|Clark's posts were written over a year ago, about believers in the rumor that Proctor & Gambol was involved in Satanism. Clark's argument about this rumor was that it was driven by collusion to self-deceive. No one could actually believe it, he argued, and his argument is deeply grounded in his own experience. As he explained:
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.
A little background on the rumor: :
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....
The people Clark was dealing with did not have this motivation, however. And they are what makes the story intersting and important.
Eventually he gave up on trying to convince people. Looking back, he writes:
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.
Eventually, he did see it, and looking backwards, he now concludes:
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:
- I assumed that the people who claimed to believe that Procter & Gamble supported the Church of Satan really did believe such a thing.
- I assumed that they were passing on this rumor in good faith -- that they were misinforming others only because they had, themselves, been misinformed.
- I assumed that they would respect, or care about, or at least be willing to consider, the actual facts of the matter.
- 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:
- They didn't really believe it themselves.
- They were passing it along with the intent of misinforming others. Deliberately.
- They did not respect, or care about, the actual facts of the matter, except to the extent that they viewed such facts with hostility.
- 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.
At first, this didn't click for me in couple of ways. One is simply that I think people can believe impossible and contradictory things. They do it all the time. Clark argued:
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.
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.
I don't doubt that this is true of some people. It certainly is. But again, from my own experience I know that people do believe impossible and contradictory things--and often the only person hurt by it is themselves. In fact, while reading this, I was reminded of a brief passage from Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, "Episode 59: The Harsh Light of Day":
BUFFY: So what I'm wondering is, does this always happen? Sleep with a guy and he goes all evil. God, I'm such a fool.
WILLOW: Well maybe you made a mistake. But that's okay. Next time - what?
BUFFY: Parker said it's okay to make mistakes. It was sweet.
WILLOW: No it wasn't. He was saying that so you would take a chance and sleep with him. He's a poop head.
BUFFY: You're right. He's manipulative and shallow. And why doesn't he want me. Am I repulsive? If there was something repulsive about me you would tell me, right?
WILLOW: I'm your friend. I would call you repulsive in a second.
BUFFY: Maybe Parker and I could still work it out. Do you think we could still work it out?
WILLOW: I think you're missing something about this whole poop head principle.
Indeed. Plenty of true believers have moments of lucidity when they see through everything they've bought into. But those moments of lucidity can be incredibly painful... or just difficult to hold onto. It's all too easy to miss something about the whole poop head principle. Lots of people have certainly missed it with poop heads like Rick Warren, for example. You can sell an awful lot of bigotry and hate if you just put on a Hawaiin shirt. So that's one problem I had--and still have--with Clark's explanation.
But the other problem was simply that I didn't get what the motivation was that Clark was seeing at work. And that problem he went on solve brilliantly.. What did it for me was the kitten-burning connection-which also comes from Clark's personal experience. That, and how it exemplifies what Clark calls "Thornton Melon morality", after the character Rodney Dangerfield played in the movie Back to School. Here's Clark on the kitten-burning first:
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.
Later there was another kitten-burning incident, closer to the paper he worked at, and this spawned a tremendous online response:
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.
And now we're ready for Thornton Melon to make his entrance:
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?
The posts are brilliant, and you owe it to yourselves to read them both in their entirety. But in the end, I was left with two loose ends. One I've already explained--at least well enough to show what my problem. People really can see through something and not see through it at the same time. They can and do missing something about the whole poop head principle. All the time. Not everyone all the time. But you know the quote from Lincoln. That's what he was talking about.
My other loose end wasn't a disagreement with Clark, it was something left incomplete by his explanation. What was missing seemed immediately obvious to me once I thought about it: These people had tobelieve that someone else was worse, because they felt like totally evil themselves. I mean, think about it: fundamentalism is an impossible faith, it's like Calvanism all over again. You may pretend that you're right with God, and everyone else is not, but deep down-or maybe not so deep-you know that there's no way you can make that cut. And, in fact, that's pretty much one of the core points of Max Blumenthal's recent book, Republican Gohmorrah. Which, of course, we've also been watching play out for most of the past year with the C-Street/Family follies.
Look at the nature of the anti-abortion movement. It's not enough to be anti-abortion--in fact, it's rather trying, since it means that you're accusing millions of would-be--and millions of actual--mothers of infanticide, which by your logic means they should all be tried for murder, and possibly even be put to death. Following the logic of your argument is extremely difficult, because it's premised on the notion of a horrendous crime on a massive scale, which means you must hold people accountable whose stories simply don't fit the script of being murderers. They are often deeply conflicted, sometimes deeply regretful. They simply do not fit the part, no matter how much one might pretend. And so one has to invent another target--the "abortion industry", which only exists as something distinct because the anti-abortion movement has done so much to stigmatize abortion that it's no longer routinely well integrated into the rest of the medical system.
And, in a way, the same sort of "logic" is at work with the global warming deniers. They, too, have developed the need for a shadowy conspiracy--even though in this case there is no divisision at all between global warming experts and the rest of the scientific community. It's enough to simply pretend such a division exists, if one cannot be created. Others of like mind have spent decades trying to do the same evolutionary biology, too. The anti-reality cultists need to create a cultist enemy in their own image. It's the only thing they actually understand.
This is what I mean by "malicious bullshitting."
Bullshitting is not lying, per se. It's the confabulation of truth and fiction, whatever comes to hand. And when done by a group of people, not just an individual, it has the power to create a social reality more powerful for us as social animals than the reality of the physical world.
Another term for this is "creating a shared mythology." It's relatively harmless when pimply-faced boys do it with Dungeons & Dragons--all the cultural hysteria notwithstanding. But, as has been mentioned here before, D&D has realworld coping benefits. And not just "coping," in a low-ceiling sense of just getting by, but "coping" in the sense of helping you become a more capable, self-motivated and self-actualizing human being. Which is why it's definitely not malicious.
The same cannot be said for rightwing cultism, however. It promotes cognitive "skills" such doublethink"
"To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which canceled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself -- that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word 'doublethink' involved the use of doublethink. "
"The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies - all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth. "
So Nobel Prize-winners (not just Al Gore, but scientists, too) are charlatans, and charlatans call them out for their "pseudo science." What could be more logic for master of doublethink?