Conspiracy Theories

I have not seen the movies “V for Vendetta” and “Children of Men” nor have I listened to “Year Zero,” the new album released this week by the explicit rock band Nine Inch Nails. And because I avoid movies and music with “R” rated or explicit content, I am not likely to in the future. However, from what I can gather from news reports, critical reviews, and conversations with people who are familiar with them, they all attempt to push into the mainstream a view that is popular among the most radical liberals and a few of the most reactionary conservatives: that current events, the War on Terrorism, and the policies of Conservative Republicans and especially the Bush administration are intended to overturn and replace our constitutional Republic with some kind of corporate oligarchy or Christian theocracy.

This view is rampant among the more radical, liberal or progressive blogs and forums.

I think that a conspiratorial view of current events and of history has a certain natural appeal. It plucks the same psychological strings that make gossip attractive and wide spread.

We find a base, visceral pleasure in wallowing in the dirty secrets, misdeeds, or misfortunes of others (even when the dirt is more perceived than real). Real or imagined, gossip appears to agree with the observable facts and often exhibits a great deal of logical consistency. Gossip carries a great deal of explanatory power and provides a narrative and framework in which an individual’s actions may be interpreted. Conspiracy theories often exhibit these same attributes.

As with gossip, at a very base, primitive level we would rather see conspiracies. And because of this natural appeal, conspiracy theories should be approached with a great deal of skepticism and self doubt.

Of course, the explanatory power and logical consistency of conspiracy theories can be very seductive. I find the following passages from G. K. Chesterton’s book “Orthodoxy,” wherein he describes the logic of insanity, to be a particularly powerful in describing the kind of logic typical of conspiracy theories. Chesterton is anything but terse, and it is difficult to excerpt his writing, so please forgive the length of the quote, but I think it is worth citing at length and your time to read:

Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness.

If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large…. There is such a thing as a narrow universality; there is such a thing as a small and cramped eternity; you may see it in many modern religions. Now, speaking quite externally and empirically, we may say that the strongest and most unmistakable mark of madness is this combination between a logical completeness and a spiritual contraction. The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way.

Such is the madman of experience; he is commonly a reasoner, frequently a successful reasoner. Doubtless he could be vanquished in mere reason, and the case against him put logically. But it can be put much more precisely in more general and even aesthetic terms. He is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity.

The similarity between Chesterton’s description of the reasoning of a madman and the logic of conspiracy theories is striking; the horrible clarity of detail Chesterton talks about; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze; the often unanswerable, logical completeness.

Of course, those who subscribe to the conspiracy theory often take this logical completeness and the fact that they are at least unanswerable as evidence of the truthfulness of the theory. On the contrary, it could just as easily be the hallmark of insanity.

Liberal Hollywood visions and musical prognostications of a looming Christian theocracy, corporate oligarchy, or suggestions that President Bush orchestrated the September 11th attacks and the war on terror in a plot to set himself up as some kind of Hitler-like dictator clearly fall into this kind of thinking. If you talk to people who believe these theories, you will probably find it difficult to answer their contracted logic, which is often untempered by humor, charity, or common sense.

Of course, conservatives are just as susceptible to the wiles of conspiracy theories as liberals are and have propagated plenty of their own crazy theories over the years.

And to make things more complicated, surely there are individuals and groups that really do conspire by manipulating, murdering, and political machinations to acquire power and money and to fight against that which is good. Conspiracy theories would serve as an excellent distraction for any real conspiracy. Those who might have spent time fighting the conspirators efforts instead waste their energies shadowboxing. And others are numbed by the “boy who cried wolf” effect of the rampant theories and simply dismiss any conspiracy as imaginary.

So what can we do to avoid the pitfalls of conspiracy theories?

I think that the comments of the late physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman, given in a commencement speech at the California Institute of Technology in 1974, are very helpful when trying to guard against conspiratorial thinking. He told the students to cultivate

..a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain the results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell that they have been eliminated…. In summary, the idea is to try to give all the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the laymen when you’re talking as a scientist….I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is [more than] not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

Dr. Feynman’s first principle: that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool, is especially applicable to conspiracy theories. Given the gossip-like attraction of conspiracy theories, we must be careful not to fool ourselves.

These same principles ought to be applied by conspiracy theorists—yet in my experience it is just the contrary. Those who advocate conspiracy theories often show little or no self doubt. The possibility that they might be fooling themselves is excluded from their vocabulary. In fact, conspiracy theorists often exhibit a curious kind of elitism. Their ability to understand the facts and their possession of the knowledge of what is “really happening” seems to make them feel better than other people—who they often seem to view as the “ignorant” masses.

This elitism is evident in the derisive manner in which they usually respond to those who question their theory. Individuals who honestly question the validity of their theories are derided as willfully ignorant, weak minded, unpatriotic, or unwilling to look at the facts, or worse, part of the conspiracy. If you question them they do not allow for the possibility that you might have legitimate concerns—you are automatically inferior.

