Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Moral Panics, Old and New

Here's a blast from the past. Remember when religious prohibitionists tried to crack down on "backwards Satanic messages" in popular rock music? It happened decades ago, so if you don't recall or weren't even around back then, Ars Obscura has an in-depth article covering the moral panic over these alleged messages that peaked in the early 1980's. That may seem like ancient history, but the tale also holds some important lessons for today and for the current political situation.

On April 27, 1982, members of the California Assembly’s Consumer Protection and Toxics Committee gathered in Sacramento to hear Robert Plant endorse Satan. This was not a straightforward testimonial. For one thing, the Led Zeppelin frontman wasn’t actually in attendance. Also, his pro-devil paeans could only be heard when you played “Stairway to Heaven” backwards.

After circulating pamphlets with the “backward masked” declarations spelled out, that’s precisely what Assemblyman Phillip Wyman and panel witness William H. Yarroll II did. The relevant portion of the eight-minute classic was first played forward for committee members and then reversed. Here’s what Wyman claimed could be heard:

“I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord turns me off. There’s no escaping it. Here’s to my sweet Satan.” Yarroll, who identified himself as a “neuroscientist,” noted that a teenager need only listen to “Stairway to Heaven” three times before these backward messages were “stored as truth.”

One of the biggest problems religious prohibitionists face is that many religious prohibitions exist only for religious reasons and cause no real harm to anyone in society at large. As an early-eighties teenager who enjoyed both classic and progressive rock, it made no difference to me whether someone who belonged to an evangelical church believed that such music was sinful and therefore chose not to listen to it. Logically it should go the other way - I listen to the music I like, they listen to the music they find acceptable. We're done, right?

Only with these folks that's never good enough. The religious right of the 1980's were basically the original Poor Oppressed Christians - they were "oppressed" or at least "offended" by the mere existence of people who saw the world differently than them and chose not to abide by their strict religious codes. So it became a serious project among these folks to come with possible ways in which the things their religion prohibited were somehow objectively harmful even to non-believers. But basically they thought it was unfair that other people were out there having a good time.

To be clear, since that doesn't always happen when occultists start talking about Christians, I'm not talking about all Christians here. I'm not even talking about the majority of them, or necessarily even the majority of evangelicals. Poor Oppressed Christians are a special breed of Christian extremists who could best be described as the original "snowflakes," even though they hate the term.

Since they consider themselves "oppressed" by everbody who isn't one of them, they've had to spend enormous resources building a vast array of "safe spaces" - Christian communities, Christian talk radio, Christian music, Christian books, Christian homeschooling, and so forth. As with legislation, though, even having their own insular world isn't good enough for them. They need to impose it on the rest of us, and they're always looking for new ways to make that happen.

It wasn’t just Plant reverse-singing Satan’s praises, either. According to Yarroll, bands ranging from Styx to the Beatles also had secret backmasked messages hidden in their music—messages that, in the words of legislative proposal A.B. 3741, had the power to “manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.”

Seeing as one of the tenet of Christianity is that God gave humanity free will, it never made any sense to me that a people could become "disciples of the Antichrist" without their knowledge or consent. It's one thing to view human nature as fundamentally sinful - a messed up thing, sure, but in line with Christian theology. It's also logical in the sense that since people are fundamentally sinful, Christianity offers a path to forgiveness through Jesus. But you would think become a "disciple of the Antichrist" would have to involve a little more dedication than that.

As the bill’s sponsor, Wyman wanted mandatory warning labels on all rock albums containing these morally dubious backward messages. “Suppose young people have heard ‘Stairway to Heaven’ two or three hundred times and there has been implanted in their subconscious mind pro satanic messages or incantations?” he told Terry Drinkwater the following day on a CBS Evening News segment. Indeed, this was the truly insidious part of backmasking. Even though you had to play records in reverse to decipher the occultic messages, they could still subliminally imprint themselves upon young teen minds when played in the standard direction.

I'll go into a little more detail shortly on why this idea that the brain can decode backmasking is so dumb - especially if you're talking about "incantations." Some people apparently do still believe that magick can be performed inavertently or accidentally. But that doesn't happen. Aleister Crowley spells it out in his writings on magick - any intentional act is a magical act. The correllary to this is that any unintentional act is not a magical act. Spells don't just cast themselves.

I also should point out that so far the idea of warning labels sounds pretty innocuous. So there's a "Warning: Contains Backmasking" that has to be placed on albums? We already have warnings for explicit lyrics and the like, and if anything those labels give some albums a boost as being "edgy." But innocuous warnings are never the endgame for Poor Oppressed Christians, they're just the beginning. If they had managed to get these laws enacted, they would have gone ahead and tried to ban rock music outright - with the possible exception of "Christian rock." What a sad world that would have been.

