Conspiracy Theories from Margins to Center Stage: Dynamics and Implications
Paper delivered at the conference on Antisemitism, Multi-culturalism and Ethnic Identity at Hebrew University under the auspices of the Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Antisemitism, June 16, 2006.
Introductory Remarks: Two Anecdotes
Let me begin with two anecdotes from a relatively calm, non-radicalized American campus.
No. 1: I once suggested to a colleague in African-American Studies that we have a conference on conspiracy theory. He blanched somewhat, and said, “but how could we control the audience?”
No. 2: I was on a panel consisting of three rappers, and an African-American professor discussing apocalyptic themes in hip-hop music. The notion that the US government was injecting AIDS in African-American communities came up so often that a member of the audience asked, “how many on the panel believe these AIDS conspiracies?” The three rappers all said they did. The African-American professor said, “I don’t want to answer that, because if I say I do, I’ll lose credibility with my colleagues, and if I say I don’t, I’ll lose credibility with the brothers.”
Between them, these two anecdotes tell us two extremely important elements of conspiracy theories:
1) Conspiracism is volatile: even talk about conspiracies and they can run away with your audience. In James C. Scott’s terms, conspiracies are “hidden transcripts,” pushed out of what’s permissable to say publicly. Just to speak of them, is to court an eruption of hidden transcripts into the public sphere. And given that the Shoah came to us via a people in the grip of mass paranoia, believers in a giant Jewish conspiracy that acted as a warrant for genocide, this is no small matter.
2) Conspiracism is far more common than the public record registers. More than the three rappers, the professor’s response reveals both the depth of the belief and its community-wide validity. No one can question this one without being viewed as having abandoned the community, here, without becoming an “Oreo.” It suggests that within certain communities, a public transcript at complete variance with that of the larger culture exists.
Conspiracy Thinking: Definitions and Dynamics
A conspiracy theory seeks to explain either one extremely important event (singular conspiracy), or a whole pattern of events (global conspiracy) by positing a small group of conspirators who are manipulating the public’s perception in order to a) carry out a nefarious deed of great damage to the public, and b) have the public blame the wrong agents. Most singular conspiracy theories tend to work on the principle of cui bono (to whom the good? i.e., who benefits?), and concern past events which they explain. They also tend to be passive – who can fight such powerful hidden forces? They are cognitive and emotional booby prizes: “Now we know why we’re screwed and it’s not our fault.”
Most global conspiracy theories seek to explain larger cultural phenomena, in particular, modernity (earliest modern Conspiracy theories begin in the late 18th century with the Masons (Illumiinati) blamed for democracy in America and France). Because they warn about a conspiracy in progress, they often (almost always) involve a critical question of timing – how far advanced is the conspiracy? Global conspiracies, because they have not already happened, can, under the right circumstances, become active. The most powerful large scale conspiracy theories convey a sense that the final stages have been reached; that a great battle looms; that if action were not imminent, it will be too late.
All global conspiracy theories have apocalyptic elements in all three senses of the word: they are radical and stunning revelations about the opaque present; they are part of a larger cataclysmic final transformation, of the world, and they are about to happen, imminent. Virtually all active cataclysmic apocalyptic (we are the agents of the huge cataclysm that precedes/accompanies the great apocalyptic transformation) has global conspiracy theories as a central element of its discourse (Nazism, Communism, Global Jihad).
Psychological dynamics: Appeal?
Conspiracy theories explain catastrophes as the work of men who appear beneficent, but secretly conspire to bring about those catastrophes. They assume the worst of these men, so consumed by the desire to dominate others that they will stop at nothing – including the most dastardly conspiracies – to achieve their goal. Conspiracy theories simplify the moral universe: the bad things that happen to us are not our fault, they are the fault of evil others. Future-oriented Conspiracy theories seek to warn an innocent victim population of the plots that these unscrupulous “others” even now set in motion against them. In particular, global Conspiracy theory tends to scape-goat. As René Girard has pointed out – scapegoating emphasizes the innocence of the scape-goater and the guilt of the designated victim. “Conspiracism,” points our Chip Berlet, is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames demonized enemies as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scape-goater as a hero for sounding the alarm.”
Conspiracy theories work on several psychological levels. Cognitively, they offer a gratifying world view that explains everything. All details cohere, unnoticed or unexplained facts fit into place, everything connects, gains shape and color. To the believer, now semiotically aroused with his new hermeneutic, the troubling world makes sense. Furthermore, Conspiracy theories tend to engage in systematic projection of bad faith onto the conspirators, or the cognitive egocentrism of bad faith. The articulators and believers in Conspiracy theories live in a universe where everyone is driven by libido dominandi, everyone wants to dominate and, as Eli Sagan so eloquently puts it describing the basic political axiom of the pre-modern world, it’s “rule or be ruled.” The only motivation possible among the conspiring “enemy” is a ruthless lust for power. And finally, Conspiracy theory is Gnostic: it is powerful hidden knowledge, available only the initiate, attractive, even true by very virtue of its being proscribed.
The emotional blandishments of Conspiracy theory are at least as attractive as the cognitive rewards. They offer above all freedom from any responsibility: failures, setbacks and sufferings, are not the victim’s fault; they are the work of the conspirators. The dualistic moral universe of “us” and “them” that Conspiracy theory provides shows up in stark and simple contrasts with no grey areas. Conspiracy theories are a quintessential expression of what, using James Scott’s term, we might call a hidden transcript of resentment.
