Conspiracy theories and social control
A speculum on the spectacle, pt. 2
The divisive notion of the conspiracy theory is emerging as one of the most important tools of contemporary propaganda and consent management. It ingeniously merges anything but the most superficial political dissent with irrationality, heretical anti-scientism, and establishes a thematic connection to violent fringe groups with an established enemy image.
Conspiracy theories are everywhere portrayed as the new great societal menace. The deadliest thing since second-hand smoke. The US Department of Homeland Security (yeah, the name still rings like fascism) places conspiracy theories as the number one factor “contributing to the heightened threat environment”. Pundits everywhere decry them, well-paid academics muse reflectively on the incomprehensible ignorance of the deplorables who somehow fall for them, and all the experts agree that “conspiracy” as and adjective is tantamount to “false”. They also go out of their way to portray the “conspiracist” as mentally abnormal, and the “conspiracy beliefs” as having emerged due to non-rational factors of sub-human cognition:
Conspiracy theories resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and an absence of evidence for it are re-interpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proven or disproven. Some researchers suggest that conspiracist ideation—belief in conspiracy theories—may be psychologically harmful or pathological and that it is correlated with lower analytical thinking, low intelligence, psychological projection, paranoia, and Machiavellianism. Psychologists usually attribute belief in conspiracy theories and finding a conspiracy where there is none to a number of psychopathological conditions such as paranoia, schizotypy, narcissism, and insecure attachment, or to a form of cognitive bias called "illusory pattern perception". However, the current scientific consensus holds that most conspiracy theorists are not pathological, precisely because their beliefs ultimately rely on cognitive tendencies that are neurologically hardwired in the human species and probably have deep evolutionary origins, including natural inclinations towards anxiety and agency detection (Wikipedia).
Yet as everyone who has given the issue more than two seconds of actual conscious thought very well knows, there is of course no reason whatsoever to consider a “conspiracy theory” to be in any way epistemically defective from the outset. It might be warranted, it might not be. And there’s absolutely no way to coherently pack all of this nonsense into the concept. It’s obviously neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of a hypothesis of active collusion that it in any way be related to particular ideological content, nor really to any deterministic progression towards irremediable madness.
Speaking literally, “conspiracy theory” is in epistemic terms a neutral concept which refers to some sort of collusion of groups, generally within a power hierarchy, towards clandestine ends which are often considered nefarious.
There’s nothing prima facie weird here. A conspiracy in this sense is obviously an entirely coherent notion that’s often exemplified throughout history, so already the fact that the suggestion of something we may reasonably expect to be pretty common is universally derided is a significant cause for concern.
Yet this is of course due to the fact that the concept is so extremely loaded. In the contemporary discourse, the influential definitions and usages of “conspiracy theory” actively attempt to infuse a guilt by association so that anyone in proximity to this label is immediately burdened with a comprehensive pseudo-religious worldview full of gay alien lizards and Jewish cabals. The intentional pejorative connotations are well-documented and go back to at least the 1960s.
This sort of smear should admittedly be too tough to swallow. It’s like saying you’re certifiably insane if you think corruption in the public sector is a possibility. A bit of a stretch.
Really, any sort of open society rather ought to actively promote the open and free exploration of conspiracy theories if for no other reason than that the social harms from the actual presence of such conspiracies would be positively immense. Far greater than the price of people’s perhaps more prominent distrust of vested interests and networks of power.
But the thing is, the Western social imaginary carefully constructed over several generations, i.e. our worldviews with regard to how society operates and what roles we have in it, is fundamentally inimical to the sort of corruption that the very notion of significant conspiracies entail. It can’t fathom that sort of idea. We generally tend to think of society as “ours”, and as something fundamentally good. That our institutions are flawed yet robust, led by echelons of morality and virtue towards a bright sciency future of liberty and justice (unlike e.g. those pesky Russians who blindly follow their irrational dictator). Not everyone buys this, of course, but most people do to some extent.
There’s namely an interlocking set of myths here that together forms the character of the normal, credulous citizen and allows him to experience Western society as both his own, an expression of his own will and agency, as well as governed by a rational elite of experts progressing towards the best possible future. The possible existence of meaningfully influential conspiracies with their own agendas racially unsettles this perspective, since that would mean some core aspect of these myths were false, and that the rationale of the social order were unsound.
And in a social order with a markedly failing institutional legitimacy such as ours, dissent has the potential of being much more destabilizing than during normal times.
Dissent is now both tougher to recuperate since you don’t really have the clout, the socio-cultural influence to subdue it by the force of your very inertia, and much more volatile since a great number of people are finding the radical revision of the social contract an appealing idea.
This is precisely why you have to double down on the social imaginary and the official ideologies and actively ostracise as heretics such groups of people who actively dissent in substantial ways. This is why the pejorative of “conspiracist” now proliferates.
A system in this situation has to clearly and in no uncertain terms get across the message that any disobedience by definition is both irrational and pathological, and in the contemporary set of discourses, there really is no more effective tool in the box than the pejorative of “conspiracy theorist”.
Just look at him. Behold his sub-human boorishness and irrational rejection of our social consensus, and feel your inculcated anger rising. Even the caption drips with contempt. You don’t wanna be anything like this guy, right? Right?