TAKING LEAVE OF REALITY
Conspiracy theory has a long history and like a virus, mutates.
In our generation, we have silly ones: the world is flat, not round, and NASA did not fly to the moon. And we have more credible ones: Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone in assassinating JFK. Conspiracists find it hard to believe history forming events like 9/11 could have been executed by so few people and look for bigger, more outlandish causes. But they often scapegoat minorities. The malicious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Tsarist forgery, has been a seedbed for a century’s worth of antisemitism.
Conspiracy theory has traction because there are many genuine conspiracies in our world, where powerful people cover up actions that make victims of others. DuPont’s release of a toxic chemical into West Virginia’s water supply was hidden from the public and the causation of ill-health denied until a lengthy legal battle was won in 2017 (documented in the film Dark Waters). There is a pressing need to hold power to account and it is naïve always to take the statements of powerful people and institutions at face value. The human tendency to deceive is always there (Genesis 4:7).
But there is a new strain of conspiracy in the twenty first century, identified by Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum in A Lot of People are Saying (Princeton University Press, 2020). For the authors, classic conspiracism ‘tries to make sense of a disorderly and complicated world by insisting that powerful people control the course of events’. New conspiracism is different. There is:
‘no exhaustive amassing of evidence, no dots revealed to form a pattern, no close examination of the operators plotting in the shadows. The new conspiracism dispenses with the burden of explanation. Instead, we have innuendo and verbal gesture: “A lot of people are saying…”. Or we have bare assertion: “Rigged!” – a one-word exclamation that evokes fantastic schemes…This is conspiracy without the theory.
The effect of the new conspiracism, according to Muirhead and Rosenblum, is to delegitimate our institutions and the people who work in them: political parties, politicians and government officials, the press and journalists, universities, think tanks and academics. There is no clear replacement political agenda, only a desire to degrade what exists. The project is seemingly nihilistic and it penetrates even deeper by producing disorientation. It is an attack on shared modes of understanding. An assault on reality itself:
The new conspiracism seeks to replace evidence, argument, and shared grounds of understanding with…bare assertions.
Disagreement over values and policy is inevitable and mature democracies have created structures that can withstand these differences and forge something useful out of them. Evidence is sifted, interpretations made and laws passed. But when there is no agreement over reality, where alternative facts are alluded to, it starts a process of psychological corrosion that poisons our relationships with one another.
In the US, the authors find its origins in the birther conspiracy, the suggestion that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, despite the production of his birth certificate. And the new conspiracism is causing deep pain. The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School gun massacre that killed twenty-six people was apparently staged by ‘crisis actors’, turning the cruelly bereaved into liars who were then attacked. Pizzagate and QAnon have followed, too depressing to recount here, but each burn on society continues to burrow deep under our skin.
And then there is the ‘rigged’ 2020 US election, where shameless assertion takes the place of evidence and is repeated often enough to convince 68% of Republicans (Reuters/Ipsos) the election was ‘stolen’ – an alarmingly large cohort, much bigger than the mob that stormed Capitol Hill in January 2021.
These different, wild assertions have largely made possible by social media and the loss of gate keepers over what is published. The ease with which ridiculous, mendacious and destructive allegations having no basis in reality can be forwarded, repeated, retweeted and liked has bewildered us. What counts in this argument is not how right you are but how loud you can be.
This new strain is not going to disappear, so we have to develop our own vaccines against it. Each person has a role to play in the democratised forum of social media. The first step is not to re-publish harmful, untrue material at the press of a finger. To analyse and reflect on what we are reading before deciding what to do with it.
There are risks to a life of faith here, too. Faith should be distinguished from certainty. There is a significant evidence trail in the Gospel, traced from the beginning of a universe that many feel cannot have emerged of its own accord, through Abraham, Moses and the people of Israel to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Inspection of this beaten track has led many to faith. Some have weighed the evidence and found it wanting. Too many have not even made the effort.
Every Christian has a personal story to tell of God’s love in their life. This experience should never be a mere assertion: it’s true because I say so. It is built on intriguing, inviting evidence: who was this Jesus and what did he say? Why did despairing disciples turn into fearless advocates of a resurrection? What happened to Saul on his way to Damascus to turn him inside out? The search for evidence should never become old fashioned. It makes sense of our humanity. Holding to this model of evangelism is true to our heritage of faith and a spiritual defence against the new conspiracism. A fight that is only just beginning.
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