This is the last section on conspiracy theories (for the moment). It is written to bear witness to what I see as a genuine poison in discussions these days about matters political and social. More and more people dear to me are falling for these patently false narratives created to enhance the “owner.” And increasingly, they begin sounding like members of a cult, with a specific liturgy, tropes about “freedom,” constant self-victimization, and the arrogance to think that their narrative, unsupported and made of whole cloth, is somehow of paramount importance for the world.
Why I take the time to write is a good question. It’s not to criticize my friends or acquaintances who decide to post this stuff. They are well-intentioned, often. Many seek self-improvement, self-knowledge, new-age solutions, but in our discussions, I sometimes notice a reluctance to be stringent. They are suspicious of authority, they question shibboleths, they want to find alternatives, they don’t want to be conventional. This is all good, when exploring a topic dialectically. But when you set up syllogisms full of weak or fallacious premises, the entire construct collapses in a sorry heap. That is not the result of a conspiracy, but rather shoddy data.
One of the almost laughable contradictions of many conspiracy theories, particularly noticeable in the ones swirling around Covid 19, is that they keep saying that “they” (government, journalists, etc.) are trying to create fear in order to “fill in the blank.” The CT, of course, is in and of itself based on the idea of spreading fear. In fact, fear is a major emotional pillar holding up conspiracy theory, even if the creator or “CEO” of the CT pretends to be above it all. He/she must communicate the fear to the followers. “Whenever there’s an event, a global event or even a local event, that makes people feel that they have lost control over their lives or their future, that is when conspiracy theories emerge,” said psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky, on 60 Minutes, Australia. He pointed out that CT, ironically, offer some people comfort, a way to explain the randomness of life.
It’s sad to see your friends drift into these bizarre systems. Because passed a certain point, no amount of rational or empirical argumentation can help. The CT acts like a psychotropic drug of sorts and conspiratorial group think begins to kick in and it all starts smelling like a cult, in which people are bound together by a certain core beliefs. As one friend wrote: She understands what I am saying but just wants to believe. She wants to believe it. Let that sink in. And she feels good with this strange and provably false world view.
This reinforces the drug/cult analogy. Addicts do not like to be told to stop. They often go into a rather immature form of reactance and will continue cutting their nose to spite their face. The cigarette smoker will say “I like to smoke after meals,” without realizing that the non-smoker does not because of one difference: the addiction to nicotine, which informs our brain to like tobacco and will make it “taste good.” Furthermore, like the cult member, the conspiracy theory touters will sacrifice friends and family to the growing obsession with the CT. They will say and do anything — the most callous, disrespectful, absurd nonsense — to support their view. They will dig themselves ever deeper, send you more clips in the silo that the YouTube algorithm offers them. The tone of the conversation will get condescending, and then aggressive. I have seen this happen repeatedly.
For some, this might appear quaint, almost funny – though irritating after a while, as a few spouses of conspiracy theorists confessed to me – but for others it’s like watching a person become slightly psychotic and it is worrisome. I’ve seen people spew unadulterated bilge in public, and not even get corrected. On the contrary, when I do speak up, as I am wont to do, the company shushes me, not the conspiracist. Facebook is a case in point. It’s public.
What drives people to embarrass themselves that way? (Because it is embarrassing to fall victim to transparent sophisms). It may be something banal: lots of time, no necessity to earn a living and boredom. Sometimes it’s merely reactance, that psychological switch that tells us to resist being told what to do. It could also be the thrill of being engaged in something apparently meaningful. The conspiracist has made it to the barricades of humanity. So, the Follower is now part of the Epic Battle against a huge, ungraspable, lethal enemy, and plain logic and banal, provable facts are just too insipid to get the endorphins going.
The rabbit hole
What you soon discover, is that arguing is, in fact pointless. You offer alternative views, you point out the errors (essentially to alleviate the fear you hear in the conspiracist’s language), you shed as much light as you can on the issue. In the end, you have to submit to certain facts you can learn in a 12-step program. Number one: You are powerless in the face of a CT junkie. Two, you cannot change another person. As the Fighter against the nonsense, you must, at some point, admit defeat, and that admission will be your personal victory, the moment you stop enabling the other. You can offer your view – and suffer the consequences – and that’s it. The alcoholic, like the CT-junkie, has to hit rock bottom. A number of conspiracy theorists who got Covid-19 and almost died or lost relatives have related their experience. The illness brought them back to reality. But that is not something you wish on your friends, now, is it?