I want to introduce a distinction between grounded and ungrounded conspiracy theories, only the former of which deserves the name “theory.” This is an important distinction because it allows us to articulate dangers and potential sources of exploitation without veering into the speculative.
For an example, that it is dangerous for humans to communicate solely through the internet is a grounded conspiracy theory. What I mean by this is that this sentiment is an elaboration of a condition rather than a supposition of a cause: when humans communicate only through the internet, all their communication can be tracked, and they have at their disposal only information that is controlled by large corporations. By contrast, humans communicating in physical reality can say things to one another that remain truly private—at least, so we think—and they gain access to information that can in no way be controlled, information like the organic pulse of a large crowd or the sublimity of a sweeping vista. When humans communicate with one another only through the internet, as has largely happened throughout the pandemic, this creates conditions of exploitation whether or not that exploitation actually occurs, and articulating this alone is what I call a grounded conspiracy theory.
Another example is the oversize power of the pharmaceutical industry, something which can be pointed to both in terms of lobbying influence and raw financial gain. This being the case, humans can begin to ask questions such as: how did this industry become so powerful, and is it really conceivable that it was only through just means? What is all that lobbying power being used for? Given other examples of vast lobbying power, might we be receiving lies at the hands of this industry? None of these questions transcend the realm of what we can actually know about the pharmaceutical industry, instead cementing themselves in what is already widely agreed upon and easily researched, then opening into the realm of the unknown.
By contrast, ungrounded conspiracy theories have no humility and attempt to explain away that which can not in fact be known. For instance, an ungrounded conspiracy theory is that the emerging Coronavirus vaccines are being used to change human DNA and track human beings, and that this is being done in order to usher in a technocratic tyranny. We cannot in fact know this purpose, because we cannot access the minds of the people responsible for the vaccine, and the information about the vaccine’s supposedly nefarious qualities is dubious at best. Another example would be any theory which claims to know the overall “plan” for humanity and the source of that plan, such as David Icke’s theory of the Illuminati and of reptilian control. Could one person possibly stumble upon and seize this kind of grand information? No, and so Icke is widely regarded as a loony.
When I interact with a grounded conspiracy theory, I feel sensitive and attuned in the same manner as antelopes pricking up their ears at the possibility of a nearby lion. Do I know that something diabolical is occurring? No, but I know that the conditions are rife for it to happen, and that makes me alert. With this alertness, I become skeptical, taking in information and following rules and guidelines from authority figures, but also retaining the double consciousness that tells me these figures might be wrong.
On the other hand, when I interact with an ungrounded conspiracy theory, I feel both energized and maligned, as though I am the victim of a large and convoluted plot. This feeling can be exhilarating, because it feels like it fills me with special knowledge, but it is also disempowering, because usually the forces hypothesized are too ubiquitous or entrenched to possibly beat. With an ungrounded conspiracy theory, I lose the simple complexity of human beings trying to figure out the world together, a simple complexity which is actually workable and in which there are real solutions.
I want to suggest that grounded conspiracy theories’ power comes from their openness and their inarguability: they simply state the facts that all can agree upon, then ask questions about those facts that might be occurring in others’ minds as well. With this two-step gesture, grounded conspiracy theories mimic the spontaneous communication that can happen only in physical reality and with groups of people; people notice what is happening around them, corroborate it with other people, then ask questions about it. All this happening as a communal conversation, there is the possibility of transgressive discourse and systemic change.
In closing, I want to ask you to consider the facts about our world that put you on edge. Are there things you perceive to be dangerous, or conditions you think could be easily exploited, that scarcely anyone would disagree with if you were to voice these conditions to them? Furthermore, are there questions you could ask about these conditions that would invite the same humility and curiosity in others? Where can you encounter people with whom to have these conversations? And through this desire itself, what is it that you find you value?