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Urban Legend, I choose you!
April 24, 2001 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Urban Legend, I choose you! Pokemon is being banned in several Muslim countries because of rumour that it is anti-religious. What's your favorite urban legend that resulted in widespread societal changes? (You need not limit yourself to religious edicts . . . an sort of change made by people in power because of an urban legend will be fine.) Why do you think that urban legends have this power? What does this say about human cognition?
posted by iceberg273 (46 comments total)

 
My understanding was that some Muslim countries felt Pokemon promoted magic and idolatry, which are clearly against the rules. I can see how rumors and exaggerations might get out of hand, but the "Pokemon is anti-Muslim" thing is more than just urban legend. If you ask me, there's a feeling of "those silly, fanatical Arabs!" throughout this article.
posted by jpoulos at 10:44 AM on April 24, 2001


The muslims in charge of such matters know that behind the Japanese makers of this game there is a body of Jewish bankers who own the companies in Japan and hence the connection. Muslims who make such decisions, I had read, thought the game resembed gambling and that was a no no, though many Arabs (muslims?) do in fact love to gamble.
posted by Postroad at 10:46 AM on April 24, 2001


This is a tough one... Did they ban Mexican rat importation? No. Did they outlaw the sale of spider-incubating cactuses? No. Was Neiman-Marcus found guilty in the cookie-recipe anti-trust lawsuit? No. It doesn't seem like we've made any progress at all!
posted by owen at 10:57 AM on April 24, 2001


Jpoulos -

I agree that Pokemon may be anti-Muslim, but if this article is right-on, and the Arab reaction to Pokemon is based less on the gambling/anti-religious spectrum and more on the hearsay of incorrect translations and Jewish conspiracy theories, it'd be hard for Arabs not to define themselves as fanatical.
posted by gnutron at 11:05 AM on April 24, 2001


Hmm. I don't know if this qualifies, but I've always been amused with the legacy of a certain Mr. Pauling. Still load up on vitamin C when you have a cold? You can thank this fellow (and hey, he was a cool guy, he just had a weird bug up his butt about vitamin C). At least it was a fairly benign meme to spread, as opposed to the public health scaremongering that so often passes as gospel, such as Alar or breast implants.
posted by Skot at 11:09 AM on April 24, 2001


Skot, as I recall, there is significant evidence that increasing the amount of Vitamin C can lessen the severity and duration of colds. Linus Pauling was over the edge, but Vitamin C still has therapeutic uses.

More generally, iceberg, what's the definition of "urban legend" here? I didn't understand it to simply mean conspiracy theory. I thought it was more along the line of kidney thefts and brides leaving their husbands at the altar after accusing them of sleeping with the maid of honor. I don't remember getting even a single email about Pokemon and a Jewish conspiracy.

Or are you just asking what piece of misinformation has caused the greatest change in behavior generally? Maybe "Nice guys finish last"?
posted by anapestic at 11:20 AM on April 24, 2001


The only urban legend/myth/superstition that I can think of off-hand that's had a noticable (and that only barely as it's mostly irrelevant) effect is 13 being unlucky.

When was the last time you were on floor 13?
posted by cCranium at 11:24 AM on April 24, 2001


Actually, anapestic, that's just mostly more of the myth. The link I provided above had this link nested inside it (as regards "lessening the severity and duration"):

At least 16 well-designed, double-blind studies have shown that supplementation with vitamin C does not prevent colds and at best may slightly reduce the symptoms of a cold.

But yeah, this probably isn't really an "urban myth" the way sewer crocodiles are.
posted by Skot at 11:29 AM on April 24, 2001


Westerners have no qualms about banning "culturally dangerous material" -- porn, Nazi paraphernalia, whatever -- but when other cultures do it, it's denounced as an irrational impediment to free trade, based on an "urban legend" or other flimsy superstition.

4 KIDS lost 90% of its value; get over it already.
posted by johnb at 11:29 AM on April 24, 2001


Not exactly an urban legend, but... There is a notion that a stranger might abduct your child, when such instances are unbelievably rare. 99% of abductions are parental.
posted by tranquileye at 11:38 AM on April 24, 2001


More generally, iceberg, what's the definition of "urban legend" here? I didn't understand it to simply mean conspiracy theory. I thought it was more along the line of kidney thefts and brides leaving their husbands at the altar after accusing them of sleeping with the maid of honor. I don't remember getting even a single email about Pokemon and a Jewish conspiracy.

