Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Conspiracy Theorist (1/2)

Conspiracy theorists are like cult members, and sometimes the two go hand in hand. They know what they know and that’s that!  Before I castigate the conspiracy theorist, let me say at the outset that I find conspiracy theory a fascinating and entertaining theme for novels and movies, and perhaps even fun speculation in the real world.  Moreover, sometimes careful and often retrospective investigation reveals that there are conspiracies behind political events, acts of violence, and mysterious happenings.  So Ockham's razor, the concept that the simplest answer is usually the best one, doesn't always hold up.  What I’m addressing here, however, is the habitual conspiracy theoristand "theorist" is probably too generous a termwho more often than not will accept no other viewpoint.

This person espouses his theory which such conviction, so definitively, as if he’s bringing the tablets down from Mount Sinai or speaking like the Pope ex cathedra.  It’s a truism not to be disputed.  Unfortunately, the conspiracy theorist does not demonstrate a relentless search for truth, as he might claim; he doesn't indicate a mind involved in the painstaking work of research, one that sifts through various interpretations and a diverse set of evidence before making a humble, tentative decision on the matter, all the while conceding other potential explanations.  No, he's gravitated toward the road less travelled.  He's got his answer, his account of what happened, what really happened, and of course it's a story that goes below the surface and behind the scenes, though dark alleyways and smoke-filled rooms.

When you are dealing with hardcore conspiracy theorists you need to remember two things: (1) You can’t reason with them, or if you can, it's like pulling teeth.  They’ve already made up their mind.  They’ve decided, based on a selective use of sources (which are often dubious anyway), that what appears to be true for most people is an illusion.  You can try taking them to task, not allowing them to assert their usual claims unchallenged, but their standby tactical response to anything you might say is to sow the seeds of skepticism.  When all is said and done, they see you as either a dupe or a heretic.  (2) Secondly, the burden of proof is on them, not on the mainstream community of thinkers, researchers, scholars, pundits, and investigators who have arrived at a general consensus.  Should the conspiracists provide evidence either to disprove or call into question the "conventional" account, then fine; but the ball's in their court, not the other way around.

Why are conspiracy theorists like this, you ask?  That's a really good question, my friend (though I suspect you're doing someone else's bidding in asking the question, a mere puppet on a string).  I think there are a a few basic reasons, which for the purposes of discussion I’ll isolate into separate categories.  Some of these theorists merely have an axe to grind.  Those who espouse the “911 hoax” of a controlled demolition probably despise the Bush administration, the U.S. government more generally, or perhaps Jews who allegedly conspired to draw the U.S. into a war in the Middle East.  That is to say, their ideological commitments are more important than reality on the ground.  Hatred or a political agenda is only one reason, though.

The conspiracy theorist also evinces a pathological need to be part of an esoteric community, among the select few of those “in the know,” or simply a maverick who goes against “conventional wisdom.”  They relish the attention they get for their novel viewpoint. They like the paternal feeling of superiority in “enlightening” or “educating” benighted souls about the “truth.”  Another reason for conspiracy theories, to be sure, is that sometimes the real story seems too darn prosaic and simple.  One racist guy took out Martin Luther King, Jr.?  No, it's gotta be something more sinister and grand than that.  Finally, I suppose that some of them actually believe what they’re saying, but sincerity for hardcore conspiracy theorists is a problematic notion.  The fact that they usually don’t listen to equally if not more valid explanations of an event or issue suggests a bit of self-delusion on their part and even a volitional steering from the truth, either half-consciously or otherwise.