Urban myths, gullability, conclusions

It started with reading the sidebar of Making Light–a habit I encourage.  On “PNH’s Sidelights”, I came across this.  It’s brief, take a moment to read it.

Now, here is my problem.  A certain Walter Williams says “Thirty, 40 or 50 years ago, no one in their right mind would have believed the Merv Grazinski urban legend possible, but not so today.  Personal responsibility has taken a back seat in our increasingly immoral and litigious society.”

The author of the blog, John Cole, responds thus:

“This is a particular example of wingnut argumentation that I find rather amusing, and it always takes the following form:

Sure, I’ve now learned that X is not actually happening, but the fact that I believed that X could be happening is not, as one would think, a commentary on my foolishness and gullibility, but rather it is a scathing indictment of our societal decline.”

I think they’re both wrong.  John Cole is wrong in implying that one can’t learn anything from widespread mistakes and urban legends; Walter Williams is wrong about the lesson of this one.

For example, In my opinion, the question is not whether Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiricy (in my opinion, if the CIA had wanted him dead, they’d have found a better patsy than Oswald and given him a semi-auto, but that’s beside the point).  The question is, what is going on in this country if something like half its citizens find it believable that its own Government was involved in a presidential assassination?

Yes, it is possible to learn from urban legends and widespread false rumors–the trick is drawing the correct lessons.

In my opinion, such urban legends as the Grazinski Winnebago tell us that it is in the interest of certain sections of society to attack the legal system from the Right–in other words, it warns us that efforts to remove the minor protection from big business that the court system provides.  Even though most of us cannot afford to bring a lawsuit, even though even if we do we haven’t the resources to compete fairly, it is still too much protection for many elements in our society–corporations must have nothing to fetter them in their drive for profit, particularly responsibility to the poor bastards who get hurt.

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0 thoughts on “Urban myths, gullability, conclusions”

  1. I’d agree with your conclusion if it could be shown that these stories were concocted by people out to attack the legal system, rather than, as I suspect, by people who weren just uninformed.

    Some things, like the wave of horror stories that were all over Texas some years back while tort “reform” was working its way through the capital, are clearly meant to manipulate public opinion like you say, but I’ve heard countless people complain about legal stupidities which turned out to be their own misunderstanding of awarded damages or some other techincality.

    As for urban legends in general, I think too many people take it as a sign of being open minded to accept they just might be true, while it’s the crusty old skeptics who want to rain on their parade.

  2. Steve

    I think you are drawing a long bow based on one Urban Legend.

    That story could of easily being concocted from:
    i) an employer in a car company – irrespective of their position from experiances with customers;
    ii)someone embellishing on a kernal of truth from a real event; or my favourite
    iii)someone from outside America because Americans in general have a reputation (maybe unfairly) of being highly litigious with minimal sense of self responsibility (“ah! I’ve scorned myself with coffee. I’ll sue Starbucks”).

  3. It isn’t that particular urban legend that is significant, it is the number of similar ones, and the conclusion drawn by Walter Williams.

  4. I don’t think I suggested conspiracy-mindedness. When you talk about stories demonstrating an attack on some aspect of society, you’re basically talking about propaganda. The Texas anti-tort movement was purely a well-organized propaganda blitz. Where I usually spend time online we’re constantly subjected to stories about the horrible things done to good Christians in the name of “militant Darwinism”, all of which have either been made up from scratch as propaganda pieces or were based on misunderstanding (or lying about) an actual incident.

    I think the error Williams made was to refer to society as “increasingly immoral”, as though that had any pertinence other than to poison the well when he makes his argument, which as quoted is actually nothing but further propaganda about “lawsuit abuse”. He’s right that we’re using the courts more, but wrong about why. I think Cole was mostly right about people not recognizing their own error but his post was mainly mocking other people without actually drawing any conclusion about what the predominance of urban legends suggests. I think you jumped to a conclusion that these stories were created to serve a specific agenda without looking into their origins, and I think the real question should be just what is going on in our society that makes people want these stories to be true?

    I also think poster #5 is snotty and ill-informed, which isn’t really pertinent, but I am getting tired of his type of rudeness.

  5. I know that this is really about the value of urban myth, but the fact is we do need tort reform.

    I do not believe that we need a cap on awards to plaintiffs who have been injured by faulty products or by corporate bean counters who say that a little injury is okay. The real issue is the mass tort lawyers who pocket millions while obtaining pennies for their injured class. By capping their fees we would have a better system.

    I think that the real problem with the tort game is that we have become desensitized to it and there is a certain amount of jealousy involved. Real case: A young retarded woman needs to use the bathroom at a Blockbuster Video. The manager refuses stating that the facilities are not for public use. The girl then urinates in her pants and a jury in Florida awards her $1.3 million. Is that fair? Of course not, but it’s the only way to hurt this company enough in order to make it change its policy.

    The only question I have now is how many people are googling that story to see if it’s true. Thus I’ve made my point.

  6. I have heard the story as a point of scorn for various groups rather than a topic point for tort reform.

    First heard by me in reference to a supposed Saudi fighter pilot here for flight training in Texas in the ’70s.

    I probably need to mention Saudis, much less fighter pilots, were less than popular at that time and place.

    Interesting to see this chestnut repurposed.

  7. Anyone else remember the bit in James Blish’s “Cities in Flight” novels (I looked it up, it is in “A Life for the Stars”, the second of them in the timeline, the last one written, back in 1962) where the main character and his foster father were discussing stories and legends as cautionary tales?

    To some extent, ‘urban legends’ fill the same niche.

  8. I first heard this story when I was in high school, so sometime before 1987. The times haven’t changed all that much.

  9. It’s hard to talk for very long about urban legends without mentioning http://www.snopes.com, which has been in the business of determining the truth of these things for ten years or more. They also discuss the origins and motivations on occasion, including the “stupid lawsuits” trope:


    Steve is exactly right when he says that the tort system, with all its flaws, is the only real recourse for serious wrongs by multi-national corporations who don’t care. We alter that system at our peril. John Brunner, in his eerily prescient novel “The Sheep Look Up,” does a nice forecast of what happens when citizens believe that last option is meaningless.

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