Furthermore, Conspiracy theory at once eases the conscience – we are not at fault, we are innocent – and liberates it – no limits on what we must do in order to defend ourselves. The more dire the conspiracy, the more liberated the violence of the response: anything is permitted when struggling for one’s very existence against some agent who is plotting to destroy “us.” Conspiracy theories are narratives that justify aggressive action; the worse the conspiracy, the more aggressive the justifiable action. At their worst, they are “warrants for genocide.”
Conditions for conspiracy theory
I wish to posit the argument that Conspiracy theories are always present at a low level in any society. The real question is, when do they take over and drive a culture to act on paranoid fears. Or, to take up a problematic suggested to me by Anthony Kauders on Tuesday, how does it go from the public sphere of private conversations – coffee shop and tavern culture – to the published sphere, part of the public discourse. To take a graphic example, when and how did the paranoid chatter of the sans culottes become the policy of the Committee of Public Safety; when does paranoia dominate the public and political discourse.
Singular Conspiracy theories arise from specific events – Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, 9-11 – and unless they are connected to a larger plot, remain relatively low key. Collective or global Conspiracy theories tend to arise in civil societies, among what we might call “Nietzsche’s ‘blond beasts’ as losers”: those who, formerly dominant predators, having lost the authoritarian powers of aristocratic societies, imagine modernity as an unfinished conspiracy designed to replace their (now former) aristocratic dominion with a new and far more vicious form of universal slavery. These latter Conspiracy theories seem to be a natural companion of modern societies. When modern societies fall into conspiracy theory… when, for example, those in power invoke a clear and present danger to eliminate any criticism since criticism is part of the conspiracy, historically the consequences are grave. The French revolutionary terror, repeated on a colossal scale by the Russians and Germans and Chinese in the 20th century, represents the catastrophic results that can ensue from such madness taking hold.
Conspiracy theory seems to be a low-level constant, a marginal but enduring discourse. The key issue in terms of conditions under which Conspiracy theory takes over public discourse concerns less what produces such thought – it (Indeed, meditating on Scott’s work, I suspect that conspiracy thinking is a major dimension of most “hidden transcript” discourse in most cultures, especially in ones where an aristocratic minority has managed to monopolize power (i.e., successfully pull of a conspiracy of dominion). Given their destructiveness, successful modern societies have developed a healthy resistance to Conspiracy theories. They tend to break out at moments of crisis, when social forces that seem out of control bring ruin upon many (e.g., the great Depression), and they work best in populations filled with a sense of unavowable guilt which they eagerly project onto another party.
The more the conspiratorial narrative identifies marginal and vulnerable populations as the conspirators, the more they appeal to the desire to victimize the innocent and dishonestly absolve guilt. The dishonesty of this kind of scapegoating conspiracy theory of course leads to seriously self-destructive behavior, misidentifying the source of the suffering. As a result, although attacking the mistaken foe may offer immediate if temporary psychological relief, in the long run intensifies the grip of those who do impose the suffering. When European populations rose to the paranoid call of rumors about witches and Jews and lepers poisoning their wells and blighting their lives, they ended up putting themselves ever more firmly in the grip of an ecclesiastical Inquisition that blighted European life for centuries.
At the simplest level, by alleviating the need for self-criticism – indeed, declaring self-criticism a form of betrayal of the cause against the conspirators – conspiracy theory relegates the cultures that indulge in it to a cycle of failure and depression: when serious consideration of past errors cannot take place (i.e., history is dishonest), societies have flat learning curves. Moreover, rendering all relations with the “other” conflictual, makes it difficult to solve problems with positive-sum outcomes (win-win). Conspiracy theories are the crystallization of a whole world view of absolute scarcity: every relationship, every event is zero-sum; every motive hostile; every exchange an attack; everyone suspect.
Given its destructive capacities, Conspiracy theory discourse tends to get banished from public space; and when it does appear, it gets beaten back with silence, contempt and hostility. So one of the keys in determining when one gets an outbreak of conspiracism, comes from paying attention to what happens when a Conspiracy theory discourse goes public. If it gets well received by the public rather than rejected, the culture in which such a narrative “takes” is in for a rough ride, especially if that narrative is a global or future-oriented conspiracy theory.
Role of media
For conspiracy theory to go public it must have means of communicating itself. Many who think conspiratorially never go beyond their own selves, since when they share their concerns with family and neighbors they are rejected and find no friendly ear, or if so, only the ears of other losers. The existence of means of communication for people whom the “gatekeepers” normally keep out of public discourse vastly increases the ability of conspiracy theory to “take” among a larger audience of people who can be reached. Thus, print, telephone, and especially the internet have immensely increased the scope of conspiracy. Indeed, given the capacity of the internet to bring together people from all over the world to exchange conspiracy theories and anomalous “facts,” the number of identifiable conspiracies, and the heat their discussion generates has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. If anything, the WWW represents a Petrie dish for conspiracies. This is especially evident in the increase of the number of conspiracies circulating about the last few presidents. Bill Clinton had more than all the previous sevesan – Nixon and Kennedy included – and Bush surpassed Clinton’s record in his first term. I’ll come back to this point. First, let me make a side journey, via the Middle East.
Next: Conspiracy theory in Arab/Muslim world