The conspiracies we author: Empathizing with the universal impulse to spin tales instead of truth.

May 7, 2019

 

Last Wednesday I read this New Yorker article exploring the history and present implications of conspiracy theories in America (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/04/22/whats-new-about-conspiracy-theories). The next day, on Dax Shepard’s “Armchair Experts” Historian, Noah Harari discussed how humankind has been spinning and spreading fictions--religious, political, social--for thousands of years. While the narratives upholding religions were his most forthcoming examples, even the narratives of liberty and civil rights, those “inalienable truths” that occasioned our nation, Harari says, are “myths," not “truths” supported by anything solid like evolution, science. In essence, Harari was describing the “conspiracies” at the heart of national and global ideologies; the tales that we now identify as truth because of their wide-acceptance & social force. (https://armchairexpertpod.com/pods/yuval-noah-harari)

 

What he didn't discuss was the conspiratorial tendencies of the human mind, on a personal level. When I look around at the library of information in my own head, a large percentage are novels. I've fabricated so many stories, sometimes without my knowing it, some desperately and deliberately, some too gradually to see it happening, until one day I mistake them for reality, e.g. "Why didn't they choose me? Theory: I’m not lovable. Why am I not getting a return on my investment? The world is out to get me." These are self-spun conspiracies that, while perhaps illogical, can be easily camouflaged in the cultural terrain of self-doubt, insecurity, impulsivity, drama. And, being private, they can survive and drive their thinker without being called out or challenged for a long time. Making this matter of tale vs. truth even more entangled, an identity usually forms around the theory.  " . . . and the longer we let unchallenged theories within us fester, the more we feel as if we have a responsibility to believe them" (a comment made by a dear conversationalist, thinker, partner).

 

We tend to criminalize many things that are "false." Yet, these sort of conspiracies are not criminals. They come into our lives, or we conjure them into being, to help us explain things, usually difficult or seemingly senseless things. While they delude, distort, and mislead, they arrive with the intention to help.

 

Conspiratorial thinking is a psychological phenomena that should resonate on a personal level if we are honest with ourselves; it is a coping mechanism for psychological survival, a straight way to meaning-making that's been playing itself out on the larger stage of a collective psyche for all of history.

 

I am not giving conspiracy theorists like those involved in Pizzagate a hall pass. No one is exempt from participating in rational thought. We are all responsible for looking at the facts and arriving, best we can, at a conclusion and belief system that aligns with both our values and reality as it presents itself. I AM trying to acknowledge this part of humanity as a larger expression of a part of the human mind, even my own mind, that hungers for understanding and affirmation, sometimes at the sacrifice of logic or sense-making. At the risk of sounding condescending, I am trying to remind myself that nobody makes headway on a political or personal issue--no matter how outlandish or "other" it seems-- without without practicing empathy. The strongest antidote to conspiracist thinking, I think, is leaning into it, and asking yourself "Where am I in this? Where is this, in me?"

 

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