thinking headCulture and Politics

On conspiracy theories

Conspiracies are not new phenomena – they have existed for centuries and touch on every aspect of society, from sciences to religion. In recent years however, it appears that such theories have been proliferating.

From talks about a “deep state” in the United States that threatens to overthrow the current administration, questions about the shape of the Earth and doubts about the validity of vaccines to more recent topics, such as the origins of COVID-19, conspiracy theories appear to mushroom in the current political environment.

The kernel of a conspiracy is that there is a person or select, private, sometimes called “elite”, group of people that plot together towards achieving a certain outcome, usually behind closed doors, unseen and unscrutinised, using methods that are deemed immoral and / or illegal.

These beliefs are not confined to Americans, or to any group of people or geography. I was born and raised in Romania where I lived for almost 20 years and have been living in the UK for about 10 years and in both these countries, which have very different histories and cultures, I’ve encountered people who believe to various degrees in conspiracies.

In fact, people from across all cultures and throughout centuries have entertained conspiracies.

Such beliefs have been developing both at a macro and at a micro scale – that is, the conspiratorial accusations can be directed towards large companies, governments or entire industries or towards a more confined structure, like a small business where the management is believed to conspire against the workers. “In any setting characterized by psychological tensions between competing (sub‐)groups, conspiracy theories are likely to occur.”

My Experience with Conspiracies

From my personal experience, the people who believed to a certain degree in one or various conspiracies were not uneducated, were not radicals and were not diabolical. They were mostly inquisitive, sceptical, with a predisposition to engage with abstract ideas and to entertain contrarian views.

I am not saying that everyone who believes in conspiracy theories is like this. However, the people whom I’ve met made me question the dismissal of conspiracy theorists, especially here in the West where I’ve even heard calls to ban views that can be categorised as conspiracies.

To confess: for a while I too believed in a conspiracy which is known as The New World Order. This theory postulates that a group of elite business and politically influential people, from the “shadows”, sitting at the metaphorical round table, plotting to build a world order with one centralised government which will give them total control over the life of each individual – from how one conducts business to what one is allowed to think or love.

When one looks around, with all the conflicts, frauds, injustices and scandals that afflict institutions held in the highest regard in our society, on top of which one adds the bizarre episodes of lack of media enquiries into serious issues, as well as situations in which critics of those in positions of authority (and therefore, of power) are silenced in a more or less brutal way and the ever growing size of governments and companies, well, it is not difficult to imagine that there are some people whose decisions are disproportionately more important, whose ability to impact laws and capital flows is greater and whose voices are louder than those of “ordinary” citizens.

It is also not difficult to find examples of a group of people who took decisions in private which affected millions in dire ways.

A non-exhaustive list of such decisions include: invading another country, spying on an individual or on a group of people, collecting, storing and selling data without the subjects’ awareness, regulating and legislating, changing labour market dynamics, attempting to impact democratic processes in other countries and so on. Everywhere we look, we can identify “vehicles” which carry the influence of some people over the individual.

This doesn’t mean that there are conspiracies unfolding all around us. But there are plenty of dynamics which, when coupled with a lack of information about what is going on and why things are the way they are, can lead one to conclude that there may be one or multiple conspiracies that are somewhat true.

Conspiracy theories and reality are interlinked in ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to clearly separate fact from fiction in totality.

For this reason, it is important to understand that one can never completely shatter belief in conspiracies, you can merely amend the intensity with which one believes them because conspiracies have in them an ingredient which makes human life worthy: the curiosity to engage with the Unknown and, perhaps more significantly, desire to make habitable order out of the Unknown.

The risks of entertaining and spreading conspiracy theories

A friend of mine explained why there can be a tendency to reject conspiracy theories. He underlined three main reasons for this.

Reason 1

Firstly, aspects of human nature, in particular stupidity, greed, recklessness, betrayal and so on, stand in the way of such elaborate plans to be executed.

I agree. Real competence and deep trust between people are rare. That’s why I don’t believe that the Chinese government “covered up” COVID-19, regardless if this virus came from natural sources or if it was engineered in the lab.

As Philippe Lemoine writes for Quillette “[to] the extent that Chinese officials mishandled this crisis at the outset, their missteps are better explained by administrative red tape and bureaucratic incompetence than a conspiracy to hide the discovery of SARS-CoV-2”.

