Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Ouija Boards: "Yes Yes" or "No No" ?

(The headstone of Elijah Bond)

    Edgar Allan Poe, arguably one of the most famous writers in American history, only wrote one novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Published in 1838, this novel relates the story of the sea adventures of a young man, Pym, who survives several close calls with death including a mutiny, a shipwreck, a lifeboat, and a tribe of treacherous natives. Although the book was presumably hugely influential on the writing of Herman Melville's Moby Dick and Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the novel is not read much today and is often not even mentioned in English classes studying Poe's short stories. Poe, himself, did not care for the novel and even referred to it later in his life as “a very silly book."
     In one episode of the book, Pym is left stranded with three other people after their ship had capsized in a storm. After many days awaiting rescue without sufficient food or water, Pym and his shipmates agree to cannibalize a cabin boy named Richard Parker. In 1884, forty six years after the publication of Poe's only novel, a ship capsized in a storm and left without enough to eat or drink, the four survivors chose to eat one of their own in order to survive, a cabin boy named Richard Parker.
     Although the coincidence between the story Poe wrote in his novel and the story of the real life cabin boy with the same name seems pretty far-fetched, it serves to underscore the fact that strange occurrences do happen, and they happen more often than we probably imagine. Given that billions of people have inhabited this planet throughout history and that billions of people continue to inhabit this planet today, even when the odds of something occurring are extremely remote, say the odds are only one in a million, the chances are pretty good that some random person will be there to take notice and tell others about it. And this, of course, leads to a very interesting rhetorical paradox: we understand on an intellectual level that from time to time very rare and random events are going to happen, but the mere acknowledgement that unlikely flukes happen is not enough to convince us to believe in the nearly impossible when someone tells us it has happened to them.
     The problem, of course, is that whenever people tell us that they have witnessed firsthand something with only a remote probability of being true, we have to weigh the odds of the occurrence being true against the likelihood of the story teller having some motive to be lying. The credibility we afford others sometimes comes at the price of our own credulity. Not every far-fetched story is the truth; not every seeming whopper is a lie. The aptitude for discerning the difference between a trustworthy person telling us something the sounds incredible and a liar exploiting our desire to believe in something interesting and remote is a verbal skill that has challenged rhetoricians for more than 2,000 years.
     Although Plato taught his students (including Aristotle) that rhetoricians were more interested in winning arguments than discerning “true belief,” Aristotle diverged from his mentor and taught his own students that rhetoric had a legitimate role in helping people make up their minds when dealing with understandings that lie beyond what could be proved through scientific demonstration or philosophical fiat. Aristotle divided the way people devised to convince others into three basic modes: the use of logic (logos), the use of emotions (pathos), and the use of authority (ethos). When arguing through either logic or affection, the credibility of the speaker is not the primary engine that powers the persuasion; for Aristotle, the issue of trustworthiness emerges from the integrity the speaker develops while talking with his audience. Since Aristotle's time, rhetorical theorists who have studied and reflected upon the power of ethos have learned to take the writer's (or speaker's) previous reputation into account when considering how credibility is molded by what different audiences thinks of them.
     When people argue something from a position of authority, ethos typically works as a shortcut around the logical. This is to say, that if you trust in someone's authority, then you do not need their evidence or reasoning to believe what they are telling you. When you go to the doctor, for example, you might ask for an explanation for how she came to her diagnosis, but you are just as likely to assume that given your trust in your doctor's experience, you do not need to know how she came to her conclusions about your condition.
     Unfortunately, in English (and many other languages for that matter), we do not have a good vocabulary for distinguishing between the type of authority that arises from expertise (such as a medical doctor) and the type of authority that arises from power (such as an employer who has the prerogative to fire you if you do not go along with what they are telling you). Power and expertise are not, of course, mutually exclusive and frequently people have an odd combination of both (such as a judge who is both an expert in the law and who holds the power to put you in jail).
     As mentioned before in this blog, there is an important difference between having a reason to believe something and a motive to believe something. If, for example, your employer asks you to do something at work that you suspect is illegal, you have a motive (to keep your job) to believe your boss if she insists that what she's asking you to do is legal, but you may not have a good reason to believe her (based upon your own judge about what is and is not against the law). Just as we all recognize when someone is telling us something that sounds far-fetched could be a complete fabrication, we also need to recognize that sometimes people with power use that power to benefit themselves, and some authorities (especially those whose influence originates in power than expertise) have no more regard for the truth than the storyteller who relies upon our gullibility to go along with a shaggy dog story.
     Who we choose to believe must come from a persistent consciousness of the factors that make other people credible. Whenever someone is telling us something that goes against what we think we already know (“Wow, that sounds pretty unlikely” says the voice in our head), then we need to consider both what we already know about that person (not just, perhaps, what merely makes them popular, wealthy, or famous but the aspects of their character that would strengthen our perception of their integrity) and what we might suspect their motives are for telling us the information that runs against our own experience or common sense.
     In returning to my weekly theme of considering the nature and reality of the paranormal or the supernatural, let's see how this type of rhetorical thinking works with Ouija boards. Today Ouija boards are a trademarked product of Parker Brothers (a subsidiary of Hasbro), which is the same toy and game company that makes Monopoly, Clue, and Sorry!. Ouija boards, however, have a long and complicated history dating back to the late 19th century, and about the most we can say definitely about their origins is that the first person to patent the Ouija board was an attorney named Elijah Bond. How much Bond actually had to do with the creation of the board is a matter of wide speculation since other “talking boards” or “seance boards” had been around for a least twenty years before Bond secured his patent in 1891. Although other companies had much greater success marketing Ouija boards than Bond's own company, it is amusing to note that Bond's own company was driven out of business due to the unfortunate associations that came to be attached with his company's logo decades after he started his company in 1907; Bond's company was called The Swastika Novelty Company and, yes, its logo was a swastika. If there were any real prophetic powers to a Ouija board, you would think that Bond and his coworkers would have seen that coming.
     Today's Ouija boards glow in the dark, an innovation that in my humble opinion both adds to the spookiness of the “game” by allowing participants to sit in even darker rooms while still being able to read the messages and subtracts from the traditional charm of the aesthetics of the plain wooden board covered in letters, numbers, and simple “yes” or “no” answers. It is interesting to me that even the manufacturers of Ouija boards (whose name is supposedly derived from a combination of the French and German words for “yes”) find it difficult to describe playing with the occult board and planchette as a “game.” What other games can we think of have no scoring, competition, or even defined rules about what constitutes the end of the game? Presumably, participants know when a “game” is over when the board tells them it's had enough, but that kind of activity is, at least for me, difficult to classify as a “game.”
     Here, finally, is the rhetorical point I wanted to make about ethos and Ouija boards. Putting aside for a moment the issue of whether the boards are actually channelling spirits from the Great Beyond or are more likely the product of the participants subconscious intentions to freak each other out, let us – for the sake of argument – assume we somehow are indeed “talking” with invisible beings through these devices – why should we believe anything they tells us? Would you walk up to any random stranger (say at a McDonalds or a Walmart) and expect reliable information from them without knowing anything about them? Before we take to heart anything others have to tell us (whether they are “speaking” through a floating plastic disk on a game board, across a cash register, or via a platform at a political rally), don't you think it's kind of important to know what motivates their answers before you start letting them answer your questions?
     Keep thinking rhetorically, folks, and I'll be back next week. If somehow I get run over by a bus in the next few days, you still know how to reach me, but do me a small favor and ask for some ID, okay?

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