I called this an urban legend for the following reasons:
(1) People are telling each other that 'Pokemon' means something very specific and very inflammatory.
(2) The story is mutating so that there are different versions circulating in the population.
(3) The fact that something as virulent as Pokemon (that someone might want to stamp out) might actually have an anti-religious name seems a little too handy.

Admittedly, this may be a weak example of an urban legend. However, urban legends don't need to travel by email. . . and certain legends do well in different populations.

Or are you just asking what piece of misinformation has caused the greatest change in behavior generally? Maybe "Nice guys finish last"?

Maybe that is what I'm asking. I was hoping for a discussion of what factors make information believable, even in the face of disconfirming evidence. . . urban legends are a good example of this effect. But, yeah, I may have mungled the term 'urban legend'.
posted by iceberg273 at 11:49 AM on April 24, 2001


My favourite is the one that says that water cures everything and that we are all just very dehydrated and have to drink gallons and gallons of water a day. Every physical symptom out there gets blamed on not drinking enough water. Run a search on snopes.com about it. Wonder how many women's magazines will be forced to come up with real content now that they can't print the water myth anymore.
posted by kristin at 11:50 AM on April 24, 2001


There are two aspects to this. Pokemon behavior in children being a matter of concern, and UL crap about Jewish influence being another. The only real difference between Islamic societies and ours is that most of those countries have religious-based government. Imagine if Jerry Falwell were on a council of elders safeguarding the importation of Harry Potter or Teletubbies. The UL aspect works because it reinforces deeply held worries about cultural changes, suspicion of global culture, and semi-legitimate concerns about education and family life.

(The most effective ULs tie into culture this way. For instance, ULs about fast food contaminated with spiders or bodily fluids (the latter possible but surely rare) tie into our collective guilt about eating food that's bad for us or not spending quality time with at the family dinner table.)

gnutron, there are many educated Muslims and Arabs who would agree this is just as silly as most of us thought the Tinky Winky episode was. It's prejudicial to characterize all Arabs as fanatical because of this. (Also note that place like Iran and Pakistan are not Arab, and not all Arabs, even, are Muslim.)
posted by dhartung at 11:56 AM on April 24, 2001


I don't know, but when I've got a cold, nothing soothes me more than drinking big huge glasses of orange juice. My sinuses clear up, my throat is less sore, my cough improves. Even if it's all psychosomatic, who cares? It works!

As for water: you're only supposed to drink a half-gallon per day! :)
posted by daveadams at 12:01 PM on April 24, 2001


In 1898, USS Maine suffered an explosion in Havana harbor and sank. The public of the US believed that it had been sunk deliberately by the Spanish, and as a result the US went to war against Spain, taking from them the Phillipines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and a number of other locations all over the world, killing many people on both sides and thrusting Teddy Roosevelt into the public eye and eventually into the White House.

It was later determined that the Spanish had nothing whatever to do with the sinking of the Maine. The most likely explanation was a coal dust explosion in the engine room or coal bunker. Dust explosions can be extremely impressive. Every once in a while a grain elevator goes up rather violently from a dust explosion, and it's a continuing danger to flour mills where they take great precautions to prevent them. Coal dust was a non-trivial safety problem in ships in those days.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:01 PM on April 24, 2001


cCranium: "When was the last time you were on floor 13?"

Last time I checked, the membership records department at the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) in downtown Salt Lake City was on the 13th floor. I'm sure they're not alone in their flagrant dismissal of triskaidekaphobia... but you asked.
posted by silusGROK at 12:06 PM on April 24, 2001


Real meaning of "Pikachu" (From memory. Seek verification yourselves; I'm too lazy/busy to find a link to it)
It comes from a combination of two sound effects.
In Japanese, "pika pika" is the sound made by something sparkling, and "chu chu" is the sound made by a mouse or other small rodent.
"Pikachu" would, logically, be the sound made by a sparkling rodent.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 12:07 PM on April 24, 2001


When was the last time you were on floor 13?

