The beat goes on.
In the nearly two weeks since I wrote Part I of this series, an armed gunman was arrested en route to assaulting an obscure progressive foundation in San Francisco — one that’s often been at the center of Glenn Beck’s blackboard (which has become Conspiracy Theory Ground Zero for 2010). Also, this just in: President Obama is attempting to foment a race war, complete with New Black Panthers in the streets, in order to win the November elections.
I know. It’s just so hard to keep up.
In the last post, I defined a conspiracy theory as “any story that assumes that things happen due to the deliberate, covert actions of powerful others — even when the preponderance of evidence points to the conclusion that the events were almost certainly accidental and unintended.” And I talked about the cultural conditions that soften up people’s skulls and predispose them to accepting these baroque works of storytelling rather than simply accept what the evidence shows.
This post moves from outside influences to what goes on inside our heads. What’s going on internally that makes conspiracy stories appealing to us as individuals? As before, I’m drawing heavily on David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theories in Shaping Modern History as one of the better guides out there to all the factors at play when we willfully choose to believe the unbelievable.
The dark side of celebrity envy
A huge number of theories revolve around the deaths of celebrities — JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana. There’s a direct correlation between the public’s adoration of the good and great and the level of public obsession with every pornographically intimate detail surrounding the stories of their last moments on earth. People find these stories endlessly fascinating — and the more disgusting and perverse the detail, the more obsessed we are with it. What’s up with that?
Part of this is pretty straightforward schadenfreude: as Aaronovitch put it, “Whatever we might have envied in these people, we sure don’t envy them now.” But we may also be obsessed with the realization that such extraordinary people could die at the hands of ordinary people — people very much like us. And worse: we find it hard to confront the possibility that our own passion for them may have played a role in causing their deaths. “It was not our thirst for gossip that killed Norma Jean or England’s Rose, but the CIA,” says Aaronovitch. “It wasn’t an ordinary Joe with a rifle who murdered the young president, but the Mafia or the FBI.
“Conspiracy theory may be one way of reclaiming power and disclaiming responsibility.”
There’s another way we deflect this responsibility, too:
Beware of powerful enemies
When bad things happen to good people — especially people who were agents of positive change like the Kennedys or Paul Wellstone — it’s also easy to imagine, in our more paranoid moments, that they were targeted by the people who were most threatened by what they were doing.
Out here on the left, we’re at least as prone to this as the right wing is. In our grief, we look for reasons for our loss — and too often, there simply aren’t any. Cars and planes crash. Crazy guys with guns target public figures for reasons that exist only in their own imaginations. These are everyday events that just happen; and in the overwhelming majority of cases, there’s no conspiracy involved.
Even so: these high-profile conspiracy theories trickle down through the culture, feeding the paranoia of hardcore conspiracy theorists who eventually come to believe that they’re next on the list. (They always assume that somewhere, there’s a list.) Because I’m so right (and so smart and so important), they must be out to silence me. People who’ve gone over this edge are prone to interpret everyday events — a police car driving past the house or a temporary glitch in their Internet service — as evidence that they’ve been targeted, and are being closely watched.
And for the rest of us, they serve as cautionary tales that blunt our will to engage injustice — or, perhaps, convenient excuses that let us off the hook. Don’t rock the boat too much — or you could end up dead in a ditch, just like Karen Silkwood did.
I’m smart. You’re not.
Conspiracy theories make us feel smart. They’re populist fables that lay bare the supposed actions taken by the power elites against the people. But the real elite (at least in their own minds) are those who are insightful enough to see through the official story and divine the truth of the matter. Being the only one perceptive enough to have cracked the code irrefutably proves that you’re superior to the sheeple around you.
This attitude makes it easy to wave off skeptics. All that insistence on evidence and data and credentials and plausibility is just a smokescreen that hides the reality that they’ve closed their narrow minds to the truth. From this skewed perspective, clinging to reason is for idiots. The real “intellectual” is the one who has opened her mind to all the possibilities — even the most Byzantine and improbable ones.
