Monday, September 15, 2003
Conspiracy Theories

I suppose you could consider this an expansion on the earlier "Musings" post that I wrote a few days ago, and it does fit in that same genre of 'thoughts on a subject;' but this morning's post wasn't brought up by a walk through the park after a religion class. This is a subject that has kept my insides all churned up for about 24 hours now, because of the way it introduced itself.

A 'friend' of mine accused me of murder yesterday; or at least, of being complicit in the execution of more than 3,000 people. And this 'friend' accused not only me, but my family as well. So you'll pardon me if I'm a little upset, and write in a somewhat harsh way (believe me, if I had written in the heat of yesterday, there wouldn't have been a single hair left on your body, dear reader). I'll try to remain rational, and thoughtful - as that's what will really drive my points home, rather than anger - but don't be surprised if a bit of rage seeps through.

With that out of the way, I'll begin. As I wrote a few days ago, human beings have a strange love/hate relationship with this thing known as 'the Truth' (with a capital 'T'). We both desire knowledge of it, and fear it at the same time. Evidence of this is readily available in everyday life, and part of that evidence is the existence of 'Conspiracy Theories.' (There was even a movie about it). The drive behind these 'theories' is the search for Truth - which, in this case, the government is hiding from us - a quest for all the secrets that have been supposedly hidden from our eyes. Unlike Hollywood, however, real life doesn't usually have a lot of 'conspirators' - not in the 'Conspiracy Theory' sense of the word, anyway.

The basic suggestion that was posed to me yesterday, in response to my earlier post about 9/11, was that the tragedy was really a result of an "inside job" - that the government, which I and my family helped vote into place (and are planning on reelecting), was more than a passive victim, that they actually encouraged and aided the terrorists on their journey of destruction. You'll pardon me while I take a breather.

I'm not going to address this specific theory here, as it's not worth the time I would spend debunking it (though Ockham's Razor is a good start), but I do feel it's important to explore why such theories arise, and why there are so many people around the world who readily accept them (yes, even outside North America). There are several such theories around, the most famous of which are probably the JFK assassination, and the Apollo Moon Landing (that last link is for you, Eric). There's even a "Conspiracy Theory conspiracy theory," though it's really more of a humorous attempt to communicate an important message.

So why do they exist? What is it about humanity that makes us so ready to believe these crackpot theories? Well, I've noticed that those people who have spent a lot of time suffering under corruption tend to view the world from that perspective. They have to, they have no other experience, and a human's outlook on life is, at its core, based on experience. This helps to explain the proliferation of conspiracy theories in the Middle East, say, where people have lived under repressive regimes for quite some time; but this explanation fails to account for people living in North America (specifically Canada and the United States) and Europe, who enjoy more freedom than anywhere else in the world and more than any other time in history (except, perhaps, for that period when we hadn't actually invented 'government' just yet).

Let me say that I don't believe the proliferation of Conspiracy Theorists (CTs) in North America is anywhere near as widespread as in places with little to no freedom. They do exist, though (I was faced with one yesterday - and, in all fairness, my 'friend' has spent a good portion of life underneath an oppressive regime, so perhaps the accusation is reflective of that), and lately they seem to be getting more plentiful. Everything from a 'cabal of Jews secretly running the British government' to a 'cabal of NeoConservatives pushing their agenda on the world' comes flying out of the woodwork nowadays, and from a variety of places.

I think, as I referenced earlier in this post, that it all boils down (in the free world, that is) to humanity's desire for the Truth, which has been perverted (as all things are, when allowed to run unchecked). We desire Truth so much that when we finally know all that we need to, when we finally realize that there are no 'hidden secrets of the evil government,' then we invent some, to satisfy our insatiable desire for 'Truth.' This, paradoxically, is almost saying that Truth should be hidden, purely for the sake of finding it. And, of course, if you've read my earlier posts, you know that I prefer to view every piece of Truth that reveals itself to be a good thing - so inventing hidden 'Truth' so we can 'find' it is a bad thing, because, at it's heart, it is the antithesis of Truth.

There's another reason, too, I think. We tend to believe, as selfish beings, that everything in this world is required to go our way. When it doesn't, it must reflect poorly either on us (ie. we haven't done things right) or on everyone else (ie. they are keeping us down). Never mind that this is a flawed view of the world - it doesn't really matter, because most every human, at their core, believes this (or constantly struggles against believing it). Of those two choices, the easier one to accept is the one that blames everyone else for our troubles. People get frustrated with the way things go - perhaps it's counter to your philosophical ideals, or your political agendas, or your religious doctrines, or your 'scientific' assumptions - and so, rather than do the hard thing (self-examination) we tend to invent conspiracy theories that comfort us, that let us continue to believe that we're not wrong, that we're not at fault.

Recently, this has become much more prevalent in the public eye. The Left-leaning politicos in the US, of late, have been crying 'conspiracy' since the Clinton era, just to pull a few stories from the headlines (anyone remember Hillary Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy"?). Now everything from an 'Iraqi war for oil' conspiracy to the 'Bush wants to bring back the Nazi Party' conspiracy is getting air time. People get frustrated, and rather than thinking they might be in the wrong, or might need to make adjustments, they blame others, and wind up stretching logic and rationality to the breaking point. The problem with this 'crying wolf,' is that when something real and tragic happens - out in daylight, without a hint of hidden conspiracy - people tend to ignore it. It isn't 'juicy' enough for them.

The trouble is, 'checking your mind at the door' when it comes to buying into conspiracy theorizing is intellectually dishonest, and ultimately divisive. It may very well have cost my 'friend' and I our friendship (it was pretty rocky, anyway). Are conspiracies possible? Certainly. Here, the CTs and I agree - I can't intellectually deny the possiblility of conspiracy, because I believe the depths of human depravity are vast, and unknown. Are they probable? Well, here I differ from most CTs:

"Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." -Hanlon's Razor
It's one thing to be informed, to have shaken off the naivete of early youth, and to understand that there is evil in the world. It's quite another to fall into complete and utter cynicism.

[See an addendum to this point here. -- Ed.]
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A webjournal of ideas, comments, and various other miscellany from a Texan university student (with occasional input from his family) living in Toronto, Ontario. Can you say "culture shock?"

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