On soft conspiracism

My mother was spitting tacks as I popped my head around the door of the living room. Urgently, she thrust before me a piece of paper. A petition.

The council had, after a consultation, decided to close one of the three primary schools in the town and amalgamate the remainder into the other two. We should oppose this, she said.

I raised my eyebrow at this. Why, precisely?

A pause followed before she responded:

“They’ve taken everything from us. They took the railways when I first moved here. They took the industry. They took the post office. They are taking the banks from the high street. And now they want to take the school? No”

I think about this conversation quite often. My Mam isn’t a remotely stupid woman. In fact, she’s the opposite, fiercely intelligent, if relatively uneducated by the standards of today. And yet, faced with something she didn’t quite understand, couldn’t quite vocalise, she personalised. She made it a “they”.

Each of the above decisions was, ultimately, taken by individuals. And, in part, some of those decisions were powered by what we could call an ideology. An economic way of viewing the world. But not quite.

The roads were less high maintenance and required less staff than the railways. The industry – primarily coal mining – started to slide decades before she was born, when the railways and the British Navy switched from steam to diesel as a fuel that was both more efficient and less labour intensive. The post office wound down due to lack of demand, the banks closed due to lack of demand and due to the growth of online transactions. The school closed because, due to the dearth of industry, demographics changed and there were less people of working age so, as a consequence, less children.

Each of those decisions had decision makers, sure. And each could have been made differently, handled better (certainly in the overhanging case of industry, a great deal gentler), alternatives could have been sought. But – with the possibility of industry aside – there was little or no malice behind the decisions. And yet here she was – she denied she meant it that way after, of course, but that Freudian slip of language was revealing – lurching into what was, essentially, conspiracism.

As I say, I think of that conversation a lot. I was reminded of it last night, as Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC reporter, was deluged by angry responses to a tweet.

She’d reported on an interview given by a Labour activist who told of being raped by a party official and – basically – being warned off by someone higher up in the party not to say anything because it could cost her her career.

Furious, the online warriors descended. For the past week, the rumour mill online has been circulating a list of Tories alleged to have committed sexual indiscretions, offences, everything from consensual adultery to harassment and assault. Why, they raged, why are you not reporting this? The list has names attached now? Why are you not reporting this? BBC Bias.

I’m going to be extremely charitable here, and assume that what motivated these people was not blind tribalism and moral blankness, but instead ignorance.

Ignorance of libel laws and reporting, on the whole. These are, reporters would attest, completely different propositions to deal with – on the one hand, a woman brave enough to go public with her testimony, not naming any individual; on the other, an anonymously sourced list, not even personal testimony, just a list, naming a group of people.

Individuals will have been involved in the decision making process, over what is a story that can run and what is a story that cannot yet run. But the idea that these decisions were motivated by anything malign, anything conspiratorial, that’s where the ignorance comes in.

My only two repeated subjects of argument online have been against conspiracy theories of the left (and the right and centre are no doubt as guilty of them, anyone who doubts the fondness of the right for conspiracy theories, I invite to take ten minutes reading the comments underneath an online article for a right-leaning publication) and antisemitism (The urconspiracy theory). And it is a problem that predates the current leadership of Labour, whatever problems I have with them (Although their gleeful embrace of economic populism and frothing “Alt-media” hasn’t, to put it mildly, been helpful in any way).

But I want readers to stop and think for a moment. About how easy it was for my hard-headed and rational Mam – no “moon landings were faked” believer – encountering social, economic and cultural change that I barely grasp after decades of reading up on the subject, to slip into that soft conspiracism. If it’s that easy for her, then it could be easy for each and every one of us.

And where does that lead us? Sooner or later, that mindset takes hold. You are left howling at a female reporter online, who relays the testimony of a rape victim, about bias. You are left seemingly stripped of empathy and decency; appearing one-eyed, tribalist and distinctly unpleasant, all the while clothing yourself in superior virtue.

Is that really who you want to be?

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