During the same news segment, Yarroll described how the brain unscrambles a backward masked message: “We have it stored in the unconscious as a truth image,” he said, “and as the creative unconscious side of the brain does, it goes through scanning the unconscious brain to go about and bring those truth images to the surface and make them reality for us.”

And no surprise, backwards messages in music do no such thing. In the early 1980's, our understanding of how memory worked was profoundly lacking. At the time, it wasn't yet clear that Freud's idea of "repressed memories" in "the unconscious," that were stored with perfect clarity but mediated by a "psychic censor" called "the preconscious," was an absolutely preposterous model. As a point, this touches on magick because the "psychic censor" idea shows up in chaos magick and the Freudian model is where it came from.

In real life, you either encode a memory or you don't, and it's based on attention. If you don't recognize a backwards phrase in a piece of music you won't encode it, period. You can't just play it back in the right order like a computer can play a media file. And your memories also are incomplete. The brain locks onto certain key elements of each memory and then uses those to reconstruct the memory every time you recall it. That means none of the psychoanalytic models of memory could possibly work, as they rely on perfect recall that is only impeded by the "censor" that implements repression.

Most conspiracy theories are built around a kernal of truth that is distorted and misrepresented to the point where the true and false portions become indistinguishable. Moral panics are no different. The reality of backmasking is that some musicians really did record backwards messages into their music. The Beatles were one of the first rock bands to experiment with it. But none of those messages were particularly insidious, they just sounded cool when mixed into the music and provided "Easter eggs" for hardcore fans willing to risk damage to their needles.

Real backmasking—intentional backwards music or speech in musical compositions—began to come into vogue during the 1940s with experimental composers like Pierre Schaeffer. Playing records (and later, tapes) backwards was, according to Case, a way for musicians and composers to fool around with timbre and produce new and distinct sounds.

By most accounts, that’s precisely what attracted the Beatles to the practice. The band famously used backward instrumentation, including a backward guitar solo, on their 1966 album Revolver. “Rain,” the B-side of “Paperback Writer,” has what is believed to be the first backward masked message in a pop song. Its coda is a backwards version of the song’s first line: “When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads.”

Yet while the Beatles may have popularized the practice, the satanic backmasking scare of the 1980s required more than just the willful misrepresentation of a decades-old musical trend. It also needed some good old fashioned pseudoscience.

A drive-in movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey just happened to provide a perfect junk science laboratory. Over the course of six weeks in 1957, unsuspecting filmgoers were the subjects of a grand marketing experiment. Using a special high-speed projector, researcher and social psychologist James Vicary inserted the words “drink Coke” and “eat popcorn” into movies that summer. Invisible to the human eye, each message lasted for 1/3,000th of a second and was repeated in five-second intervals during films on alternating nights.

I found this part especially fascinating, since I never had heard the whole story before. That story about the drive-in theater increasing concession sales using subliminal messages is all over the place in trainings on everything from hypnosis to NLP to sales. It's pointed to as evidence for the power of the "unconscious mind" shaping our behaviors. But here's the thing - there is no "unconscious mind" that behaves anything like a coherent mind, even a primitive one. There's just unconscious processing, which is driven by conditioning loops.

Nobody knew it back then, but with what we know now about attention and memory and unconscious processing, real neuroscientists can say with confidence that this absolutely could not have worked. And guess what?

By the end of the six weeks, Vicary claimed 45,699 people had been subjected to his subliminal inducements. He also claimed that popcorn and Coke sales went up 57.5 and 18.1 percent, respectively. At a press conference held later that same year, Vicary described the results of this now infamous study to help boost interest in his new “Subliminal Projection Company,” an attempt to commercialize what he called a major breakthrough in subliminal advertising.

So take note - this "study" wasn't a study at all. It was advertising for a "subliminal projector" rather than a new scientific finding. In fact, it wasn't scientific at all. Vicary didn't publish anything detailed about his methods or his data set. People who tried to replicate the experiment failed to do so. But the public and the press freaked out long before those facts ever came to light.

The public and press went bonkers, and not in a good way. The first sentence of an influential op-ed responding to the press conference by journalist Norman Cousins read: “Welcome to 1984.” He, like many others, wondered what such a technology could mean not just for advertisers who wanted to sell us stuff, but also for governments seeking to steer public sentiment.

For its own part, the FCC almost immediately threatened to suspend the broadcast license of any company that dared use Vicary’s machine. In the years following the experiment, the CIA started looking into the “operational potential of subliminal perception” (they found it “exceedingly limited”), and authors like Wilson Bryan Key began cranking out books such as Subliminal Seduction, which claimed that sexual images (and the actual word “sex”) were being hidden in hundreds of ads.

