Memory and representation, or what is truth?

May 1, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

I just (well, two weeks ago) got back from the Popular Culture Association national convention in Atlanta. Anyone who regularly attends academic conferences knows how alternately cutthroat and deadly dull they can be. Well, the PCA was a pleasant exception, with a minimum of backstabbing and a maximum of exchange of ideas. I hope to write up some ideas from the convention over the next few weeks, so I’ll begin with my own contribution.

I chaired a panel on the topic “Memory and Representation” and I had some trepidation going in that we were four unrelated speakers who would have nothing to say either to each other or to our audience. I was pleasantly surprised to find that we all recognized common concerns and connections among our research, and we got a lively discussion going which ran over for half an hour and ended only when the next panel came in to claim the room for their presentation.

My presentation was on urban legends (UL’s) about Hurricane Katrina. An urban legend, as most people know, is a story or idea which is presented as true and which is propagated from person to person. Nowadays, UL’s are often spread on the internet and I restricted my paper to legends related to Katrina from, which does an admirable job of collecting UL’s and researching their truth value.

Why are UL’s worthy of study, you may ask? For several reasons:

1. they express the world-view of a group, because the person circulating the UL has a goal and his/her audience has implicit expectations (remember that if UL’s do not continue to be circulated, by individuals, they die out; if they continue to be circulated, they must be communicating with people in some way). UL’s get around the social desirability filter: people who would never make a racist or sexist statement in public may endorse a UL which is based on amazingly bigoted beliefs.

2. sharing UL’s creates a bond between people and reinforces their belief: for instance there is a sort of solidarity in believing you are a potential victim of some a gangland initiation rituals involving flashing automobile lights, or that you are participating in helping a child ill with cancer get into the Guiness Book of Records by amassing the largest collection of baseball cards in the world

3. UL’s are usually “good stories”, containing catchy elements which make them memorable. They also flourish when there is an absence of accurate information and when people are confronted with a situation which makes them anxious, and (here comes the Memory and Representation tie-in) people often remember the legend as if it were true, so the UL displaces accurate information in people’s minds.

UL’s may be as old as time: some scholars consider blood libels to be UL’s, and similar rumors were spread about early Christians in the Roman Empire. UL’s have been studied by U.S. folklorists since at least the 1940’s, but have come under scrutiny for the social attitudes they reveal mostly since the 1990’s. Two groundbreaking works are Patricia Turner’s I heard it through the grapevine: Rumor in African-American Culture: and Marianne Whatley’s Did you heard about the girl who…? Contemporary legends, folklore, and human sexuality.

I found Katrina UL’s fell into three major categories:

1. misinformed but harmless and possibly fun, such as the satellite picture of Hurricane Floyd incorrectly identified as Katrina,

and the picture of the Congo crocodile incorrectly identified as having been captured in New Orleans.

The second category was legends critical of the governmental response to Katrina: typical was Michael Moore’s open letter which was removed from his web site and circulated, often without attribution:

and the obviously fake pictures of the two presidents Bush fishing and the current president Bush playing his guitar against a backdrop of the flood:

There’s not too much harm in these two categories of UL. The third category, that of criticism of the hurricane victims, has real capacity to hurt our social fabric. These legends consisted mainly of purported eyewitness accounts of bad behavior by Katrina victims: they were ungrateful, disorderly and unclean, they caused crime waves wherever they were evacuated to, they refused to help themselves by looking for work, and so forth. Here’s a particularly unpleasant example, which has the classic elements of being a supposed eyewitness account by a close relative, provides a commentary track as well as the simple reporting, tells you the real purpose behind telling the story: don’t help those people, don’t let them in your community, don’t allocate tax funds to help them, because they don’t deserve it.

This report was contradicted by people working at the rest stop in question, by the way: they said the evacuees were polite and orderly, and grateful for the assistance they received.

Why does this kind of UL matter? Katrina is the kind of event from which UL’s flourish: there was an absence of accurate information from the press and the government, the event tapped people’s fears (both of natural disasters and of poor African-Americans) and circulating the UL’s helped people bond. Unfortunately, they often bonded against the victims, and legend type #3 (which was by far the most common) would tend to make anyone who believed it lose all interest in helping the victims. Worse, it places the victims in the category of “them” versus “us” who are reading these legends. Even when there were official denials of the UL’s, they were not as memorable, and not circulated in the same person-to-person fashion which gives UL’s their power to infiltrate people’s memories.


Category: Language

About the Author ()

I'm a biostatistician for BJC HealthCare and an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. In my spare time, I'm a musician, work on several kdhx-tv shows and write on various topics.

Comments (2)

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  1. Roy says:

    Shocking! –roh41223

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    As I read your post I couldn't help but consider your analysis in the context of various religious and political literalist beliefs. For instance, consider virgin birth, the doctrine that although Mary gave birth to Jesus, she did not have sex with anyone on Earth. I'm curious as to whether virgin birth fits the apparent function of urban legends. I'm going to take the liberty of inserting virgin birth into your analysis of your final paragraph:

    There was an absence of accurate information from the press and the government regarding virgin birth. [As part of an overall story by which people would be sent to hell for failing to believe] virgin birth tapped people’s fears. Circulating the story of the virgin birth helps people bond. Unfortunately, they often bonded against people who didn't believe in virgin birth, Those who proclaim belief in virgin birth tend lose interest in helping or tolerating non-believers. The doctrine of virgin birth places the non-believers in the category of “them” versus “us” (who publicly proclaim the truth of virgin birth).

    Having written this, I'm now wondering whether virgin birth is the best example. Christians don't actually emphasize the literal truth of it; for some it is a mere curiosity not essential to more central Christian beliefs. Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus would be more to the point.

    At bottom, I couldn't resist the parallels.

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