essays

Why there are conspiracy theorists

Prior to the pandemic, I was hoping to spend the summer teaching courses based on my book, Literature: How to Read and Understand the World. I was going to host an in-person release event at a coffee shop, following which I would run once-weekly meetings at this same location. Additionally, I was planning to put up flyers offering my services as a spiritual teacher and to gather with students to discuss spirituality. Finally, I had a wedding scheduled for this September.

As the pandemic progressed, it became sequentially clear each of these things wasn’t going to happen. Like dominoes, they fell, and I became increasingly alone, depressed, and without purpose. At times, I felt I had forgotten who I was.

During this time, I looked into many of the conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19. For instance, I came across David Icke’s theory that the virus was being used as a pretense for shutting down the global economy and forcing people into governmental dependency, as well as his criticisms of the PCR test, hospitals’ profit motive to diagnose Covid-19, and Bill Gates’s history. Additionally, I became familiar with Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, and other healing modalities from whose perspective extended lockdown could be nothing but damaging; and I even read the perspective that 5G rollout was the true cause of mass illness. Finally, I focused on the widespread censorship of any and all voices questioning the Covid-19 narrative or even mentioning the word 5G.

In the end, I realized that my interest in this information was more rooted in emotionality than anything. I was angry that the pandemic had taken away so many of the things I had planned for, and more than that, I was sad. Deeper still, I was anxious, anxious that I would never again be able to engage in the world in the manner I had prior to the pandemic, anxious over the state of suspended uncertainty into which I and so many other people had been thrown.

Despite saying that my curiosity in this information was emotionally rooted, why is it that I maintain conspiracy theorists serve an important function?

For one, they alert us to things we might not otherwise be aware we feel. For instance, over time, my paranoia about the global shutdown, skepticism of medical institutions, and indignance about censorship gave way to the base emotion of anger, which in turn exposed the deeper emotions of sadness and anxiety. As one living in a society increasingly disconnected from its feelings, perhaps I needed the conspiracy theories in order to locate my own deeper nature; perhaps I needed to sift through theory in order to access the substrate from which that theory sprang.

Extending this takeaway more broadly, I want to suggest that all truths are emotional in nature, or differently put, that emotions are as real as any statistical truth. When I am in a relationship with a partner, and my partner says to me that they were hurt by something I said, I don’t then say to them, “You do not have the right to be hurt, for you were wrong.” I say to them, “Oh, I’m sorry, how can I make the situation better?” Why do I respond in this way? Because I recognize my partner as a human being, and I recognize that their subjective emotion is as real to them as whatever emotions I may be experiencing in that moment. Even if I cannot “prove” anything about the emotion or its context, both are real. To the degree that I am in accord with those statements, I trust and am forming trust with my partner; to the degree that I do not, the relationship will fail.

There may be people who have read this far and want to respond with something like, “Well, yes, emotions are real, but aren’t conspiracy theorists’ emotions indicators of some kind of pathology? That is, aren’t they not based on truth?”

In case this is you, I want first to say that I have already begun to address this protest in the paragraph above. To the degree that we search out “truth” in response to emotionality rather than attending to that emotionality, we are disrespecting the other; we are refusing to acknowledge them as human. The fact is, none of us knows anywhere near as much as we pretend to know; most of the things we think we know, we have never directly experienced, instead acquiring the information through sources that may well have been manipulated. Furthermore, even the things we think we know are somewhat specious, since philosophy has never resolved millennia-old debates about the nature of reality. 

If all of this sounds ungrounded to you, I want next to propose that something in which you might believe, systemic racism, is also a kind of conspiracy theory. First off, systemic racism is unprovable by data alone; even if you show that the majority of seats of power are held by white people (which is true), the opposition can always say that this is a coincidence, or can pull the right’s favorite move of attributing inequities to “culture” (a proxy for racial inferiority). In other words, the data alone do not prove that the cause of the data is racism. Instead, systemic racism is a belief system that must be endorsed in order to see its reality in every institution, in every encounter, in every moment.

How does one make this switch, acquire this belief, gain this worldview? Through holding with compassion the life experience of a person of color, which is a choice.

And so I want to leave you with a few separate, but connected pieces of awareness:

1. Emotions are, in a sense, as real as anything else. In fact, there is a sense in which they are more real, since they exist within the domain of our experience as opposed to abstraction. Emotions are something we hold in our body and can feel regardless of whether anyone else endorses them.

2. Compassionately accessing others’ emotions, we gain access to their worldviews. When a friend of color tells me (a white person) about their experience of racism in an encounter with me, I have two options: a) I can deny their experience, seeking the “facts” about the situation, or b) I can let it in, opening myself up to new truths that complicate my worldview. Similarly, we can treat conspiracy theorists as communicators of emotional truths in a society poor at expressing them. What emotions am I feeling as I read or view this information? What might those emotions tell me about my situation, perhaps things I had been suppressing?

3. Making of this a spiritual practice sews peace among alienated communities and erases hierarchies of difference. In a relationship, when every vocalization of an encroachment is met with resistance or skepticism, trust crumbles and so does the relationship; when these vocalizations are instead met with curiosity and the intention to repair, the relationship grows stronger. So with conspiracy theorists, perceivers of systemic racism, and humanity writ large.

Do you want to live in a world fractured by divisions among the right and left, conspiratorial and mainstream, etc, etc, etc? If so, place “facts” before compassion. If not, approach each situation as the Buddha would, in your heart and with an open–even blank–mind.

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