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Tuesday, July 19

Orleans Rumor and footsteps in the dark

Police have learned that often the person who is most certain about what he witnessed can be faulty in his recollection of key details. However, his attitude of certainty (e.g., "I'm positive the fleeing suspect was well over 6 feet tall") can cause other witnesses to reorder their recollection to jibe with his -- even if their initial recollection greatly conflicts with his account.

The reordering phenomenon also played a significant role in a series of events in Orleans, France in 1969 that sociologists refer to as "the Orleans Rumor." Humankind owes a great debt to the French team of sociologists headed by Edgar Morin, which painstakingly reconstructed and analyzed the events.

The tragedy is that what they learned is still not part of common knowledge. Thus, entire societies are bound to continue to fall prey to a blip in the human brain -- or at least a blip in intuitive reasoning -- that has probably been the cause of many mass tragedies down through history. So while the events that occurred in Orleans seem utterly bizarre in the telling, they are by no means an isolated phenomenon.

A group of schoolgirls started a rumor that young women were being kidnapped from clothing boutiques in Orleans. Under ordinary circumstances the rumor would have been quashed by the simple fact that no kidnappings of young women or anyone else had been reported to the police. But the rumor converged with an unusual set of circumstances:

> A period of great uncertainty about the future and fear in France about an upcoming election and the Soviet threat,

> fears that the miniskirt and other newly fashionable female attire (e.g., jeans) signaled a moral decline,

> fears that the new boutiques, which sold ready-made clothing (a new thing in France; dressmakers had always made female clothing), were contributing to the moral decline,

> pervasive anti-Semitism in the town, and

> common knowledge that Jews owned the clothing stores in question.

If the schoolgirls had placed the rumor of kidnappings in say, restaurants or parks, the Orleans Rumor would have died a quick death. But the children unwittingly gave locus to all the fear and uncertainty by placing the kidnappings in clothing stores. Thus, the rumor took off like a rocket.

We haven't gotten to the bizarre part yet but here I must pause to caution the reader that what happened in Orleans was not an instance of mass hysteria, which is a panic reaction.

What happened in Orleans is that every type of pseudo-logic known to humans was applied to fleshing out the rumor in the attempt to explain why and how the kidnappings were taking place. The residents of Orleans were caught up in a curious inverse of the panic reaction, which foregoes "thinking." They attempted to wrest a sense of order out of uncertainty by giving it a coherence.

A complex edifice of 'data' completely unsupported by facts was constructed, with each person who passed along the rumor adding more data, until everyone had --

(a) a satisfying explanation as to how people could be kidnapped in broad daylight in public places without anyone noticing it;

(b) knowledge of how the kidnap victims could be spirited out of Orleans without anyone noticing.

The President of the Jewish Committee of Orleans unwittingly added to the edifice when he sarcastically observed that clearly the victims were spirited away by submarine.

Indeed, there is suggestion that the schoolgirls who started the rumor did so as a sarcastic jibe at their scandalized parents and teachers because of their shopping for miniskirts at the boutiques.

Once the townspeople had figured out that the kidnap victims were drugged by means of hypodermic needles in shoes they tried on in the boutiques or drugged in the store dressing rooms, then spirited out of trap doors in the dressing rooms, taken through subterranean passages then transported via submarine to be sold into slavery, they demanded to know what the police were doing to stop the kidnappings.

Attempts by the police to explain that there were no kidnappings only added to the edifice. Thus, the police became part of the kidnapping ring. That meant the townspeople also had to figure out how the police worked with the kidnappers, what their 'cut' of the slavery profits was, and so on.

What separates the Orleans Rumor phenomenon from simple rumor-mongering is the elaborate belief system it generates and the fact that every attempt to deny the rumor only reinforces it by adding to it. Every denial becomes data that makes more bricks for the edifice.

In Orleans cool heads began to prevail with the realization that a very dangerous situation was building. Civic and church leaders joined with the police to deny the rumor and the schoolgirls confessed to their prank. And after the election was held, which relieved much uncertainty, people came forward to admit that they had imagined details and passed them on.

Here the reordering phenomenon emerged; people realized that after hearing the rumor they had reordered their recollection of situations to fit with the rumor (e.g., not recalling seeing a young woman again after she had entered a dressing room at a boutique).

And with the restoration of sounder reasoning supported by facts, the townspeople confronted the anti-Semitism that helped fuel the rumor.

The bad news is that the majority could not consider abandoning the edifice until the high level of uncertainty had been reduced, which in this case happened after the election results.

Thus, once the Orleans Rumor phenomenon gets underway, it seems virtually impossible to stop it by staying within its circuit. Indeed, as I pointed out, all attempts from within the circuit to break it only reinforce it.

This said, a striking feature of the Orleans Rumor is that the police unwittingly made things worse by attempting to counter the rumor with a recitation of statistics and other trappings of authoritative persuasion.

Readers who are students of tyrannies, and who studied the account of Stanley Milgram's research (linked in my Parrots of Heaven essay) might find much food for thought in the above observation. The Orleans Rumor makes it clear that only up to a certain point does the power of governing authority have the upper hand.

Once a certain threshold is crossed, the governing authority quickly becomes the victim and in real danger of attack from the masses. One has but to think of Mussolini's body dragged through the streets and French royalty marched to the guillotine to appreciate that tyrannies live in fear of that threshold.

While the type of events that occurred in Orleans has been isolated and studied as a distinct phenomenon only very recently in history, certainly all governing bodies down through time have been aware of the potentially deadly power of rumor directed against the state.

In 2003 I cited the Orleans Rumor to explain why all recitation of facts had failed to convince large numbers of people in Europe that neither the US government nor the Israeli government, nor those governments working together, had conspired to bring about 9/11. I pointed out that the same basic situations that fed the Orleans Rumor were present in Europe after the 9/11 attack.

Here I recall a piece of advice given by a friend on the NYPD. He told me that many people have a tendency not to look back if they think they're being followed on the street. He said that encourages the perpetrator to the idea that the intended victim is afraid to put up a fight.

He added, "Always stop, look and listen if you think you're being followed. Turn around and confront the footsteps in the dark."

I'd say that's good advice for governments as well as individuals.

My description of the Orleans Rumor is based on an account of the research by Edgar Morin et al in How Real is Real? by Paul Watzlawick, Vintage Books USA; 1977. Dr. Watzlawick is is one of the world's leading theoreticians in Communication Theory and Radical Constructivism.

How Real is Real is still one of the best introductions to communications theory for the general reader and a huge help for news followers/analysts trying to sift fact from disinformation and propaganda. Watzlawick illustrates complex themes via fascinating anecdotes; the book is a model of clear communication.


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