Conspiracy theories, daddy issues and a bit of Downton Abbey.
Explaining the psychology of conspiracy theories by way of a meandering mea culpa containing, as a homage to conspiracy theory, absolutely no research.
For the longest time, I thought conspiracy theories were cool. The current behind the ebb and flow of history. The show beyond the show. The invisible hand behind countless black and white pictures of violence and emancipation.
At least until my mid twenties. I credit the South Park episode on 9/11 conspiracies with changing my mind. You know the one where someone defecates in the school urinal and Cartman tries to blame 9/11 on Kyle? Finding out who dropped “the urinal deuce” was a watershed moment for me, my understanding of politics, and my appreciation of complex systems.
Until then, I had a habit of resisting “conformist” behavior by saying that’s what They want. The official version of events was what They wanted you to believe. To indicate I was letting others in on a valuable and delicate secret, I would trumpet this in as public a space, as loudly as possible.
Most would roll their eyes, but someone would nod. Instant bond. Neither of us had to explain who They was. We had signalled to each other that we were both in the group of knowing. We strutted like it was about questioning, but it was about knowing, knowing without any effort. You could sound mysterious and insightful at once. And you didn’t even have to do any research.
There was an edgy cynicism to how minimalist a signalling gesture it was. It was instantly recognizable, vague and empty of facts. And a powerful bonding tool. Invoking They was like performing a secret handshake without hands.
And it could be applied to almost everything.
They want to rig the election and dump the currency. They want to put listening devices inside everyone’s fillings and eavesdrop on your inner monologue. They are the reason hot dogs come in packs of 20 and buns in packs of 6. They are the reason you always overcook your frozen pizza.
They usually refers to the sinister hand at work whenever we get the nagging sense a major historical milestone has been reached. Usually one we have no idea how to explain. The distinguished ladies and gentlemen of the internet comment sections believe in They. Steve Bannon, Trump’s pale right fist hand believes in They. You may even believe in They yourself.
I believe They is a result of faulty pattern recognition. They is an optical illusion borne of the ancestral need for a controllable universe, and the even older habit of watching too much TV. I felt my real life sucked and I wanted to live in the “over there” of TV land. Turns out you should be careful what you wish for.
It’s all in Downton Abbey
Conspiracy theory logic often mirrors the logic TV and in particular, of soap opera.
For example, In Downton Abbey, every action, murder, death, betrayal or even accident is the intentional result of human will. Lady Grantham slips on a bar of soap and miscarries, not by accident but because O’Brien surreptitiously placed it under her heel. Nothing happens unless some hero (or heel) wanted it to. The causality is straightforward and derives from human agency.
In the soap opera universe, everything is the result of human intention and every intention is knowable. Therefore, omniscience is technically possible. To know every gear and pulley that moves that universe, all you would have to do is be able to listen in on all the conversations going on. Thomas’ and O’Brien’s plot to frame Bates for stealing Lord Grantham’s snuffbox would be no match for the snooping might of the NSA.
That’s what makes Downton Abbey a fun soap opera but The Sopranos a painful proustian masterpiece. In The Sopranos, randomness, error and petty micro-decisions decide the characters fates. Too real, man. I want to escape somewhere everything happens on purpose.
An ordered universe, where causality follows human will, ensures that the good guys victory will be translated into a happily ever after. Of course we wish this model applied to real life.
For a prolonged period of my life, I thought it did. That period was called the 90s. A.k.a the decade-long Spring Break of the white middle class, taking out frivolous loans, wearing Alan Greenspan autographed t-shirts saying “we may never lose money again.” We were riding off into the sunset, morally cleansed by our cold war victory, every orifice crammed with cheap consumer goods like some obscene horse-riding horn of plenty… (Idea for a western: A Buttfull of Tchotchkies)
…and then 9/11 happened. It happened and I/you/we were faced with a choice. We could accept that 17 highly motivated individuals with Home Depot box cutters (6.99$) and a grudge could change the course of history and flip the script on our impotent leaders. Or we could refuse to believe that our Daddies in the White House could be that profoundly emasculated. In the latter case, we had to believe Daddy did this to us (yes, to you and me personally, especially you) for some reason.
We have Geopolitical Daddy Issues and that’s kinda hot.
