Parallel Worlds (Part 3): The Followers and the Fighters

 

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 in their thinking. 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 conspiracy theory (hereafter 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 theorist 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.

Fear and rationalism are not good friends

It’s sad to see your friends drift into this bizarre, ephemeral thought system. 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 about another: “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, namely, 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 peddlers will sacrifice friends and family to the growing obsession with the theory itself. 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 or Facebook 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 this 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, invisible, ungraspable, lethal enemy, and plain logic and banal, provable facts are just too insipid to get the endorphins going.

The Internet, of course,  is a great incentive for believing in, and generating, conspiracy theories. The True Believers can gather together, raise their profile (the German language has the verb sich profilieren), and be seen amidst a community of backslappers. Flat Earthers, Truthers, Birthers, those who believe that Theodor Adorno wrote Beatles songs to destroy our society’s moral fiber (or something like that) … It has become one of the great tools for real research and communication, but it is being taken over by a rising sewer of nonsensical conjecture that a critical mass of people believe in for reasons only a psychologist can explain — whereby I put it down mostly to loneliness caused by that very Internet, which is increasingly atomizing society into little units of despair, where immediate human-to-human communication has become a rarity.

When your cat channels the CIA

The rabbit hole

What you soon discover, when dealing with these souls, is that arguing is pointless. You love your friend, because you knew him or her as a kind or funny person, quirky maybe (Ph., I’m talking about you), you offer alternative views, you point out the logical errors (essentially to alleviate the fear you hear in the conspiracist’s language), you ask for real evidence, you shed as much light as you can on the issue. In one case, after listening to 90 minutes worth of of utter bilge, I told a friend: “I know the solution, we should just commit suicide.” He stopped his rambling and asked: “Why???” And I answered, because all is lost, everything is occupied by an invisible enemy, they are obviously on the building opposite and listening to this conversation…” For two hours after that, we could converse normally.

In the end, however, you will lose the argument, since the goal posts get moved with every factual contradiction. The conspiracy grows and grows, like some horrid blob… Ultimately, you will have to follow a standard 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 spoken of their experience in public. The illness brought them back to reality. But that is not something you wish on your friends, now, is it? As for the rest, they will continue filling their minds with these exciting but vaporous theories until some event drags them back to reality. And I am afraid that event will not be pleasant.

 

 

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