I work on the 13th floor of the Rainier Tower. Seriously. So, right now...
posted by kindall at 12:35 PM on April 24, 2001


Related to triskaidekaphobia is the fact that in several asian languages, the word for 4 is a homonym for death. And the Cantonese for 8 is a homonym for fortune (or something). Hence the number of condos with lots of 8's in their adresses in Vancouver.
posted by dithered at 12:39 PM on April 24, 2001


The Rio Suites in Las Vegas doesn't have any 40-49 floors. Floor 50 is right after floor 39.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:44 PM on April 24, 2001


Here's one: Christianity -- isn't it just one big "urban legend"?

(Oh, I forgot: it's pick-on-Islam day...)
posted by johnb at 12:44 PM on April 24, 2001


Yeah, the Rainier Tower (designed, I believe, by a Japanese architect) doesn't have a 4th floor either. Of course, the building doesn't have any usable floors between the lobby and the 12th due to the shape of its pedestal base.
posted by kindall at 12:51 PM on April 24, 2001


I have heard the same of buildings excluding a 13th floor due to superstition. Is it really just an urban legend? I never bothered taking time to examine the floor numbers in tall buildings.

(Johnb, are you feeling up to some religious bashing today?)
posted by prototype_octavius at 1:13 PM on April 24, 2001


I'll bet Rio Suites have floors 40-49, but those are the "VIP" sections reached through a different lift.
posted by sixdifferentways at 1:43 PM on April 24, 2001


>>(Johnb, are you feeling up to some religious bashing today?)

Not particularly. I do find it amusing, though, how frequently a Nonwestern culture is singled out as indulging in "conspiracy theories" and "baseless mythology", given the irrationality and hostility to science that permeates Western culture. Apparently, irrational thinking only becomes an "red flag" issue when it obstructs G7 penetration of foreign markets.
posted by johnb at 1:44 PM on April 24, 2001


I haven't really heard a lot about nonWestern cultures subscribing to urban legends, but I have seen it rampant in the ever-so-popular chattery teen cliques. Hey, they even made two lame pieces of trash called movies about them! However, I find this site worthy of a passing glance every now and then to see what the village idiot is peddling.
posted by prototype_octavius at 1:50 PM on April 24, 2001


Steven, while you're completely right about the Maine, one might as well say that William Randolph Hearst started the Spanish-American War to drive up newspaper sales. Both Hearst and the Maine explosion helped fuel public sentiment, but there were other factors (anti-isolationism/pro-imperialism politicians not least among them). But, yup, the Maine sure got people worked up over something that wasn't Spain's fault.

I'll cast my vote for American drug policy and early myths about the effects of locoweed.
posted by snarkout at 1:51 PM on April 24, 2001


johnb: Amen, brother.
posted by Dirjy at 2:00 PM on April 24, 2001


I'll cast my vote for American drug policy...

Aw, shit, snarkout -- you beat me to it!
posted by Dirjy at 2:01 PM on April 24, 2001


Ranier Tower. What kind of rituals did you conduct to survive the earthquake? Especially being on the 13th floor.
posted by crasspastor at 2:03 PM on April 24, 2001


prototype_octavius: I used to live on floor 14 of an apartment building, yet mysteriously there were only 12 floors below us.

It's not really an urban legend as much as it is a superstition (13 being unlucky) that's affected some aspect of modern society.

And damn all you people who go into much saner buildings than I. Actually, I honestly can't remember the last time I was in a building with more than 3 floors, let alone 13, so I guess I was just asking for trouble...
posted by cCranium at 2:04 PM on April 24, 2001


See what I mean? Rainier (that is) tower would scare the superstition out of any old skeptic.
posted by crasspastor at 2:06 PM on April 24, 2001


"Pikachu" would, logically, be the sound made by a sparkling rodent.

and pikachu is, in fact, an electric mouse.
posted by tolkhan at 2:20 PM on April 24, 2001


Rainier Tower is apparently one of the most quake-resistant office buildings in the Seattle area. I wasn't in the building when the quake hit -- I was driving across the ship canal bridge when it happened and thought I was just experiencing a strong wind off the bay -- but when I got in, the only sign that anything out of the ordinary had happened in my part of the office was that some empty pop cans on my desk had fallen to the floor.

