Author: Amanda Marcotte
The Boy Scouts of America are, especially compared to their girl power-centriccounterpart the Girl Scouts, a conservative organization. Only this week did their leader, Robert Gates, call for an end to the long-standing to the ban on gay scout leaders, meaning they’re arguably further behind the times than the Catholic Church. This week, none of this prevented the Boy Scouts from becoming the center of a completely ridiculous swirl of controversy in the right wing press that rushed to paint the highly religious, conservative organization as some kind of bastion of political correctness run amuck. ‘And by doing so, illustrated one of the weirdest habits of the American right: The reliance on urban legends and rumor-mongering as political propaganda, a habit that is not nearly as common on the left.
At issue was a post at the official Boy Scout blog, Bryan On Scouting, in which blogger Bryan Wendell reminded scout leaders that the official Boy Scout policy that “BSA policies prohibit pointing simulated firearms at people”. This policy includes water guns, though playing with water balloons is permitted as long as they’re not big enough to hurt anyone. Wendell justified this rule with a bit of cheeriness clearly not intended to be taken too seriously, by quoting a friend who said, “A Scout is kind. What part of pointing a firearm [simulated or otherwise] at someone is kind?”
Somehow, the conservative media got ahold of this story and blew it completely out of proportion. The immediate and widespread assumption was that this must be politically correct culture spinning out of control. Fox News host Rachel Campos-Duffy asked, “If we keep emasculating our boys and not letting boys be boys, how are we gonna raise the next generation of hardcore CIA operatives, Navy SEALS?” It was a question that assumed not just that women can’t be CIA operatives, but, bizarrely, that little girls don’t play with water guns, both assumptions easy to disprove with a minimum of research.
Allahpundit at Hot Air tried to feign a light tone, but still had to argue, “that’s insane”. James Lilek of National Review hollered that it was a “nanny-state” policy that represented “the feminization of male institutions”. (Again with the strange assumption girls don’t like water guns!) Daily Caller rounded up right wing nuts deploring the end of civilization and other such conservative hobbyhorses.
Of course, it was all based on a misunderstanding. As director of communications for Boy Scouts Deron Smith explained to Huffington Post, this rule has been in effect for a long time. While the organization declined to explain further about their reasoning, reading the original blog post makes it clear that water guns are just part of a blanket ban on any kind of toy gun use on other kids. Not to speculate too much, but considering that it’s a wide-reaching restriction, this reeks not of a “nanny state” society but is likely more about shielding the Boy Scouts from liability. Toy guns, even water guns, vary wildly in how safe they are for play, especially when used on other kids. Any lawyer worth his salt would conclude that it’s better just to ban all gun play during official scouting activities, and steer kids to activities that require less legal exposure.
But while common sense and a little internet searching would demonstrate that this story is being blown way out of proportion, don’t expect this legend of the Boy Scout water gun ban to die down any time soon. Instead, it will probably grow and spread and become a staple of kitchen table grousing and email forwards. In other words, we’re looking at the development of yet another right wing urban legend.
Experts who collect these say that the number of conservative urban legends floating there dwarfs anything the left could produce. Sure, there are liberal urban legends here and there, but Snopes, which collects urban legends as the proliferate, shows that the vast majority of politicized ones pander to right wing fears and prejudices. Some, like this Boy Scout story, have a basis in (badly misinterpreted) facts and others such as the claim that Muslims are trying to remove crosses from a Catholic university, appear made up whole cloth. Some, like the “Marine Todd” story about a marine who supposedly punched an atheist college professor, are so stupid that it’s hard to believe anyone would buy into them, but sadly, they spread like fire. Because of this, sites like My Right Wing Dad have an endless supply of fodder.
Why does this happen? It’s tempting to say that it’s because conservatives are simply more gullible than liberals, but that’s not likely it. I used to get a lot of these kinds of emails from conservative friends and family members, until I started redirecting them to Snopes for debunking. Instead of thanking me for setting them straight, they instead just stopped sending the emails. Not the choice of sincerely mistaken people so much as people who know, on some level, that this email is bunk and just don’t want someone to spoil the illusion.
Instead, the reason has a lot to do with how people rationalize and justify their beliefs. As science writer Chris Mooney explained to Salon in 2013, “you feel these views before you think these views, and then you rationalize your beliefs”. Both liberals and conservatives, then, have a tendency to decide how they feel about something and then “take whatever evidence there is out there and twist it so that it supports their view”. We like evidence that supports our views and we discount evidence that conflicts with our views and creates cognitive dissonance.
Bluntly put, and as has been understood for awhile now, liberal views generally tend to be better supported by real world evidence like facts and scientific research. (There are exceptions, of course. The hostility to GMOs is very liberal and very much rooted in wishful thinking instead of facts) Bereft of much in the way of facts to support their view that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, conservatives instead turn to a bunch of anecdotal, often utterly false urban legend type evidence. While anecdotal evidence can be persuasive across ideologies, conservatives just need it more to justify their worldview.
In addition, as Mooney reported in Mother Jones in 2014, research shows that conservatives have more of a “negativity bias”, which means “they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments.” In other words, they are more fearful and respond more to fear-mongering than liberals. Fox News could have told you that, but it’s always nice to have some scientific evidence.
And that’s what these conservative urban legends are about: Conservatives keeping each other in a heightened state of fear by constantly warning each other about the endless threats to their safety, their identity, their masculinity, their religious holidays, whatever they’re hyped up about today. And using that fear to justify reactionary politics.
Which brings us back to the Boy Scouts. While a common sense reading of this tale would suggest it’s just a big organization being prudent about legal liability, the need to believe that conservative manhood itself was under threat is why conservatives eagerly swapped this story. The Facebook thread under the Washington Times post about it was a marvel of conservatives freaking out about this non-existent threat to masculinity. “But I bet they can wear dresses if they want,” one poster complained. “Soccormomism strikes again,” another wrote. “Grow up sissies!!!,” he added, scolding the actual children in question. “Raising pussies!,” commented another. “They will not be satisfied until all of the Males in this country are little pussies?,” whined another.
Again, there is zero reason to believe this policy is about gender, in any fashion. Water guns aren’t really a gendered toy, enjoyed by boys and girls alike. But facts aren’t getting in the way of conservatives telling each other tall tales of how American masculinity is under attack and manhood is about to be ended forever because liberals and because reasons. No wonder every conservative outlet imaginable jumped on this non-story and made such a fuss over it. They certainly know their audience.