Ironically, the elitism involved in conspiracy theories is at a certain level not unlike the elitism of the secret societies which the conspiracies discuss. The possession of secret knowledge and membership in a secret society sets you apart and above the ignorant, foolish masses. Likewise, the possession of special knowledge of the existence of a conspiracy and belonging to a select group of “believers” who know what is really going on sets you apart from and above the foolish ignorant masses.

It is valuable to consider how our country might be transformed from a constitutional republic into a dictatorship. Speculative Orwellian or Distopian narratives informed by a circumspect view of history may help us examine the nature of liberty, how it is lost, and how we can protect it. But we must take care. All of us exhibit some degree of the kind of insane, contracted reasoning discussed by Chesterton in the earlier quote or are at times seduced by the gossip like qualities of conspiracy. We need to watch ourselves to make sure that our reason is always tempered by both charity and humor, as well as a dose of good, old, common horse-sense.

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8 Responses to Conspiracy Theories

  1. These are very valuable points. I find it interesting how these movies are often interpreted in whatever time they are experienced. Children of Men is based on a novel published back in 1992, and V for Vendetta is based on graphic novels published between 1982 and 1988.

    I personally believe that few people actually believe that Bush is trying to become an actual dictator, nor do I believe that the people of Hollywood are trying to convince us of these (nor were PD James or Alan Moore, the authors of these works). I think these kinds of dystopian novels can explore where the curtailing of individual liberties can eventually extend.

    Just as one legitimate consideration in thinking about the downside of telling a little lie is that it can grow into something much worse (although it often doesn’t), being wary of government attempts to curb individual liberties is also wise. It doesn’t mean it’s never necessary, and it doesn’t mean that in three years the USA will be fascist. But hyperbole has great value in making a valid point, not just in pushing a literal interpretation.

  2. Good comment, Dave. I agree that speculative, distopian fiction is a valuable way to explore political philosophy and ideas, and I said as much in the post. Good art exhibits what Tolkien would have called “applicability” even when it is not explicitly symbolic.

    However, I think that these films and albums represent something a little different. I think that there are people in Hollywood and entertainment who really do believe that Bush is trying to become a dictator, or at least willing to play the fearmonger in that regard even if they don’t personally believe it.

    The original comic of “V for Vendetta” was based strongly in fascist and anarchist political philosophy, and filled the kind of speculative role you describe. In the run up to the film’s release however, the movie’s makers made it fairly clear that they made it with current events and specifically the Bush administration and the war or terrorism in mind. And Alan Moore, the author of the original “V for Vendetta” comics, distanced himself from Wachowski brothers adaptation, decrying it as “a Bush-era parable by people too timid to set a political satire in their own country…. It’s a thwarted and frustrated and largely impotent American liberal fantasy of someone with American liberal values standing up against a state run by neoconservatives—which is not what the comic V for Vendetta was about. It was about fascism, it was about anarchy, it was about England.”

    From what I understand, the film adaptation of “Children of Men” suffers from the same problem. The original book represented the kind of speculative fiction that is valuable in this regard, but the makers of the film felt it necessary to throw in gratuitous references to the Bush administration. In some reviews I have read, they say that the movie resembles the book in only the most superficial way, and that a great deal of theme and even plot has little or no basis in the original.

    The new Nine Inch Nails album is, by their own description, set fifteen years in the future from now (2022). And it strongly implies that the distopian society they describe is the direct result of current events and politic policies.

    I feel a little silly discussing movies and music that I have not seen or listened to, so I admit in my ignorance that may be wrong about them.

    Hyperbole is only really useful as a rhetorical device when it is used infrequently enough and in a context in which it can contrast with non-hyperbole, so that it can be readily recognized as hyperbole. When the hyperbole is invoked with such a frequency that it is not clearly identifiable as hyperbole than it has lost its rhetorical power.

    I think that you would be surprised by the number of people who really have bought into the “Neocon/Bushitler” conspiracy. If you go read the often profanity laced threads at the Democratic Underground forum, or the Daily Kos blog community, I think it is hard to buy that they are simply using rhetorical hyperbole ineffectively.

  3. Fair points, although I admit that much (not what you’ve expressed, per se) of the critique that I hear of Hollywood and liberal media smacks of the same kind of conspiracy theory as what these folks believe about the Bushitler conspiracy. (Similar to those I’ve heard argue for a gay conspiracy.) Many believers in all these conspiracies could take a lesson from Dr. Feynman.

    And I believe that for many of us who aren’t super engaged in the political process (maybe not as much as I should be), these concepts ARE infrequent enough to still be effective.

    Another role that they play is simply people expressing anger at policies they disagree with. Yes, it’s hyperbole, and maybe it’s not effective (I think that most VIEWERS of these movies don’t believe in a Bush conspiracy, so for them it’s more metaphor. And no one reasonable will be convinced by Children of Men that the Bush administration is trying to set up a fascist state. I think metaphors of this type largely convince the church choir and entertain the rest.