Unfortunately, this assumption also feeds a grandiose sense of paranoia that actually undermines the ability to think rationally. When embarrassing holes in the story are exposed, they’re invariably blamed on those cunning plotters, who obviously cooked up these inconvenient truths to throw those of lesser intellect off the scent. In fact, in ConspiracyWorld, the bigger the pile of evidence against a theory grows, the more certain the True Believers are that they’re absolutely on the right track. We’ve all met otherwise pretty smart people who are quite sure that the more their facts are disproven by the evidence, the more right they must be.
And weirdly, people who take to this conceit aren’t entirely unjustified:
The smarter they are, the harder they fall
The stereotype of conspiracy believers is that they’re the kind of people who devour the National Enquirer along with their Big Macs and the latest episode of Jerry Springer back at the mobile home park. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Your average conspiracy theory buff actually tends to be well-educated (usually with at least at least one college degree), and a well-established member of the middle- to upper-middle class. According to Aaronovitch, they’re “the professors, university students, the artists, the managers, the journalists, and the civil servants.” It’s not the working stiffs who are propagating this stuff — it’s the chattering classes.
Why would these smart people fall for such absurd tales? Some of it may be due to intellectual arrogance. When we’re used to being an authority in one field, it’s all too tempting to assume that we’re also equally competent to assess data from other fields, too. This is why people usually fall for conspiracies where the details are outside of their own field of competence: they’re quite sure they understand what’s really going on, but they honestly don’t.
Historians generally don’t fall for historical conspiracies like the DaVinci Code hoaxes. And you won’t meet very many structural engineers or pilots who think 9/11 was an inside job. They know better, because they’ve got intimate knowledge of the field, and the flaws in the theory are obvious to them. However, the streets are packed with educated non-lawyers who don’t have the slightest idea how government records or citizenship laws work, but still insist that Obama’s not an American citizen. They’re “experts” in their own minds, even though they have no actual expertise in the field.
History as written by losers
A lot of conspiracy theories are nothing more than a cop-out — sour-grapes stories told by people on the losing side of history. If we can blame our losses on a conspiracy, then we don’t have to confront our own fatal flaws — our disorganization or stupidity or unpopularity. Instead, it’s very reassuring to tell ourselves that the loss was entirely due to the overwhelming ruthlessness of our opposition, who were willing to stop at nothing to defeat us. (See the next item.)
This factor, almost all on its own, explains the never-ending conspiracy obsessions of the Tea Party, which only gets more deranged every time the rest of the country rejects its candidates and its ideas. If you find your movement engulfed in conspiracy theories, look around. They’re a pretty clear indicator that you’ve already lost, and your broken-hearted followers are now working overtime to concoct excuses that will salve their sense of failure.
Evil has no limits
Conspiracy theories confirm our beliefs about the evilness of the other side; and this explains why there’s often a certain symmetry to them. For example: several polls have found that about 58% of Republicans doubt Obama’s right to be president. Conversely, the Scripps Survey Research Center found in 2006 that about 54% of Democrats thought that 9/11 was an inside job.
Likewise, during the Bush years, progressives were deeply worried by FEMA’s plans to build emergency housing camps, suspecting that they might be used as concentration camps for liberal upstarts. The conservatives, naturally, thought we were nuts. Now, it’s an article of faith in Tea Party circles that the government is preparing those same camps to round them up when Obama hands America over to the Muslims, the Socialist International, or the Mexicans and Canadians (the villains change weekly — it’s hard to keep up) — and most of us are pretty sure they’re nuts, too.
It’s just good old-fashioned bias confirmation at work. We tend to believe theories that point up the sulfurous and venal evil of those on the other side, and entirely discount those aimed at the paragons of virtue on our own side. And any neutral object that happens to be lying around on the landscape can be twisted around and used as a weapon by either side.
