-murder politics. That abortion politics was and is also based on outrageous, hysterical bearing of false witness against our neighbors.

The lies are the same. The eager reception of those lies is the same.

The post below was one of my first attempts to explore why and how these lies about Satanic baby-killers became so popular, and so powerful, in reshaping both American politics and American religion.

When I first posted this, most people recognized that the specific Procter & Gamble rumor discussed here should be understood as a proxy for the Satanic Panic as a whole. But I’m not sure that many understood that I was also exploring that rumor as a proxy for understanding the abortion-is-murder ideology as well. That’s why my reference point here is the 1990s — a time when I was, as a good young evangelical, firmly opposed to the Satanic Panic’s claim that tens of thousands of our neighbors were killing babies for Satan and yet just as firmly committed to the “pro-life” movement’s claim that we had to defend the unborn from the millions of women who were killing babies for Satan.

This was originally posted here in 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.)

This 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 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.

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