    And at some level, perhaps these can be interpreted as a type of serious satire (oxymoron?). I’m not a firm believer that author intention is the only or even the best way to interpret a work of art, so even if the filmmakers believe something different and trying to do something different, the art – once released – may accomplish something quite different.

    And that’s the end of my completely incoherent, uninformed, and unintelligent thoughts on this topic.

  4. On the contrary, Dave, I think your thoughts are quite coherent, informed, and intelligent. 🙂 I really appreciate you bringing more perspective and discussion. And I agree that there are plenty of conspiracy theories about media and entertainment from conservatives that fit my description well. However, my personal view is that there is a widespread liberal bias among media and entertainment professionals which, while it by no means amounts to an organized “conspiracy,” should be acknowledged (not as a conspiracy but as a left-leaning subculture that has a measurable influence on the content and message of a great deal of what is produced without having to be either centrally organized or managed).

    You may be right about people using hyperbole to express anger at policies. But you are certainly right that such expressions are likely intended more for those already in agreement than for those who disagree, because unless I can readily recognize the hyperbole as such and as intentional, it simply makes me think those using such rhetoric are completely unreasonable, and makes me less sympathetic to their views and cause.

    It would be interesting if someone would do some kind of study to determine whether or not the widespread use of Bush/Hitler-Israel/Nazi tropes by leftist protesters and bloggers is, as you think, generally intentional hyperbole or whether they literally believe what they are saying, as I think. And if it is usually intentional hyperbole, to whom they believe their rhetoric is directed: the choir or the congregation; and why they believe hyperbole is an effective rhetorical device in that context.

    The issue of authorial intent and meaning in art is very complicated, and perhaps we can have that conversation another time. 🙂

  5. maybe you can help me understand this. i completely agree that hollywood has a liberal bent. but despite the fact that I’ve heard many say it, it’s not clear to me that the media has a liberal bias outside of hollywood (i.e., film and tv shows). usually i assume people mean the news media.

    in terms of newspapers, i feel like there is a broad array. the washington post and ny times are called liberal, although they have both liberal and conservative columnists (but the editorials are liberal, so fine). but the financial times and the wall street journals, two other major newspapers, are much more conservative. my main source of print news is The Economist, which is economically conservative but socially liberal (i.e., pro free trade and pro gay marriage).

    i don’t watch tv news, so i don’t know, but at the beginning of the war, my sense (from hearing from people) is that the media were very supportive of the administration, which doesn’t smack of a liberal bias. (in fact, i felt the media was much TOO circumspect around that time, cowtowing to the “conservative” administration.) i did watch a fair amount of tv news around the time of 9/11 and didn’t get a sense of a liberal bias.

    so what are the signs of this liberal bias in the news media? (or did you mean something other than the news media?)

  6. I’m commenting to find out if Jon is going to post something about the PBS docs on The Mormons… (can’t wait to read what you have to say)

    And… in response to Dave… I don’t even pretend to be as smart as Jon or Dave… but watching the news (PR for that matter)… it’s so easy to craft words in such a way to cast doubt… or demean, or discredit… A little word like “scheme” can do it. Sometimes it’s very subtle and people stuck in the zone of TV watching… can miss it. Suddenly their opinions are easily molded. Other times it can be more blatant – with anchors comfortable in their seats for years… they do it out of ego and an elitism that they know better than anyone… how people should live.

    Have you read Bias by Bernard Goldberg? He’s fascinating.

  7. Geoff B

    Jon,

    Just a bit of information here: I actually saw “Children of Men” the other day. Usually I avoid R-rated movies, but I have a weakness for futuristic apocalyptics, so I saw it in my hotel room. Anyway, the movie was clearly a commentary on current politics in that the “Homeland Security” is this fascist force that rounds up immigrants and puts them in these concentration camps. Inside the camps, there are actions that are like Abu Graib. The heroes were protesters against the Iraq war, which is 20 years earlier than the movie.

    Interestingly, it’s the Bush administration that is actually pro-immigrant, so it’s fascinating and extremely ignorant for the movie’s producers to try to criticize Bush on this particular issue. It should be one area where they praise him, but that is too much for leftists to do—praising Bush would be completely taboo, more controversial than the propaganda they put out.

    Also interestingly, the pro-immigrant terrorists are also the bad guys in this movie, which is of course how it is in real life. The few good guys are deeply flawed human beings.

    All in all, a very depressing movie. Can’t recommend it.

  8. Daniel

    Interesting comments, all. I am fairly new to your website, Jon, and stumbled onto this post. I think there is a danger here of throwing the baby out with the bath water, and I think you did a great job explaining the different reactions to these sort of claims.

    However, I’d be curious to hear your take on the use of the singular in Ether 8. Taken in conjunction with President Benson’s comments as prophet from the pulpit in General Conference, it surely leads to the thought that there is an organized group seeking to destroy freedom. ”[T]hey are had among all nations,” to copy Moroni’s phrase. Any thoughts?

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