This post is brainstorming, not research. Clearly.
I’m fascinated by these little stories we create in the middle of a moral panic. I was going to coin the term panic-dote but it’s used for something else according to the Urban Dictionary (though, in an extenuating circumstances there is a way this established definition could fit).
Perhaps panicfic is a better phrase.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so a lot of the panicfics I’m aware of are racist, homophobic, and misogynistic, but others I’ve heard recently seem to fit the bill and are a little softer, though that is relative to the teller and listener.
They’re not urban legends. They’re smaller than that. They’re shorter than that. These stories are these clipped, little anecdotes that allow people to express their outrage. They’re often a way of putting yourself within a group, testing people to make sure they think the same way you do. There’s never really a basis in fact. It’s always something that you heard from your cousin’s neighbor’s dog‘s husband‘s best roommate.
One of my favorites from recent times is the “My friend said Merry Christmas to a woman, and she yelled at him, saying ‘I’m an atheist and that offends me’ and she was very upset,” and of course the story isn’t true. If it’s close to true, the lady was fucking with you and your satire gland is shriveled and useless. Atheists can love Christmas, too. We love cookies. We love materialism. Just like Jesus!
Building upon an idea I threw out there in my last post, these panicfics are fanfiction, a genre of wish fulfillment where people tell comforting stories to themselves. Some of these are offshoots of overplayed media outrage, but most start as juvenile play. I often think about my own school days, centuries before Livejournal, tumblr, and AO3, where my friends and I had to pass notes back and forth, always describing a “dream” we had involving some band, or athletes. It was never a dream, friends, it was fanfic and it was great.
But this is darker, this is destructive and viral and dehumanizing. Panicfics always show more about the person telling the story (let’s face it, the person making up the story) than the story itself. As as for the people they are trying to target, they say nothing. No one creating these stories has ever interacted with the people they hate.
It’s really difficult to extract panicfics from urban legends as they have a similar vector of spread, especially now in the Internet age, but it is their reinforcement of insecurities that make them so powerful. The two that come to mind for me are awful. In an early draft of this essay I wrote them out in full, but that’s what the panicfics want, they want to spread.
I’ll be vague: on second thought, I’ll be vaguer: [edit 2]fuck it: one was misogynistic and homophobic, the other racist and classist. You figure out which I mean.
If you’re my age, you probably have heard them both. If you’re younger and have an inkling, I am very sorry. We have failed you.
If you’re younger and haven’t heard them, but have a cesspool of hate and misinformation coming at you every day when you’re just trying to post your dance videos – WOW we have all failed you and your strength is an inspiration. Please save us.
If I searched through news databases or Google to trace some origin to these panicfics, I’m sure I will find the story somewhere. I’m sure I will find them presented as funny or amusing or, in some cases, presented as “this actually happened.”
It didn’t happen. It’s made up. It’s a fiction. It’s a desire to show the listener that the teller has “heard a thing or two” and “knows the way of the world.” It’s the gossip of the idiot, too scared to crawl out of their own backyard and talk to a person that doesn’t look like them. Even if, digging deep, down into the bowels of public discourse, there appears to be a shred of an inkling of a microscopic point that seems parallel to one element of these panicfics, they’re still not true. They only truth they hold is in their power to inflict pain and death.
I started out fascinated by panicfics to the point I made a name for them. Now I’m just mad.
That guy that told me the Atheist-Christmas story? I was so shocked at the blatant bullshittiness of the thing, I didn’t know what to say. I said “sorry? People are weird.” I wish I’d had a better comeback, but stupid stuns.