But when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tried to replicate Vicary’s claims by subliminally flashing the message “Call now” during a popular Sunday night program, there was no increase in phone calls. The station later told viewers they had inserted a message and asked them to guess what it might have been. Almost half of the roughly 500 viewers claimed to have been made hungry or thirsty during the show, which aired during dinner time.

Vicary’s study was clearly on the public’s mind, which was problematic because it was completely made up. From the beginning, Vicary refused to release key details about his study. Not only was there never any independent evidence to support his claims about the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, years later, Vicary admitted he had done only enough research to file a patent for his machine, and actually had collected barely any data. Even worse, his machine didn’t seem to work half the time once people did try to test it.

So there you have it. We now know that it couldn't have possibly worked, and it's also pretty clear that it never did - except perhaps as an advertisement that rooted itself indelibly into popular culture. If you come across any sort of "subliminal training" - and believe me, those sorts of things are still out and about in the magical and New Age communities - that cites the "Vicary study" described above as proof of anything, throw it away. Better still, don't buy it in the first place.

In one of my college psychology classes in the late 1980's, a couple of students did a research project to evaluate backwards messages in popular music. They used a tool that was relatively new at the time - turning songs into audio files on a computer and then playing them backwards. They claimed to have heard all sorts of awful things about children and Satan and the like. Were they imagining it?

Well, sort of. As I've mentioned before here on Augoeides, pareidolia is a powerful thing. It has been shown over and over again that if you are expecting to hear or see something, your brain can often "find" it in any random pattern that bears a similarity to what you are "primed" to perceive. One of the things that tells me the prohibitionists trying to weaponize the backmasking panic knew what they were doing is the order in which they always presented their evidence at legal hearings. Whne you present the phrase first and the song second, listeners will hear the phrase whether it's there or not.

In what has become a staple of modern Intro to Psych perception lectures, professors will often play these backmasked songs or similar garbled and distorted messages. When students aren’t given any guidance, almost all of them struggle to make sense of the gibberish. Once supplied with a phonetically plausible phrase, however, suddenly they can’t hear anything but that phrase.

This is what psychologists call pareidolia. For the same reason some of us see faces on Mars and Jesus in toast, we also can be led to hear things that aren’t there. Our brains are exceptional pattern recognition machines, particularly when comes to sound and vision. Often, all it takes is a little priming to get things rolling.

As for the psychology students from my class, even though they were playing songs backwards and trying to identify messages rather than find messages they were supplied with, the content of what they claimed to have found fit with the popular notion of "Satanic messages" that had been all over the media for years by that time. They were clearly primed by the general idea of the sorts of things "Satanic messages" were supposed to be saying and "found" similar phrases.

While the backmasking panic was eventually laughed out of the public square with only a handful of warning label bills ever actually moving on to votes, what happened next should be taken as educational. The Poor Oppressed Christians hit back harder, launching the "Satanic panic" that saw hundreds of people sentenced to prison over what could only be imaginary crimes. The backmasking panic turned out to be essentially harmless, but it took until 1991 for the FBI to completely debunk the notion of widespread "Satanic Ritual Abuse."

The two panics were both based on the now-discredited Freudian idea of memory, which far too many people still accept. The backmasking panic proposed that even if words were rembered backwards, the powerful unconscious mind could still decode them and receive the meaning. The SRA panic was based on the idea that memories could be "repressed" in such a way that they could be accurately extracted by means of hypnosis. Neither of those tenets are true. But the Poor Oppressed Christians just don't care, even if they know.

Allegations similar to the SRA panic are still around today, as part of the QAnon conspiracy that seems to absorb any and all nonsense it comes into contact with. In fact, the minute a conspiracy tells you that some large number of people are occultists or Satanists you can be pretty sure the whole thing isn't true - because let's face it, there aren't "large numbers" of occultists or Satanists compared to any of the mainstream religions, full stop. And there never were, which is what sunk the SRA panic the first time around.

I'll close with a word of warning. We all have to be very careful what we let the Poor Oppressed Christians get away with. When their backmasking panic was laughed down, they hit back and put hundreds of innocent people in prison. When their QAnon nonsense was laughed down, they attacked the capitol apparently looking to hang the Vice President - who up until then was one of their own.

And yeah, that's a pretty long walk from the original topic, but the full context here is important. Anybody arguing for "getting past" the QAnon insurrection is either being disingenuous or doesn't understand these people. They're relentless, and they see it as their holy mission to purge this country of everybody who isn't just like them. Without real consequences for their actions, all they are ever going to do is come up with new ways to demonize their enemies - that is, anyone who isn't them.

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