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Suspend Your Belief

Note: This article has been edited and republished in an updated form on Viewshound.com. You can find it here. Thanks!

September 11, 2001. The Holocaust. The 1969 moon landing. The Federal Reserve. Peak oil. Lizardmen.

You’re probably wondering by now why I could possibly be listing all of these things together, and you’d be right to do so! What do these bizarre, disparate things have in common? They’re all features of conspiracy theories.

Chances are that you’re already familiar with some of these theories, and hopefully you’re familiar with how ridiculous they are. For those not in the know, a conspiracy theory is, according to Dictionary.com‘s definition, “a theory that explains an event as being the result of a plot by a covert group or organization; a belief that a particular unexplained event was caused by such a group.” Alternatively, it is “the idea that many important political events or economic and social trends are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.”┬áPeople also often have their own personal demons of conspiracy. The idea that “everyone’s out to get you!” is an unfortunately common one.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of all the various conspiracy theories currently floating around, nor am I going to write about the validity of such claims. I’m not even going to give reasons these theories are (almost certainly) false. What I think is most interesting about these is not the content of the theories so much as what may be the reasons for belief in such seemingly wild ideas.

So why is it that some people think that 9/11 was staged by the US government, or that the Holocaust never happened, or that a clandestine race of lizard people controls world politics? (You’ll have to ask David Icke about that one.)

The first reason that comes to mind is perhaps a rather obvious one: Paranoia. A surprisingly large number of people seem convinced that someone is out to get them. Of course, this someone usually isn’t the entire world, but is more often just one person or group. In the case of some of my relatives, “someone” is the IRS. For my (somewhat unstable) roommate, “someone” is his Ethics professor. But no matter who “someone” is, many people are paranoid for often ridiculous reasons. This sort of paranoia can lead people of all kinds to be suspicious of everything around them, just in case it might be “out to get them.”

The second reason is probably somewhat less apparent, at least at first reckoning. What is this reason? The internet, and the community it provides. Of course, conspiracy theorizing existed long before the advent of the internet. But the incredible establishment of this nearly worldwide network of connections allows people of all kinds, with the most unexpected and unpopular beliefs, to come together, even if there are oceans between them. Online networking capabilities have allowed people all over the world to connect with others who share their views, feelings, and ideas. In fact, even this blog has helped me connect with and learn from people as far away as the United Kingdom (I live in Oregon)! The internet allows the conspiracy theory diaspora to connect with each other, discuss ideas, and receive validation of their ideas, which are often rejected by those immediately around them.

Finally, and most importantly, conspiracy theories exist as a form of explanation. Great tragedies and human suffering often seem unexplainable to us, and horrifically tragic events such as the September 11 attacks and the Holocaust tend to give rise to conspiracy theories, as a way to explain the unexplainable. Anguish and misery are difficult things for us as humans to deal with and to understand, and conspiracy theories provide an explanation for these things, albeit a flimsy one. No one can claim to truly understand the thinking behind the horrible massacre of Jews in the Holocaust, but these theories allow those who believe them to convince themselves that there was some sensible reason for it.

This also permits absolution. Of course, the suffering of the Holocaust or the 9/11 attacks was the work of a (relatively) few. But it’s difficult to think that another human being could do such a thing, and it leads some to wonder if they could ever do the same. Conspiracy theories offer freedom from this collective guilt by placing blame on a very few people of almost supernatural levels of evil. They allow one to draw a thick line between the “us” of normal society and the “them” of conspirators.

I must say that I’m almost universally skeptical of conspiracy theories, of any kind. But after giving this some deeper thought, I can honestly say I’ve come to a better understanding of where these theories come from, and why they appear. I hope this can help you say the same!

My apologies for my recently sporadic posting. School, classes, and other such obligations have been cutting into my time for creative writing. I hope to post more regularly (and more coherently!) after I’ve taken care of all my academic duties. School’s out soon! For now, I’ll post as frequently as I can. Hope you enjoy!


Filed under People & Society