Strange twilight categories of popular belief. In researching my novel ENIGMATIC PILOT, I discovered that it was a regular practice, during the peak period of mid-19th century westward migration, for outpost towns along the Missouri River to fabricate rumors about peculiar illnesses and “conditions” in another town. Why? So that settlers on the move would avoid that town and choose to stock up and refresh in a “safer” place.
Wanting to avoid genuine panic about contagious physical diseases that could taint the entire region long term, these stories usually moved into the realm of odd, sudden “psychological” outbreaks. The very oddness of the stories acted as a self-limiting element. Did settlers seriously believe them? Probably not in most cases, but why take a chance? Of course, over time, the practice negated itself because virtually all the towns ended up having some kind of story surrounding them. (And it’s very likely that the stories had a suggestive power that may have provoked actual outbreaks of bizarre behavior.)
Now consider the notion of Alien Abductions. There’s a considerable body of accounts and a vast literature of psychological explanation. The principal “cases” emerged in the 1960s (and it’s noteworthy that reports of alien abduction experiences have dramatically declined over the last two decades). These accounts established a general template. The stories could vary, usually with embellishment, but the general template remained intact. An entire mythology emerged, which has gone on to influence (and in turn to be amplified by) countless books, movies, TV shows, etc.
Do people actually believe aliens abducted them? Often it would appear that the answer is yes, the individuals who make the claims truly do—or did once. Do YOU believe some humans (for whatever reason) have been abducted? I would venture to say no. I would go further and say that if someone close to you made this kind of claim, you would find it worrisome indeed. Yet, I would also suggest that you could recount the key elements of the abduction stories (the template is very simple). A twilight category of belief.
Most of us don’t seriously believe the Alien Abduction mythology. We in fact maintain a relatively staunch logical disbelief, while remaining aware of the phenomenon and influenced by it. Alice in Through the Looking Glass: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay is a classic survey of social psychological peculiarity…Jung’s entire body of thought (his work on UFOs is a landmark)—and there’s quite a bit of good literature on urban legends.
This is obviously a huge field of cultural mystery, which relates directly to massive phenomena such as religion. But perhaps a way to gain some new practical insight is to examine much smaller issues that are realistically close to home, and seem to have some degree of possible plausibility.
Take the matter of Richard Gere and the Gerbil. Most sensible people dismissed the story the moment they heard it. And yet…
It became instant fodder for late night TV show gags. It was tragically fun to repeat (a key element in these kind of memes)—and celebrities do get up to weird stuff in New York and Hollywood. Inquiring minds soon realized that the “story” had been floated well before with other celebrity names attached. But it didn’t really catch on until Gere’s name got associated. Why? One theory is simply that Gere’s name in print is a little similar to “gerbil.” A pretty thin thread, huh?
Another and much better theory is that the story built on an earlier rumor that Gere was a closeted gay, needing to be outted. Herein I think lies the inner dynamic. If you “diagram” the mechanics of the story, you will see there are in fact two targets. The first is gay men. The story could be repeated without a specific mention of “gay” or the “sexual practices of gay men,” but gayness was clearly implied and inferred (and was often in fact explicitly stated).
Although, sadly, Gere appears to be the principal target (and again, bear in mind that other names were tried earlier), he’s not. The essence of the story is really how tall a tale can be told regarding the exotic sexual practices of male homosexuals. The finished product ends up reading like an equation. Some gay men may actually do this. X did this, therefore…
The story is really homophobia disguised by a punch line.
I believe something of this dynamic is at work now in the case of the Bill Cosby rape allegations. Cosby has the distinction of being almost a category unto himself, as the biggest black male TV star in history—but you can’t get around the “black” part.
Accusations of rape (of white women especially) have historically been the principal means of attacking the reputations of successful black men. It’s almost a default position. It’s also no coincidence that the frenzy of renewed and emergent allegations comes amidst several other high profile incidents of black males clearly abusing women (such as the Ray Rice case). Yesterday, I saw the Cosby case literally bookended by the Ferguson / Michael Brown shooting case, and the Ray Rice appeal story. Something is up.
Cosby has long been resented by many African-Americans for his perceived smugness and “respectability politics”—his open criticism of members of the black communities of America for being the causes of their own woes, as much as white racism. Michael Brown is exactly the kind of young man Cosby has taken shots of another kind at. A poster boy victim of the evils of racist policing? I think Cosby is much more likely to view Brown as a thug and someone who was going to come to strife no matter what.
I’ve known many black people down the years who regard Bill as a monster Uncle Tom, while nonetheless understanding the doors his career has opened for others. Conflict.
Cosby’s sentiments have been echoed by other black celebrities such as Charles Barkley and Chris Rock. Both have come under fire. But Cosby is the much bigger dog—and he’s an old dog now. Another kind of statute of limitations is closing in.
If you were to think like a hypothetical Alien and take Cosby / Ferguson as a composite shouting match America is having right now, race, maleness, and victimization are the key common themes. Of course a tidy coherence is hard to find—it would be astonishing if it weren’t, given the complexity of the issues. But there is a definite thread.
And speaking of threads, consider the idea that an uncontextualized photograph of a celebrity in a bathrobe is regarded as some kind of “evidence.” Evidence of what? If anything, it could be interpreted as evidence of an intimacy that goes completely counter to the notion of drugging and raping someone.
Going back to my larger topic of what people believe and how belief works, here’s how I frame things. I think the Cosby matter gives people a way of venting racial feelings in a way that disguises the racial aspect. The Michael Brown case is an example of racism—Cosby is Male vs Female. Neat.
Is it a coincidence that many of the people who most earnestly champion the “martyrdom” of Michael Brown (with but the slightest regard for the facts) are also the most vehement attackers of Cosby (with absolutely no facts to work with)? It’s about balancing a complex equation of victimization and agency in regard to race. I think the female element here is like the gerbil—it’s the means and not the core story.
But…some people say, “All these women with these similar stories…”
Well, there are thousands of people from all walks of life around the world who have reported being abducted by alien beings and tell very similar stories. Qualified psychiatrists and psychologists have stated that these people often truly seem to believe what they’re saying. Should we? Do you?
I think it’s harder to understand why Cosby would’ve ever needed to drug any female.
“But what do these women have to gain coming forward now?” some people ask.
Well, there are those who prize media attention above all else, especially if they wanted to be in show business or once were. And to return to Abductees, what possible motive could they have for coming forward? Who’s going to hire someone who says they were kidnapped by bubble-eyed Greys and experimented on?
Just because you don’t understand someone’s motive, doesn’t mean they don’t have one—and having a motive doesn’t in any way make what you’re saying true.
In the famous words of the White Queen, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” (which could be the motto of the US media at large).