Urban Legends and Me

This morning at work, a co-worker who enjoys sending all kinds of annoying stuff through the internal mail system decided to help us fight mosquitos this summer. Apparently putting bowls of water with Lemon Joy in them around your yard will deter mosquitos.

Being a fan of Snopes, I had already read about this. Plus, being a fan of urban legends in general, I recognized all the hallmarks of one when I saw it.

I used to inform people when they were passing on urban legends, but eventually I stopped. I noticed that saying, “Actually, that story isn’t true, it’s an urban legend. Take a look at this info…” was about the same as saying, “Hey, your religion is a lie and your mother was a whore.” The effect was the same. People got outraged when you informed them of a story’s urban legend status.

I have no idea why this is. I don’t know why people act as if finding out that this goofy story that showed up in their inbox randomly wasn’t true it would shatter their world. Urban legends have this quality to them that appeals to people, that makes them want to believe them. Debunking one is like blasting a hallowed truth, even if they just heard it twenty minutes ago. I think for many of these people, these are harmless bits of knowledge, and only someone completely callous and unfeeling would bother to dispute them. After all, so many of these emails (as did my co-worker’s) say something like, “I don’t know if this works, but it can’t hurt to try!”

Of course, nobody cares if Lemon Joy keeps mosquitos away. If my co-worker wants to flood her yard with dishwashing detergent, it hurts me not at all. My problem with it is just the absolute automatic parroting of information. “I received this thing in my inbox from god knows where and now, with no thought as to its content, I am spreading it on.” I find this to be a dangerous way to process information, especially in these days where it seems that the truth depends on what people believe. That’s what I caution against. And one could argue that casually throwing a Snopes link (such as this one) is similarly regurgitating spurious information, but I don’t buy it. Snopes has sources, has a reputation that your friend Mary Sue and whoever forwarded this thing to her don’t have.

So anyway, on the whole, I tend not to say anything about urban legends to people for the same reason I don’t kick crutches away from people with broken legs. But in this case something about it really bothered me, and this particular co-worker annoys me to no end. So I threw a Snopes link back. And surprise, surprise, she wasn’t happy about it.

It’s a seemingly trivial thing. So the mosquito story isn’t true. Big deal. What’s the harm? The harm, as I said, is in the unquestioning repetition of information from spurious sources, and the fanatical desire to avoid any contrary evidence. When it’s about mosquitos, it is trivial and harmless. When it’s about war, less so.

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