Rainier Tower only looks unstable. The truth is that all skyscrapers are designed with a steel "core" that provides the bulk of the building's structural support from the inside. The outer parts of the building are more or less "hung" onto this core and usually play little or no structural role. The designer of the Rainier Tower merely chose to exploit this fact to give the building a much smaller street-level footprint than a typical office building, at the expense of course of having 10 fewer floors of leaseable office space inside.
posted by kindall at 2:24 PM on April 24, 2001


No, Pikachu is really the real bionic man.
posted by kindall at 2:25 PM on April 24, 2001


In the case of the Rio Suites, they have two different towers. The floor numbers for the second one pick up where the first one leaves off, and because of that there's no confusion or "East/West" nonsense. If you're on floor 7, you're in the East tower. Floors 40-49 would have been about half-way up the West tower, and when I stayed there I noticed the gap in the elevator. There is no long duration going from 39 to 50, and once when I was in the elevator there was an employee there and he explained it as being due to superstitions from people from eastern Asia.

But that never caused a major war.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 2:49 PM on April 24, 2001


in san francisco, funston street is where 13th avenue should be. i'm not sure about other missing numbers.
posted by heather at 3:53 PM on April 24, 2001


This is turning into urbanlegends.metafilter.com ... or an offshoot of alt.folklore.urban ...
posted by dhartung at 4:25 PM on April 24, 2001


... my favorite? That Bush won Florida.
posted by darren at 5:43 PM on April 24, 2001


the seminal urban legend of my generation is that Life cereal's Mikey died from ingesting pop rocks and soda at the same time... I didn't touch that crap for years.
posted by machaus at 8:44 PM on April 24, 2001


There are many people around the world, in both developed and third-world countries who believe that genetically engineered food is bad for their health and bad for society. Now that's an urban legend out of hand if I ever heard one.

*ducks to avoid onslaught of organic tomatoes thrown by the sandal-wearers among us*
posted by Kevs at 9:24 PM on April 24, 2001


My parents always spread our Halloween candy out on the table and inspected it before we ate it -- because, you know, of all those kids who had died of razor blades in apples and Tootsie Rolls laced with arsenic. Only there's not one documented case of deliberately tainted candy being handed out to strangers at Halloween (just one father who poisoned his son -- yikes).

Okay, so it's not a major societal issue. But, as with what Tranquileye noted about the fear of children being abducted, we do let these fears about what could happen to us reach runaway proportions -- especially where children are concerned. And I think many parents severely limit their children's lives out of ignorance.
posted by argybarg at 11:26 PM on April 24, 2001


argybarg, your parents were right.
posted by johnnyace at 12:35 AM on April 25, 2001


There are many people around the world, in both developed and third-world countries who believe that genetically engineered food is bad for their health and bad for society. Now that's an urban legend out of hand if I ever heard one.

Ignoring the flamebait, Kev, how does that qualify as an urban legend? "Mikey from the Life cereal ad exploded himself with Pop Rocks" is an urban legend. "Smoking pot makes social undesirables prone to assaulting white woman" is sort of an urban legend. "The Maine exploded when Spanish saboteurs planted mines" is sort of an urban legend. "This babysitter was tripping and put a baby in the oven because she thought it was a turkey" is an urban legend. "Genetically-modified food is bad for you" is a statement of opinion. ("EvilGeneCo makes genetically modified corn with nicotine in it so it's addictive" would be an urban legend.)
posted by snarkout at 8:03 AM on April 25, 2001


Ooh, I answered my own question! Genetically modified corn will kill monarch butterflies.
posted by snarkout at 10:00 AM on April 25, 2001


My favorite urban legend is one that is propogated by many marketing & business professors: they proclaim that the Chevy Nova was met with dismal sales in Mexico. After much gnashing of teeth & wringing of hands, it was pointed out to the Chevy executives by an hourly employee that "Nova" was being interpreted as "No Va" by Mexicans. "No Va" means "No Go" in Spanish, according to the tale. The executives then re-named the vehicle and it sold like hotcakes. Lesson: it is absolutely critical for marketers to consider cultural influences and language when targeting other nations. Can you think of how many levels of stupidity exist in that urban legend? That Mexicans are idiots who believe that if a car is called "No Go" then it won't run. The ignorant US executives who failed to do market research. The wisdom of the lowly worker who explained the problem. And so on. Upshot: of course the whole story is a bunch of bull, but it's a good lesson nonetheless. Don't know how many people it has affected, but it sure is believed by a good number of dim-witted college students.
posted by davidmsc at 10:51 AM on April 25, 2001


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