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Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories

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The paradox of believing in conspiracy theories is that—despite the distrust and paranoia reflected in them—adherents often deeply desire a sense of order in the world.

Introduction

The rise of Trumpism signifies the emergence of an age of “bullshit” to use Princeton University philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s infamous term. According to Frankfurt, bullsh-t needs to be philosophically distinguished with great care from mere dishonesty, which it resembles but isn’t reducible to. A dishonest liar is still cognizant of the distinction between truth and falsity—in some cases so much so that they go to great lengths to conceal their deceit. In the realm of politics, Machiavelli insists that the Prince must be willing to lie to others to advance their agenda. But the Prince must always be aware that he is misrepresenting the world; failing to do so risks falling victim to one’s own illusions. By contrast, a bullsh-tter is someone who has no interest in truth or falsity one way or another. The bullsh-tter sees little motivation to be concerned with how the world is, particularly where that contrasts with what he or she wishes it to be. As Frankfurt puts it:

“This is the crux of the distinction between [the bullsh-tter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”

Since George Carlin’s seminal monologue on the topic, many commentators have expressed concern that American culture is becoming saturated with bullsh-t. Few have done more to perpetuate this process that Dinesh D’Souza, a far-right pundit who once took a stab at academic respectability before going down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theorizing. Some of D’Souza’s more interesting claims in his latest film Death of a Nation include that Hitler was actually tolerant of LGBTQ people despite many gay Germans being imprisoned in concentration camps—and that despite coining the term alt-right, white nationalist Richard Spencer is, in fact, a “progressive Democrat.” More recently D’Souza made headlines for comparing 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg to subjects in Nazi propaganda images. This is particularly ironic given D’Souza’s calls earlier this year for Donald Trump to send in the National Guard to put a stop to Antifa on college campuses. When it comes to substantial analysis, D’Souza’s work is of little interest outsides the cheese value of its brazen bullsh-t, but it is worth pointing to as representative of a broader cultural dynamic. In this article, I will briefly unpack the appeal of such conspiracy theorizing and manic partisanship in post-modern culture, before suggesting how it can be countered.

The Appeal of Conspiracy Theories

“The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”

– Donald Trump, The Art of the Deal

On the surface, it can be difficult to understand the appeal of conspiracy theories and manic partisanship. To come back to Frankfurt, like most bullsh-t claims they are often readily falsifiable with little effort. The hypocrisy is often blatant, and many of us become deeply resentful that anyone would think us gullible enough to buy into them. Yet despite living in a period where it is easier than ever to probe the truth or falsity of conspiracy theorizing and bullsh-t, they are not only persisting, but, in many respects, they are thriving. Part of this may be attributable to declining public trust in traditional sources of epistemic authority. There are repeated polls suggesting that many people no longer trust the media, academics, and politicians to the extent they used to. This creates a knowledge-vacuum, which can be readily filled by politicians like President Trump and pundits such as D’Souza who affirm these concerns and suggest the public put its faith in them instead. But pointing to these empirical reorientations doesn’t adequately explain why individuals came to distrust conventional epistemic authorities in the first place—or why bullsh-t and conspiracy theorizing become appealing in post-modernity. While part of it may well be a healthy skepticism towards the alleged neutrality of the media, academics and so on, I think the roots run far deeper.

One of the features of post-modernity I have discussed at some length is the collapsing faith in grand or meta-narratives, which provided a unified structure through which individuals interpreted the world. These were often propped up by epistemic authorities, whether one is speaking about the Church or rationalistic liberal academics, who provided an intellectual justification for the overall structure. As put by the French philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard in his classic work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge:

“In contemporary society and culture – post-industrial society, postmodern culture – the question of the legitimation of knowledge is formulated in different terms.  The grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation.”

As faith in this these narratives declined under the pressures of political diversification, growing scientific and philosophical skepticism, and technologically-mediated exposure to the flaws of authority figures, many no longer knew who to trust or believe. This generated a tremendous sense of uncertainty in a world which often appeared increasingly complex and multi-faceted, resisting efforts to assimilate its subtleties within the confines of a new unified structure. Such anxieties were general in nature, but they particularly impacted conservatives and other right leaning individuals, who as Jonathan Haidt put it are frequently more emotionally attracted to order and stability than their liberal counterparts. For progressives, the decline of meta-narratives offered an opportunity for traditionally marginalized or experimental identities to agitate for political reform, given the window opened by collapsing traditionalism. For conservatives attracted to the D’Souzas and Trumps of the world it generated a compulsion for a new kind of grand narratives, which would simultaneously help make sense of an ever more chaotic reality while generating an antagonistic responsible for the crisis in epistemic authority.  

Rather than confronting a world that is chaotic and beyond the purview of human control, negative events can be attributed to an antagonist who is hyper-rational and manipulating everything. The world, then, is no longer a complex and overdetermined assemblage of technological changes, economic forces, and political pressures which have primarily destabilized social identity and national homogeneity.

The paradox of believing in conspiracy theories is that—despite the distrust and paranoia reflected in them—adherents often deeply desire a sense of order in the world. Like the Emperor who thinks he’s making a slick deal buying an invisible and weightless pair of clothes, the personality attracted to conspiracy theories thinks he is opting into a more skeptical set of beliefs about the world. However, this often entails accepting even the most transparent bullsh-t. This is because conspiracy theories are, in some ways, an optimistic way of looking at the world. Rather than confronting a world that is chaotic and beyond the purview of human control, negative events can be attributed to an antagonist who is hyper-rational and manipulating everything. The world, then, is no longer a complex and overdetermined assemblage of technological changes, economic forces, and political pressures which have primarily destabilized social identity and national homogeneity. Instead, it is the story of a Democratic Party who wishes to bring in ever more immigrants in order to secure further their grip on power. It isn’t a centuries long history of the process of secularization, spearheaded by sophisticated critiques of traditionalist religious worldviews, which has contributed to declining faith. Instead it is campus liberals and their culture war. It is not that the President tells lies which can be readily disproven; rather it is that the media fact checkers are the enemies of the people. Each of these conspiracy theories have just enough of a veneer of truth to be plausible to those who are primed to believe them. They simultaneously manage to affirm the believer as a victim who is tormented by an oppressive antagonist, while flattering their ego as one of the few who has actually managed to look behind the curtain to grasp the scheme of the puppet masters.