Growing up in Romania, I experienced the aftermath of a centralised and authoritarian regime, just the remnants of what it was but enough to see the sheer incompetence, lack of skill and knowledge as well as the unjustified complexity of a bureaucratic Leviathan. Although, such regimes, China’s included, do tend to have a drop of wretchedness in them – no system, institution or set of beliefs that suffocates the individual’s freedoms is without a touch of evil in it.

Reason 2

Secondly, my friend continued, conspiracies were one of the main ideological and political avenues through which anti-Semitism grew prior to and during Hitler’s reign of terror. This is true and not just in Germany: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion appeared in 1903 in Russia, proclaiming that the Jews were using ideological tools to “destroy institutions” such as the nobility, the church, marriage and so forth. Clearly dangerous believes to spread!

My friend also pointed out that, today, we can see similar tendencies of anti-Semitic sentiment being delivered through the ideas of “Holocaust deniers”, a conspiracy theory which claims that the Holocaust and other atrocious crimes against the Jews people never happened, that it was all a hoax.

Indeed, even if the vast majority of millennials (people who still have grandparents that have lived through such horrible times) don’t believe them, if we allow such conspiracies unchecked, future generations might believe them and we are effectively permitting history to repeat. The recent grotesque and disrespectful “trend” on Tik Tok to mock Holocaust victims is a sign that younger generations may not be able to fully comprehend the abomination of what happened.

History repeating itself is the last thing we want!

Reason 3

There is a third reason to be concerned about conspiracies – they can be used as weapons of propaganda in psychological warfare.

The KGB, for example, engaged in purposeful disinformation campaigns known as aktivnye meropriyatiya, or “active measures” which involved written and oral disinformation, the creation of false rumour, manipulation and control of foreign media, manipulation of political action in foreign countries and conspiracies. In particular, concerning the latter, one of the most infamous ones is Operation INFEKTION, through which the KGB created a conspiracy that the United States created HIV/AIDS.

However, none of these concerns, serious and always worthy of considering, justify completely dismissing conspiracies or even banning them. And here is why.

The risk of banning conspiracy theories

First of all, sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be true. This was the case with the Watergate scandal. However, most conspiracies throughout history have proved to be partly or completely unfounded. That said, there are deeper and more pertinent reasons for considering the merit of conspiracy theories.

As a recently Forbes article points out, believing in a conspiracy is “more about lack of trust and alienation”.

To these two I would add a few other ingredients: the quick circulation of information which can be overwhelming and often contradictory, and the politicisation of institutions such as the press and [at least parts of] the academia.

The overflooding of information, alienation and the decrease of trust are tightly related, as philosopher Gabe Maté and novelist David Foster Wallace observed.

Some of you may wonder – a lack of trust in what? In the overall direction of a country or of the world? In the general state of the economy? Or in the previous and/or current government? Perhaps in the legislative process? The news? The scientific method? The religious promises?

Maybe it is a lack of trust in all of these things and more. From this perspective therefore, what the apparent rise of conspiracy theories tells us is that something is wrong with “how things are” and that something is trust in various institutions of authority.

However, to question a mainstream, widely accepted narrative or set of beliefs on a topic or field of knowledge – such as health, finance, politics, climate and so on – should not be automatically equated with believing in conspiracy theories. In fact, the institution of science itself advances when a predominant paradigm starts to be questioned.

Indeed, there is such thing as developing a conspiracy theory in an educated manner, which is linked to how human imagination, intellectual effort and real world events interact – it is an innate part in us to make scenarios or models about what we do not know and attempt to understand how it may play out.

Conclusion

The recent rise of conspiracy theorists can therefore be viewed as a sign that there is something wrong with modern society – they tell us that people don’t know who or what to trust, that they are feeling left out from the perceived race towards further progress and that some change is required to heal these states of mind.

Those who wish to counter these beliefs should understand that the simple “look at the data” argument is not enough.

In a world in which what is a lie and what is true seems only a few words apart, the counter argument for conspiracy theories is not just “this is what the data says” but also “this is why you should trust the data and why you should trust the source from which it comes”. 

In the absence of an answers that are deemed transparent and trustworthy, silencing conspiracy theorists risks amplifying their voices because those who believe them could think that someone has something to hide.

To completely believe in them and spread them is as risky as to entirely dismiss or ban them outright. A balancing act of considering each conspiracy theory on its own, evaluating what we know and why there is the need to fabricate explanations to fill in the gaps in our knowledge is a more productive course of action.

Categories: Culture and Politics

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