You can’t just stop at one
Conspiracy theories tend to build on each other, eating away at your reasoning capacity as they take over your brain. If your thinking is muddled or sloppy enough that you’ll accept one wrong thing as fact, you’re statistically more susceptible to accepting any number of other wrong things, too. The only antidote for this is better education and training in garden-variety critical thinking skills, with an emphasis on evaluating evidence, assessing the credibility of those offering it, and drawing sound conclusions from their data.
As noted last week: our teach-to-the-test school system isn’t helping here. But the fact that these theories are so often promoted by people who are well-educated enough to know better, we probably need to be looking at the standards of reason being taught in our universities as well. And beyond college, too many professions have also become lax about demanding rigorous standards of argument and evidence from their members.
Some psychologists who study conspiracy theories lay the blame for all this directly at the feet of post-modernism, which insists that all narratives are more or less equally true. If that’s the case, there’s no such thing as objective reality — and hence no facts to defend, and no need to critically evaluate anything. Whatever sounds or feels truthy enough must be the truth. It’s beyond ironic that the biggest post-modernists on the American scene right now are on the right wing, which creates its own reality with breathtaking abandon — and zero regard for factual truth.
There’s one simple question that separates a dedicated conspiracy theorist from someone whose rational faculties are still intact:
What would it take for you to reject this story? What evidence, if it appeared, would thoroughly refute this theory in your eyes?
If they can’t provide three pieces of evidence that they’d accept as discrediting, congratulations. You’ve found a True Believer.
But it feels so true!
Conspiracy theories often reverberate with emotional truth, even when the facts don’t make any rational sense. The first step in understanding any conspiracy theory is to look for the grain of validity at its core — the deeper truth that speaks to the emotional reality of those who believe it.
Aaronovitch recalls that in the wake of Katrina, the conspiracy theories were even thicker on the ground than the mud in New Orleans. One of the most persistent stories was the levees had been breached deliberately to destroy the city’s African-American neighborhoods. While no facts have ever emerged to support this belief (which would have required implausibly massive collusion followed by years of successfully sustained cover-up by hundreds of local, state, and federal authorities), the story is a powerful parable about the way poor black Americans are always abused, lied to, and neglected by people in power. The facts may be wrong, but listening for the deeper emotional truth and responding to that is the best way to open a dialogue and regain trust.
Who’s in charge here? Nobody.
The bottom line on why we believe conspiracy theories is this: We’re terrified of admitting that nobody is really in control. It’s a lot more comforting to think that *somebody* engineered a crisis than to reckon with the horrible, sickening fact that *nobody* did.
Most humans don’t deal at all well with the cruel, capricious randomness of fate. Shit happens — and it often happens for absolutely no meaningful reason at all. That thought makes people crazy with terror, so we make up entities to blame — God, Satan, the Freemasons, the CIA, or the All-Seeing Eye of Sauron. It’s far easier to blame it all on imaginary Lizard People from another planet than have to deal with the bald fact that millions of lives have been upended (or just ended) by an event — and yet there is simply is nobody out there to blame for it.
As my friend Bob Mackey puts it: “The alternative is a universe that is controlled by absolutely nobody. There is no control, no security, no Men in Black or Black Helicopters or Black Hussein Presidents to frighten the God-fearing upright citizens.” In the end, conspiracy theories are simply stories we tell to fill the blackness of the existential void.
Bob also reminds us to “Never confuse a conspiracy with a massive cluster f**k.” The bare truth is: most conspiracies start with massive clusterfucks. And this brings us back full circle to where this series started last week — with the gusher in the Gulf, which is much easier to explain as the massive clusterfuck the evidence tells us it is than it is to attribute any of it to malice or venality on the part of President Obama.
Next week, this series will finish with some suggestions for how we can ratchet down the overheated level of paranoia, and gently move American discourse back toward the rational, reasonable, and sane.