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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Part 2: Conspiracy Theories - "The Truth Is Out There"


Historian Bruce Cumings rejects the pervasive appeal of conspiracies in saying, “If conspiracies exist, they rarely move history; they make a difference at the margins from time to time, but with the unforeseen consequences of logic outside the control of their authors; and this is what is wrong with ‘conspiracy theory.’ History is moved by the broad forces and large structures of human collectiveness.”
I think this is a difficult statement to defend. While Hitler may not have anticipated the “unforeseen consequences” of Germany’s defeat in WWII, his scapegoating of, and conspiracy theories about, Jews, Russians, Poles, and Gypsies certainly led to the deaths of 40 million human beings. That doesn’t seem to be at the margins of history.
There is a primary dichotomy between those that see historical events and movements as provable by institutional analysis (called “structuralists”) and those who see them as disreputable conspiracies (called “conspiricists” which is the same as conspiracy theorists. 
People who believe in a conspiricism model have the belief that conspiracies are the central explanation of history. Like a communist believes in Communism, or a capitalist believes in Capitalism. Conspiricism usually leads to “scapegoating” where enemies are seen as part of a vast plot against the common good.
Conspiricism was popularized by Frank Mintz who said, “(It) serves the needs of diverse political and social groups. It identifies elites, blames them for economic and social catastrophes, and assumes that things will be better once popular action can remove them from positions of power. As such, conspiracy theories do not typify a particular epoch or ideology.”
So people all over the world in different countries, with different ideologies, and different cultures can be more or less influenced by conspiracy theories.
Some have been around for years and others for centuries. Today, it may be easier than ever to keep the conspiracy theory ball rolling. We are all kept more immediately and completely connected via modern electronic media. You would think that conspiracy theories wouldn’t have a chance to develop because we are all in such close contact but the opposite seems to be true.
The Vacuum
Most current day conspiracy theories arise when there is a vacuum of information.
In stressful times, when the public is deprived of the truth, either intentionally or because the truth isn’t yet known, it will operate on speculation and rumor. Even obvious implausibility is secondary. Whether by fact or fiction, the information vacuum will be filled.
Our government, instead of dampening these theories, actually cultivates them.
Even when the authority believes they are being objective, they are preparing the ground for the seeds of conspiracy theories. Offering no explanation at all is perceived as saying, “we know the truth, but we aren’t going to tell you.”
In this respect they are their own worst enemy. Many in the government see the public as at least gullible. During the Vietnam War, military briefings given to the news media were intentionally misleading.
The government has historically done a poor job of convincing the public of much of anything. As a result, people now want other sources of information to gauge whether the official story is plausible or not. Some major news outlets have very definite ideological leanings toward the government so new sources of information even further to the outside have now become main stream. Some of these are on the fringe of plausibility themselves.
This challenging of the government line may be healthy in one respect but it also engenders support for alternate explanations. Lacking believable alternative explanations of events, conspiracies make as much sense as anything else.
Mass Media spreads the epidemic
Although it may be counter intuitive, mass media, instead of discounting conspiracy theories actually feeds the public appetite for them.
There is a tendency for news media, for example, to present stories as though important events and decisions are “personality centered” and not the result of more complex structures such as legislatures, organizations, compromise, and consensus. We, the audience, seem to be more receptive to this cult of personality and it lends itself to conspiracy theory. The mass media has bought, hook line and sinker, a primary tenant of conspiracy theories - who gains?

Additionally, the media seems to give this “personality centered” bias even more credibility if the surrounding events are highly dramatized and negative in nature. You may not even know the name of the person tagged as the villain. The possibility of an accidental event is no longer part of the news story. For example, when Toyota began having problems with sticking accelerators in its cars in 2010, the immediate response by many people was that the CEO of Toyota was at the head of a conspiracy to save money which put the public in danger. There is no logical explanation that would substantiate this claim.
Contemporary news media and entertainment media almost always personalize and dramatize events, setting up the conflict between two sides. Media supports the idea that all things unfold for someone’s advantage. This makes them susceptible to conspiracy theory, and frequently reinforcing belief in political conspiracy.
The entertainment media, through television and motion pictures, have long depicted government and business as conspiracies that are just following their standard operating procedure. These productions also exhibit a “personality centered” bias, as you would expect (after all, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler were much more important than the Civil War).
There are several dozen television programs that center on conspiracies. It is rare to find even one that presents alternative explanations to the conspiracy premise. Ancient Alien technology is more entertaining than seeing hard working Egyptians dragging stone blocks to the pyramid.
With millions of web sites operating and hundreds of millions of people searching them, the number of alternative explanations of anything is huge. They test our gullibility daily as almost all of these have their own agenda. One is not necessarily closer to the truth than another
“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Carl Sagan

Many conspiracy theorists claim that their evidence is fact-based and testable. They create complicated presentations to substantiate their claims - to prove that the unbelievable is believable. According to Michael Barkum, conspiracy theories are at their core “non-falsifiable.” It is almost impossible to prove them wrong.
Conspiracy theory claims reduce complex phenomena to simple causes, a simple plot. Barkum states, “The result is a closed system of ideas about a plot that is believed not only to be responsible for creating a wide range of evils but also to be so clever at covering its tracks that it can manufacture evidence adduced by skeptics. In the end, the theory becomes non-falsifiable.”  It’s like arguing with a person who keeps expanding the boundaries of the argument until nothing can be said with certainty.
Additionally, the more general the claim, the less relevant evidence there is available. The theory borrows from unrelated sources to build novel systems of belief. Ultimately the theory becomes a matter of faith, not proof.
Actually, yes. Some psychologists think that, even if those behind the conspiracy are perceived as hostile, there may be some reassurance in believing it is real.
A person may find some consolation in believing that the crisis’s and struggles in their life are created by other human beings, rather than by random occurrences that are well beyond their control.
If you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating John Kennedy, than any nut case with a mail-order rifle could get the President. It’s a short step from there to believing that anything could happen to anyone at anytime, even to ourselves.
Through acceptance of a conspiracy theory these occurrences may become more understandable and eventually controllable. Believing in a conspiracy may reinforce one’s sense of dignity as it helps a person to avoid feeling completely helpless. There may still be a slight hope that you could control your own destiny.
Conspiracy theories can be emotionally satisfying too. They can place events in an understandable context. The believer can blame a troubling event on a clearly identified group (one that he does NOT belong to). As a result, the person may excuse themselves of any moral responsibility for what bad things may happen to others.
Conspiracy theory has been called “the ultimate refuge of the powerless.” That includes just about all of us.

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