On my last post an old friend asked why people were so susceptible to conspiracy theories. I have been thinking about it some more, and I have to admit that I do not have a clear answer, but I thought I would share my observations.
We humans understand the world around us by making stories about it. We can give the stories fancy titles like “interpretations”, “narratives”, “theories” or “hermneutics”, but stories they remain. That does not mean that we cannot know the world as it is, but that we know it in a human way; a way which is indirect and susceptible to error. A good story should include as much data about the world as possible, and act as a guide to discover more about the world. A bad story will get increasingly complicated, and lead us down dead ends or around in circles. One of the main difficulties with our stories is that too often the story determines the facts, rather than the other way around.
A conspiracy theory is just another story that attempts to give explanations to events. It will often be quite logical, which is why it is so frustrating to argue with conspiracy theorists. The problem is that the conspiracy theory is too narrow. It leaves out vast swaths of information, is blind to nuance, brooks no subtlety, admits of no ambiguity. The conspiracy theorist is incapable of acknowledging any fact that lies outside his theory.
Since I was a kid I’ve always been disgusted with conspiracy theories, but for some reason I feel like I have encountered more than my fair share of conspiracy theorists over the years. I find they break down into a few types:
1) The clinically insane: People suffering from serious mental disorders will sometimes elaborate conspiracy theories out of a kind of free association. I am not a psychologist so I can’t break down their symptoms, but you do see people who suffer from paranoia or schizophrenia get caught up into these thought patterns. Maybe someone out there who knows more than I do about this sort of thing can give an opinion on this.
2) Sociopaths: Some people really do spend a great deal of their time scheming about how to screw others over, or how to live a double life, and they will tend to project their own behavior onto the world at large.
3) Bigots: I once had a conversation with an anti-Semite that went something like this:
Anti-Semite: You know, in Israel they draft all the kids into the army and brainwash them into thinking there is a conflict with the Palestinians.
Me: And if the brainwashing doesn’t convince them, the suicide bombers usually do the trick.
Anti-Semite: But you Americans never hear about the brainwashing because all the newspapers there are owned by Jews.
Me: Well, by Episcopalians mostly, not quite the same.
And so forth. Not so much a conversation as parallel monologues. As George Orwell said, facts are to an anti-Semite’s brain as peas are to a steel helmet. Tragically, were this acquaintance not a shit-for-brains Jew hater, he might have been a decent guy.
4) The smart but lazy: Some people are very clever but have not been exposed to much hard mental work, their knowledge of history or politics consists mostly of pop culture reference, and they enjoy the titillation and easy thrill of conspiracy theories. Hence, the moon landings were faked (ooohhh!) Nixon shot Kennedy (ahhhh!) and the Holocaust? Never happened (OMG!).
5) The disenfranchised: People who are down on their luck will often try to assign blame to shadowy individuals rather than impersonal market forces, widespread cultural trends, or (God forbid) themselves. Sometimes victimhood is real, but too often victimhood is a comfortable lie we tell ourselves to escape responsibility. Conspiracies can also explain decline from greatness: the Arabs were once at the top of the world, now they are near the bottom, so the easiest thing is to blame the Jews. In the 13th century the Catholic Church was the pillar of Western Civilization, in the 19th and early 20th it was considered an embarrassment to Europe, so Church leaders saw Masons lurking behind every corner.
6) Ideologues: Sometimes the facts refuse to fit the story, so we choose to ignore them. If you examine his record as Senator and President, you will notice that JFK was an anti-Communist cold-warrior. Lee Harvey Oswald was a home-grown communist with violent tendencies who was enraged by Kennedy’s treatment of Cuba, so there should be nothing surprising about the fact that Oswald shot Kennedy. The problem is that many of Kennedy’s supporters were not interested the Cold War, but in things like civil-rights (which JFK paid lip-service to, but did little about). For them it would have made sense if JFK had been shot by a white supremacist, not (in the words of his First Lady) “a silly little communist.” The fact of the Kennedy assassination did not match the Camelot story-line, so many people chose to believe in convoluted conspiracies rather than the simplest explanation.
To sum up: we buy into conspiracy theories either because we are sick or because we find them pleasurable. The first cannot be helped, but the second can. Just because an idea is titillating, comforting, ego-stroking, or reassuring, does not mean we should accept it as true.