Dear Drama Observers,
Last week, I elaborated on what I consider to be seven features of conspiracy theories:
- They’re based upon exaggerated fears.
- They replace complexity with simplicity.
- They are lies gussied up with “facts.”
- They are unfalsifiable.
- They’re fueled by crowd-power.
- Their adherents are dogmatic.
- Their skeptics are denounced.
A conspiracy theory becomes all-consuming for its adherents who, far too often, enter a world where up is down, bad is good, and the sky is a different color. They jettison their previously-held commitments—and in some cases, their long-held relationships—and replace actual reality with an altered version they prefer to believe.
They willingly enter but, once inside, the door that lets them in slams behind them, and there’s no knob on the inside of the door. They become prisoners of their own device and, like the Hotel California, they can check out anytime they like, but they can never leave.
Once someone enters the unreasoning world of conspiracies, they often become impervious to any attempts made by others to dissuade them. Worse yet, they consider such individuals to be in league with the very forces of evil that must be resisted. Cult-like allegiance is a hard habit to break.
So, can anything be done to make people less susceptible to the lure of collective reality alteration? Can anything neutralize the fertilizer of fear mixed into the soil where conspiracy theories grow? What I’m offering here is a partial list:
We start out naïve but develop savvy as we grow and mature. Balance is needed. Some people develop too much suspicion and too little trust, becoming paranoid in their relational expectations. Others develop too little suspicion, granting trust freely and often to those who don’t deserve it. These are the ones most vulnerable to conspiracy theory manipulations. They’ve become chronological adults with childlike gullibility.
“You can fool all the people some of the time,” said Abraham Lincoln,” “and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Conspiracy theory propagandists are skilled at exploiting the naivete of those who can be fooled.
In 1786, George Horne wrote, “When a man deceives me once, it is his fault; when twice, it is mine.” The modern-day translation is, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
As the Russian proverb states, “Trust but verify.”
Fearing Excessive Fear
If you once almost stepped on a venomous snake in your back yard, your fear of casually walking out there barefooted would be warranted. But if you had the same fear response to every twig or piece of rope, your fear would be misguided.
As mentioned in last week’s letter, fear of potential nuclear war in the 1950’s was warranted due to the Soviet Union’s newly acquired atomic weapons. But the notion that our government and most institutions were infested with Communists and anyone who disagreed was a Soviet agent created destructive and unwarranted fears.
Unexamined fears can easily morph into paranoia.
We start out in life with most things being either-or, black-or-white, all-good or all-bad. But with growth and maturity, we develop the capacity to live with the reality that the world, others, and we ourselves are mixtures of both positive and negative aspects. Adults can tolerate the fact that many things are neither all-good nor all-bad.
That said, some people grow up chronologically but remain stuck at an earlier stage of development where such integrative capacities are lacking. They yearn for the simplicity of a world divided between good guys and bad guys—the very worlds that conspiracy theories promulgate.
Conspiracy theories thrive on the notion that people disagree with them because they’re bad people who must be conquered. Those who can tolerate ambiguity assume that good people can have what we might consider bad ideas and are, therefore, worthy of persuasion.
A point to remember: We’re all mixtures of good and bad.
Crazy ideas might seem crazy when you’re the only one who holds them. But when everyone you know holds them, they seem sensible and reasonable. Two essentials are necessary for conspiracy theories to take hold: Those who espouse them and those willing to believe them.
I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again:
In 1974, the 26-episode series, World at War, was released which began with a segment chronicling Hitler’s rise to power. It opened as follows:
“Germany, 1933. A huge, blind excitement filled the streets. The National Socialists had come to power in a land tortured by unemployment, embittered by loss of territory, demoralized by political weakness. Perhaps this would be the new beginning. Most people think the Nazis are a little absurd here, too obsessive there. But perhaps the time for thinking is over.”
Later in the episode, we hear this statement from Werner Pusch, a member of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, describing his attendance at a Hitler rally:
“For the first few minutes, he wasn’t a good speaker; he was just warming up and finding the words. But then, he turned out to be a terribly good speaker. And the whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted after nearly every phrase by big applause and women began screaming. It was like a mass religious ceremony. And I listened to his speech and I feel the more and more excited atmosphere in the hall.
For some seconds, again and again, I had a feeling of what a pity I can’t share that belief of all those thousands of people—that I am alone and contrary to all that. It was funny, I felt that he was talking all the nonsense that I know, the nonsense he always talked. But still, I feel that it must be wonderful to just jump into that bubbling pot and be a member of all those who are believers.”
En masse, otherwise normal German citizens had been duped by a conspiracy theory. They overlooked what they saw in lieu of what they wanted to see. Individual critical evaluation had been replaced by a malignant groupthink.
Till next week.