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A horse of course, and let there be cake

Anatomy of a Rumor

The salaciousness of a rumor often helps it survive — take Catherine the Great and how she is remembered.

If you haven't heard the story about Catherine the Great, then clearly you never passed notes in history class. The rumor is that the lusty czarina was crushed to death while trying to make love to a stallion. Of course, it's completely false: Catherine died from a stroke in her bed at the age of 67. The fact that the horse legend has survived for over 200 years is testament to the wily persistence of rumor.

During her lifetime, Catherine made many enemies throughout Europe. After her death, the horse myth probably emerged from the French upper class as a way to mar her legend. "She was a woman in power with a promiscuous sex life," says Michael Farquhar, author of A Treasury of Royal Scandals. "Her contemporaries were never comfortable with that."

From France, the myth may have traveled into the American press, which was famous for printing scandals at the time. "The press of our Founding Fathers makes the National Enquirer look tame," says Farquhar.

The salaciousness of a rumor often helps it survive. People repeat shocking stories if only to see whether they can be confirmed, and the very act of repetition adds credibility to the story. Since bestiality has remained socially unacceptable, the myth about the ruler and her horse never lost its power to outrage.

Many rumors survive on shock value combined with a nugget of truth. Catherine the Great did not look for fulfillment in the royal stables, but she did handpick lovers from the royal cavalry. Hitler was not impotent, though he had only one testicle. Caligula did not eat his sister's fetus, though he committed incest with at least one of his sisters, possibly all three.

J. Edgar Hoover was not a cross-dresser, but he did carry on a 40-year love affair with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson. Peter Pan author James Barrie was not a pedophile, though he loved to play with little boys. And Michael Jackson? Well, you decide.

When the Rumor Hits Home
What to do if you find yourself the subject of a rumor.

Here's a funny thing about the human mind: Hearing that a statement is false can actually lead you to remember it as true. It simply becomes more familiar in the mind, studies show. Unfortunately, such studies reveal more about the limits of memory than about how to deny a prominent rumor. Nevertheless, rumor specialist Nicholas DiFonzo of the University of Rochester offers some advice on what to do if you find yourself the subject of a nasty tale.

DON'T lie. If the rumor is true, don't try to deny it. If people are motivated, they'll figure out the facts.

DO deny the rumor if it's false. "Refutations are generally productive, even if they have some problems associated with them," says DiFonzo. "A denial still raises questions in people's minds, but properly done, it helps inoculate people against believing a false rumor."

DO use a trusted neutral third party to refute the rumor. "When Proctor and Gamble had a terrible time with false rumors alleging they were Satanists, they recruited Christian religious leaders to help refute the rumor," explains DiFonzo. "That was very helpful."

DO provide a point-by-point refutation. The more specific and concrete you are, the more likely it is your refutation will be believed and remembered.

DO provide a context for why you're refuting in the first place. Don't just deny a rumor in a vacuum, saying, "Bob Talbert is not a member of the mafia," "I am not a crook," or "My products are safe." People will wonder why you're saying this and may conclude you're trying to cover something up. Better to do as Barack Obama did and explain, "You may have recently heard right-wing smears questioning Barack Obama's Christian faith. These assertions are completely false and designed to play into the worst kind of stereotypes. The truth is that Barack Obama is a committed and active Christian." By explaining why he was refuting the rumors, Obama provided a context that made his denial more believable.


Or as I've always subscribed - ignore, ignore, ignore. By saying something ABOUT a rumor, you are, in fact, your greatest rumor publicist. This is why my little stalkers NEVER get credit, and anonymous comments are never set "free" unless they're from friends. This is why no one knows who I'm seeing, if anyone, or how I truly feel. If someone runs to me with a rumor they might've heard about me (which hasn't happened in YEARS), I typically suspect the messenger, and AGAIN IGNORE IGNORE IGNORE. If /you/ talk about it being a rumor, of course it will be. You're breathing life into the subject. There are several things I could "say" in here that would cause a huge ruckus (yeah, yeah, some of you know it's true), but I don't, since I HATE the rumor mill.

And yes, I'm going to probably update if I don't pass slap out first. This doesn't count :>


( 4 whispered — Speak )
Dec. 16th, 2008 08:41 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post!
Dec. 16th, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)
Danke. Since I've been through it, and have a lot of friends going through it, too, I figured it was timely. This time of year is just crazy.
Dec. 17th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)
Too true. Very wise stuff about the poison that rumours can spread.
I had a message on LJ a while back from an anonymous individual saying some very nasty things about someone on my friends list - I didn't respond, just deleted it. Anyone who takes the trouble to spread vicious lies about someone else should remember - whenever you point a finger at someone, you have three fingers pointing right back at yourself.

In short, most rumour-mongers are regarded by honest and decent people as very nasty, inadequate, troubled individuals, and not fit to socialise with.
Dec. 17th, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC)
Anyone who's "anonymous" is lying as it is. I get the same thing on mine, which is why you don't see them - they're always trying to just stir some shit up. It doesn't bother me if they hit ME, but it's disturbing when they try to belittle a friend.

There are two kinds of people who dislike you - 1. The ignorant, who will eventually grow to like you; and 2. The jealous, who never /will/. That about sums it up :)
( 4 whispered — Speak )


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Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card
Which is blank, is something that he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself;

One must be so careful these days.

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