I’ve always had a strange respect for the imagination of conspiracy theorists. The detail of some theories, whilst do often categorically false, would be truly excellent in a thriller novel or Netflix series. There is a level of dark creativity that is sadly wasted on their earnest belief that such theories are accurate. And it is earnest as you will know if you have ever spoken to a true believer.
And most of us can’t deny we judge them and mock them as insane or stupid. But how many of us have tried to understand why a person might embrace a world of falsehoods over reality? For a long time, I merely dismissed them as crazy. Yet as the world is stripped bare by the pandemic, I see how someone might spiral into conspiracies.
Society functions on a level of trust that comes from honesty, transparency, and competence from those in power. In return, we are expected to give them a level of obedience and control over our lives through taxation and laws. Conspiracy theorists believe themselves to rebel against such a societal agreement. They believe in one way or another that those who engage in that agreement are sheep blind to the truth. They are the ones with the actual knowledge and therefore refuse to be controlled by those secret cabals or the New World Order.
Yet there is an irony to their beliefs. They want to rebel against the ‘cabal’ who controls them. Yet in that fantasy, it is the believers themselves who are attributing enormous power and genius to those in power. In reality, those in power usually disagree on nearly everything due to massive political differences, yet in the fantasy of falsehoods, they are all in cahoots together. Charles Krauthammer speaking about America (but could easily be any democracy) said, “Whenever you’re faced with an explanation of what’s going on in Washington, the choice between incompetence and conspiracy, always choose incompetence.”
Incompetence over Conspiracy
The reality is that there is no conspiracy. There is only incompetence. That is the crux of the matter. We want our leaders and those we instil that trust in to do us proud and not fail. So When they do inevitably let us down, many of us feel profoundly disappointed and often try to vote them out next time around. For others, it goes deeper. A real betrayal born out of fear that if those in power cannot deliver, then there must be more sinister motives. Because if it isn’t malevolent, then those we perceive to be better can’t succeed, how can we?
Believing in those falsehoods keeps them safe. It grants them a level of control by externalising all that might be wrong into an area of blame. It also gives them a level of power because they believe they have knowledge unknown to the majority. And it allows them to feel confident in a world when it is the only self-worth they have. Christopher Hitchens said that conspiracy theories were ‘the exhaust fumes of democracy’.
Confirmation bias is when folk believe information that backs up a belief they already hold. They also filter out information that disagrees or outright disproves their hypothesis. Theorists are experts in rationalising away those pesky beliefs. For example, if a theorist shares their falsehoods on social media and is repeatedly banned for such actions, it doesn’t make them slow down and think why they have been banned. It doesn’t make them wonder if what they are sharing are lies and falsehoods. Instead, it confirms to them that the elites are targeting them for spreading the truth. It proves there is a powerful conspiracy that is trying to silence them for speaking out (I guess a Facebook ban is cleaner than murder?)
Writer, Alan Moore said, “The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory, is that conspiracy theorists believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is actually chaotic. The truth is that it is not The Iluminati, or The Jewish Banking Conspiracy, or the Gray Alien Theory. Reality is far more frightening – Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”
The Hard Reality
That idea of the world being rudderless must be truly terrifying to some people. To be a conspiracy theorist is to seek the simplest, yet most sinister explanation for life and its various struggles. Simple is easy. Simple can be explained in a few sentences. But life isn’t simple and often takes millions of pages to even vaguely explain some of it. There is no overarching conspiracy. There are merely events and the messy, complex reactions of flawed emotional humans who sometimes make accurate decisions and foolish mistakes within a few minutes of each other. That includes acts of incompetent, selfish choices that folk dress up as wild grand conspiracies.
In reality, life is a struggle and democracy like humans is flawed. Better to believe is a ‘Plandemic’ or Nanite tracking vaccines or pizzagate because it lets you off the hook of doing the hard thinking of how we live and learn together as a society. Because if you believe in the flawed natures of others, you may have to find compassion and confidence for yourself. Instead of pushing responsibility for life’s pain into the realm of falsehoods and fantasy, we can each embrace life with all its hard truths. And the same is true of democracy. It takes proper, honest engagement for society to move forward. And sometimes we fail and fall back a few steps, and that’s ok. It isn’t a sign of a grand demonic conspiracy but rather the incompetency of people. But incompetency can be fixed. Fantasy cannot.