If the world is ordered according to human will, then maybe all the misery is down to the wrong people making the decisions. The bad guys figured out where the levers, pulleys and buttons of world history are way before we the people did. They are the cause of our suffering. Daddy is still in charge and he knows you better than you know yourself, that’s why he is doing this to you. And I promise that’s as sexually suggestive as this is gonna get. Hopefully.
If we could only listen in on Daddy’s secret conversations, we would be privy to the same knowledge and able to save the world/find out the real reason we aren’t road tripping down to Disneyworld this year. Hence the conspiracy theorist’s obsession with secret group meetings and classified documents. All little Alex Jones really wants is to sit at the top of the stairs in his pyjamas and listen to the conversations emanating from the kitchen of secret power.
If we possess the enemy’s secret knowledge, maybe we can figure out who the big bad is, and kill it. The Borg Queen, the head body-snatcher we decapitate rendering inert all the tentacles, the head vampire whose death vaporizes the minions. If human suffering has a single heart, then we can put a stake through it.
If there’s only one baddie, or a room of baddies, or a club of baddies in a bitchin’ baddie treehouse (no girls allowed), then we can fix the world. There is hope for humanity. There is hope that one day the ice caps will re-freeze, the wealth gap will close and the middle east will find peace. And Brangelina will reform, just in time to narrowly avert 10,000 years of darkness.
They belies a fantasy of control. The fantasy that history and human destiny can be controlled by humans. That someone is in the driver’s seat. That there is a driver’s seat in the first place. There is a big daddy somewhere and he is mean, but that means if we got a new daddy he could make all our dreams come true. And take the whole human race, of every colour, gender and creed, forward, to Disneyworld.
I’ve unsuccessfully tried to find studies correlating a belief in conspiracy theory with authoritarian tendencies. My gut bias is that they correlate. “My gut bias”, now that’s just good scholarship right there. If you secretly want to rule the world, first you have to believe it can be ruled.
The fantasy of big daddy becomes acute in times of chaos. Take Russia for example. In the 90s, after the collapse of Soviet Daddy, the entire country seemed to fall apart. Then came Putin. The propaganda depicting him, to my mind, still makes it unclear whether he should be viewed by the women of Russia as a father, a husband, or both.
Maybe the blurred lines are intentional. This phenomenon is probably best illustrated in the West by the alt-right (140 character fascist) “blogger” Milo Yannopoulos who refers to Donald Trump as “Daddy”.
Cui Bono? Cui cares?
The ordered universe of a soap opera is reassuring, but the chaotic and indifferent universe of the television sitcom is a more accurate metaphor for geopolitics. If it feels like our leaders aren’t really in charge, then it is reassuring to imagine our presidents and CEOs as puppets. It is far scarier to imagine the ultimate human authority as klutzy captains of tiny ships buffeted by the winds of randomness and the waves of historical process.
This makes them look impotent. It makes us feel impotent. We don’t want to imagine that the most powerful man in the world is just as capable as we are of spilling the lobster bisque on great aunt Ida’s lap.
However, many ask: “But if no one is in control, how come it’s always the same people who benefit and the same people who get shafted? How come the rich get richer? How come when the money is up in the air, it always falls in the same people’s pocket?”
Benefit does not imply control. Conspiracy theorists are fond of asking “who benefits?” or Cui bono? It isn’t the most useful question. The umbrella salesman doesn’t make the rain. And an event can benefit you one day and doom you the next.
Not my president, not my fault
Yet the question of who benefits comes with an underlying assumption: “it isn’t us”. We aren’t benefiting. We aren’t benefitting from the great shifts and events of our time. They are. Someone hidden is benefitting because no one I know is. This speaks a widespread feeling of disenfranchisement.
If I was going to be mean, and I want to be, at least a little (pretty please), I would say that this also serves to reject responsibility. It serves as a way of externalising blame for all the suffering in the world onto a faceless bogeyman. We cast ourselves as victims of the system to avoid being perpetrators. They the guilty make us the innocent.
So I would like to break the chain and confess. I did it. I burned your pizza. I choked that dolphin to death with that plastic muzzle when I bought all those six-packs in freshman year. I veiled those Saudi women when I didn’t object to you buying a third -and clearly essential- gas guzzling SUV. I voted for Fake news, Farage and the Donald when I decided that fact-checking could wait but getting likes couldn’t.
I am They. So are you. Instead of going to Disneyworld, we have brought Disneyworld to us.
But we’re still waiting on that Treehouse.