And most importantly a belief in these explanations provides the conspiracy theorist with a sense of security that the world is, in fact, ordered and interpretable according to a grand narrative: one in which there is a shadowy and malicious antagonist opposed by a victimized but growing band of the knowing. Relative to the agonistic dualism of this worldview, the material complexities of 21st century life are quite a bit more frightening. We are increasingly confronted by developments, from man-made climate change on down. Our day-to day-lives are highly determined by economic and social forces which, despite emerging from human activity, seem to transcend ready understanding. Even the most powerful states and figures are readily beholden to these forces, as the 2008 Recession eminently displayed. The decline of essentialist narratives about human nature brings with it the possibility of post-humanism and the potential reconfiguration of the most basic features of our biological identity, while simultaneously time raising serious ethical and empirical questions which allow no easy answers. The conspiracy theorist evades these issues by reducing them to a simplistic agonism which is easily disseminated and understood—say through hokey documentary films or through bombastic tweets and rhetoric. To invoke Trump’s own statements, the appeal of conspiracy bullsh-t—or to use its politically correct name “truthful hyperbole”—isn’t its facticity. It’s instead to give people something “spectacular” to “believe” in which helps restore the sense that they understand the world. This takes the place of actually having to epistemically confront complexities.

Conclusion

Nothing in this piece should be taken as suggesting that genuine conspiracies do not exist—or that all agonistic narratives are predicated on bullsh-t. Much as there are indeed wealthy and powerful individuals who enjoy undue influence over political affairs, there have historically been conspiracies operating on the margins which sought to interfere with the world for nefarious purposes. One could even truly put on the tinfoil hat and speculate about a world where the President of the United State was willing to pardon criminals who say nice things about him. My point here was simply to explain the attraction of such conspiracy theories within post-modernity, particularly to the political right. Figures like Dinesh D’Souza and Donald Trump generated significant followings because they catered to a need for epistemic order in an increasingly skeptical and uncertain world. That many of their positions are readily falsified has little to do with this emotional desire; indeed, it can even calcify the beliefs of their adherents. This is characteristic of conspiracy theorizing and bullsh-t in that both can be self-validating, much as the Emperor’s apparent nudity was only proof that he wore invisible clothes. The absence of evidence confirming the narrative only demonstrates how efficient the conspiracy is in concealing its activities and marginalizing critics, while even the slenderest fact or gossip in its favor is ballooned into incontrovertible proof of the desired claims. 

Unfortunately there is no easy way to fight against such self-validating norms, given they are construed to be immunized from criticism.  The only possibility is to continue insisting on the complexities of the world, while trying to expose and delegitimize those who sell bullsh-t as through it were holy writ. The one consolation is that the impotent bigness of conspiracy theories, “truthful hyperbole,” is such that the narrative must always expand to become more self-contradicting and transparently unrealistic as history goes on. No matter how hard one tries to dismiss reality, it has an insistent way of making itself heard. One can only hope that these edifices collapse under their own weight in the fullness of time.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at mattmcmanus300@gmail.com or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

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Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

D’Souza has done valuable work highlighting just how racist the Democrats have been and how hypocritical it makes them look today. He has an audience because he’s interesting and a very good speaker. Let’s not mislabel an author’s ability to construct a coherent argument as the audience’s childish (that’s the implication is it not?) need for order. Oh, and I don’t believe this article mentions any conspiracy theories spread by D’Souza.

Matt
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Matt

The point was to critique both conspiracy theorizing and the propagation of bullshit. But if you want one prominent example, there is the claim that Democrats support illegal immigration primarily in the expectation that the children will grow up to vote for them; ignoring GOP support for the same practices etc. The link to his comments was provided, You could also point to the efforts in his latest film to present various far right figures as progressive liberals, while suggesting the efforts to paint them otherwise is part of some historical rewriting by liberals and progressives.

Matt
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Matt

You could also point to the latest effort to suggest that Greta Thunberg was selected to be the face of climate change because the “left” going back to the Nazis apparently love blonde girls with pigtails,

Darren Iversen
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Darren Iversen

D’Souza’s comments on Spencer and Thunberg are ironic. Irony allows a writer to draw surprising and entertaining parallels. It also, in my opinion, defuses divisiveness by reminding everyone that no one is innocent. Its the kind of thing I like anyway.
And it is true that totalitarians tend to “use” children. That’s worth thinking about.

The Novelist
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The Novelist

This Matt McManus blog site is killing satire. How can we possibly take the piss out of such self-important pomposity when it so fulsomely pisses on itself.

Matt
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Matt

You could start by avoiding the cliches associated with angry anonymous right wing commentary. Then graduate to actually arguing against what I said once the training wheels come off.

The Novelist
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The Novelist

Oh dear, how quickly the intellectual face mask falls off when it is not admired. The knee jerk expletive “right wing” pops out uncontrollably from you. Sorry, Mr McManus, I wasn’t being political in my comment.
I was remarking on your (weekly) pomposity and lack of humor which is so suffocating. Perhaps I should have added that feeding off the work of third parties, constantly counter-punching them, does not make you original or interesting. This is really a message to Merion West: please broaden your content.