In the last week, two major events have heralded, that is depending upon your viewpoint, paradigm shifting realities. Apple released the iPhone X, and the government declassified most of its JFK files. Apple lauded the augmented reality features of its newest iPhone, and the JFK assassination continues to augment the reality of conspiracy theorists ever since November 22, 1963.
Conspiracy theories, however, are as integral to American culture as apple pie; they have been part of our culture since before the formalization of America.
We all love a good secret. Vanilla ice cream doesn’t shock us with unexpected flavors and bites, so we turn to ever more evolving flavors and mixtures. We love it when novels and movies contain unexpected twist and turns, and the upset victory in sports will always fuel tomorrow’s water cooler conversations. It is not called the Law and Order twist for nothing. We have become conditioned to believe that reality isn’t vanilla; something else must be happening behind the scenes.
Conspiracies have been around for at least two millennia. Beginning with the story that Jesus’ disciples stole the body of Jesus while the guards slept to the ongoing Russia investigation, everyone loves a good conspiracy. They enlighten our lives and provide insight into the world around us; they pierce the veil.
In fact, from author James P. Byrd, Pulitzer prize-winning Professor Emeritus of History Gordon S. Wood believes that conspiratorial thinking “was a direct result of Enlightenment rationality and belief in the power of human decisions to influence great events.” Some believe that conspiracy theorists and their followers have some mental deficiency.
But Wood believes that “belief in plots was not a symptom of disturbed minds but a rational attempt to explain human phenomena in terms of human intentions and to maintain moral coherence in the affairs of men.” Making sense of the world around us, of course, is the realm of the sciences to include the social sciences, and conspiracies are an important part of our social ecosystem.
Conspiracies can unify people under a cause. Such was the case for the American Revolution. Those who argued for revolution used the conspiracy of total enslavement by Great Britain to convince the populace to support independence. Truth doesn’t matter for conspiracies; only the cause matters.
But not all causes are created the same.
I’ve known of Alex Jones ever since 9/11. I had an undergrad professor who was a guest on his radio show when I studied under her. We had classes dedicated to conspiracies surrounding 9/11, and even conspiratorialist Karl Schwartz guest-spoke at one class.
The problem with conspiracy theories is that they are a highly addictive drug. They give us some truth in a world that constantly denies truth. The more that conspiracies reveal, the more they hide, therefore the more we need. It is an addicting behavior.
However, conspiracies contaminate honest public discourse. They bias our conversations by hijacking our belief systems into their narratives. And if there is one thing I value, it is the power of honest and unbiased discourse where our voices don’t negate others – an equity of open-minded conversation. But conspiracies prejudice the open-mind.
The problem is that art can only be created through some biased view. And since our humanity relies upon arts to function, biases, paranoias, and conspiracies are foundational to our humanity.
We can’t escape it, but we can control it. We can listen to contrary views and accept contrary opinions and still retain our humanity. But to make our discourse honest and substantial, we need to recognize that socially conspiratorial addictive behaviors will not only dangerously augment our reality, but contaminate our discourse as well.