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Sunday, July 12, 2020

On Conspiracy Theories

I'm tired of conspiracy theories, I really am.

I thought of this because of the latest faux scandal involving some company and child trafficking. I'm not going to get too in-depth on the conspiracy itself because I'm not interested in giving it more credence than it deserves. Suffice to say, people have seized upon typos and prices and concocted an elaborate fantasy land where a company is involved in terrible, terrible things.

What gets me about this specific conspiracy is that companies do bad things all the time. Union Carbide killed thousands of people in Bhopal, India. Nestle steals drinking water from people and has led directly to deaths of newborns by pushing formula on unsuspecting mothers who don't have access to clean drinking water.

Those aren't the things people fixate on. They're not interested in these very real, very documented problems. They'd rather think about basements of pizza places and shadowy cabals who cover up evil misdoings. It's become more concerning as of late. Conspiracies abound, especially since Facebook is the WORST and allows just about anyone to propagate a conspiracy, whether it's about COVID, or 5G, or masks.
I'm reading a book by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi called Reclaiming History. Maybe I shouldn't call it a book, because it's enormous. "Tome" would be a better word. It's all about the Kennedy assassination, and why we know for an absolute certainty that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman.

At the beginning of the book, Bugliosi recounts a story of when he gave a speech to a room full of lawyers. He says in the intro:

"Back in early 1992, a few months after the strongly pro-conspiracy movie JFK came out, I was speaking to about six hundred lawyers at a trial lawyers' convention on the East Coast. [...] I asked for a show of hands as to how many did not accept the findings of the Warren Commission. A forest of hands went up, easily 85 to 90 percent of the audience. So I said to them, "What if I could prove to you in one minute or less that although you are all intelligent people you are not thinking intelligently about he Kennedy case?" I could sense an immediate stirring in the audience. My challenge sounded ridiculous. How could I prove in one minute or less that close to six hundred lawyers were not thinking intelligently? A voice from my right front shouted out, "We don't think you can do it." I responded, "Okay, start looking at your watches."

"With the clock ticking, I asked for another show of hands as to who had seen the recent movie JFK or at any time in the past had ever read any book or magazine article propounding the conspiracy theory or otherwise rejecting the findings of the Warren Commission. Again, a great number of hands went up - about the same, it seemed to me, as the previous hand count. [...] "I'm sure you will all agree," I said, "that before you form an intelligent opinion on a matter in dispute you should hear both sides of the issue. [...] With that in mind, how many of you have read the Warren Report? It was embarrassing. Only a few people raised their hands. [...] The overwhelming majority in the audience had formed an opinion rejecting the findings of the Warren Commission without bothering to read the Commission's report."

This happens over and over and over again in America. Something terrible happens, and after we digest it for a bit, we start with the theories. But why?

I have two theories on this. The first is that we live in a very complicated world. Life gets more and more complex every day. We want to be good people. We really do. But how can you be good if you don't know what the right move is? This is a quandary that philosophers grapple with: What is "good," and how can you be "good" if your choices contribute to someone else's suffering?

I read a thread of tweets the other day that suggested things that you could do to help hold off global warming. One of the ideas was not to buy "cheap fashion." Basically, as time goes on, clothes get cheaper because sweatshops spring up all over. The sweatshop controversy of the 90's led to certain countries cracking down on sweatshops, but new ones sprang up, and even more of them than before. Every clothing company uses them. That's why, as the price of most goods has gone up, clothes have stayed mostly level.

The argument goes: If you buy cheap clothes, you're purchasing them from a sweatshop that exploits their labor That sweatshop then has to ship those clothes via wasteful transport ships that burn the filthiest coal they can get. This accelerates global warming.

So, stop buying cheap clothes! Simple, right?

The issue is that we're all trying to stretch our dollar these days. Would you rather pay $10 or $20 for the same piece of clothing? The vast majority of us would easily make a quick value judgment that our immediate need for a shirt is more pressing than the concerns of the Arctic ice, so we buy the cheap shirt. The more we learn about the systems that the world uses, the more complicated our lives become.

This is just one example of the complicated moral choices we have to make every single day. Do we drive our car to the store or walk? Driving wastes gas, but walking takes so long and I need the Preparation H NOW. Do we get delivery or make food? Delivery is more expensive and exploits someone possibly making less than minimum wage, but I'm really tired from a long day at work.

And let's not even get into the complicated field of racism. Boy howdy. That's a different article entirely.

With a world like this, a conspiracy is a way to simplify things. It's a way of pointing at something and saying, "There. That is uncomplicatedly evil. Life is chaotic and confusing, but at least right there we know that evil is happening."

But why would that be comforting? That brings me to my second point: Our collective religious background.

Most people in America are raised in a Judeo-Christian religion. If they haven't been raised in one, its still in the cultural air that we breathe. There's a bad thing, and then a savior comes up and solves the problem. The savior may be Superman or Iron Man, but there's still someone who fixes the bad thing.

Part of this Judeo-Christian upbringing is Manichaeism, which boils down to the fact that there is ultimate good and ultimate evil. In Christian faiths, that ultimate evil is Satan. Satan is a deceiver and hides behind every door, infecting those with wicked hearts and causing them to do unspeakable acts.

Think about our cultural touchstones. Star Wars has a good team and a bad team. The Emperor is uncomplicatedly bad. He's evil, and wants to rule the world.

Take Harry Potter. There are good guys and bad guys. The bad guys hide in plain sight. They're evil, and they want to rule the world.

I'm sure you can think of more examples. The idea of good-versus-evil is in our cultural air, and you're partaking in it without even noticing.

When a conspiracy points us at someone who is evil, we recognize it. We're primed for it. We're now able to point at that evil and say, ultimately, "I recognize that evil. I see you, and therefore I am not evil. I am on the side of the light."

It's another way we soothe ourselves and feel just a teensy-weensy bit better about our world. There may be terrible things, but at least we're not part of it.

Notice what happens when you try and disabuse someone of a conspiracy. It doesn't matter what information you present to them or how much you try, the believe will cling to it nonetheless. They want the conspiracy to be true because if it's not true, if this ultimate evil is just a figment of their imagination, then their ultimate good may as well be imagined as well. If they're not ultimately good, then who are they?

How do you fix this? I really don't know. Unlike what conspiracy theorists believe, there are no easy answers, and there never will be.

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