At this point, conspiracy theories seem as integrated into the fabric of American life as apple pie or baseball. They reflect something deeply American: the sentiment of free-thinking individualism, distrusting one-sided narratives, questioning everything.These days though, conspiracy theories are getting a bad rep. However, they play a critical role in every healthy democracy. They allow people to make sense of their powerlessness in a complicated and unsettling world. They provide a sense of agency and a moral high ground for people to stand on.
And conspiratorial thinking isn’t contingent on race, sex, class, political affiliation or even level of education. It’s everywhere.
Liberal or conservative, we can all agree that Jeffrey Epstein’s death was weird as hell, right?
I do not villainize conspiracy theorists, I pity them. And at times, I even identify with them. I don’t believe they are all fueled by anger, bigotry and extremist beliefs. Sometimes, they look more like exhausted patriots who love their country but distrust their government after too many empty promises and blows to the head. It is a common misconception that all conspiracy theories fall apart in the presence of real facts and hard evidence. According to a distinguished scholar on the matter, Katherine Olmsted, “For all their seemingly outlandishness the successive generation of anti government conspiracy theorists, since WWI, have at least one thing in common: when they charge that the government has plotted, lied, and covered up, they’re often right”. Many beliefs that were once disregarded as conspiratorial thinking have been proven to be true time and time again. Historically, we have seen a close connection between conspiracy theories and an absence of civil rights and civil liberties. Feelings that one is under pervasive scrutiny or social isolation only exacerbates widespread paranoia. Even in this age of information, it really does seem like a circus out here. Smh.
Don’t get me wrong. Widespread paranoia can and is used dangerously. It is weaponized to purposefully sow discord, discredit science and advance partisan goals. However, I am deeply distrustful of anyone or anything claiming to be the almighty judge of truth. I mean, is it not ridiculous that we are asking Facebook to be responsible for the dangerous narratives spread on their platform and to police these false stories? Who then is going to watch the watchmen? Call me crazy, but personally I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg should be elevated to the role of God. While I understand that misinformation has devastating effects, the alternative is more frightening to me. And that is why I do not believe that the solution to widespread paranoia resembles this constant fact-checking, censoring and cancel culture that exists today. I think the answer to counter falsehoods is and always has been more truth–more openness, more transparency, more democracy, more checks, more balances, more transparency and more equality.
Olmsted words sum it up perfectly: “Justification and truth are different issues; a true belief may be unjustified, and a justified belief may be untrue.”