October 18, 2015

HARDIN | Conspiracies: America’s Love Affair

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The moon landings were staged, 9/11 was an inside job and Tupac is still alive. Vaccines cause autism and the government is putting fluoride in our drinking water to control our minds. JFK was killed by two different shooters. From the Salem Witch Hunt in the late 17th century, America’s love affair with conspiracy theories and other forms of fact denial has developed alongside the idea of the trailblazing American pioneer who rejects tradition and actively seeks to upturn convention. The contemporary version of this narrative values fierce independence and innovation, all while rejecting the status quo. The result is an inquisitive and deeply mistrustful population that seeks to poke holes in conventionally-accepted truths.

The ubiquity of suspicion in contemporary American discourse does not grant any validity to arguments based in skepticism. Instead, the pervasiveness of conspiracy theory narratives in popular American culture reveals a deep-seated distrust of authority in which knee-jerk skepticism serves as a proxy for rational, fact-based discussion.

The paradox of our government, which many see as the force working against the ideals of liberal individualism, is that it exists to protect the very same rights that permit us to challenge its methods. General dissatisfaction with established structures of power, a key component of the individualistic American tradition, in the context of our polarized political climate leads us to invent alternative narratives that affirm our skepticism. The mere possibility of a conspiracy theory proving to be true affirms the validity of the initial skepticism towards the structural inequity the theory purports to expose. In this way, belief in conspiracy theories can be liberating: A person who has traditionally been disadvantaged by the government and is thus wary of it as a structure will be more likely to accept ideas that erase its legitimacy, such as the conspiracy theory that the government initiated the national crack epidemic in the ’80s.

In the social media era, opinions go from private to public in a fraction of a second and are given a relatively equal weight on a near-universal platform that reaches a wider audience than ever. Responses to news and events are both instantaneous and fluid, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Because of the unique and unprecedented scope and perspective of today’s media, the culture of conspiracy poses a bigger threat to rational thought than ever before. The importance of the social component of the development and dissemination of conspiracy theories cannot be understated — technology allows information to travel more quickly across more social networks.

Beliefs that are widespread, culturally shared and objectively untrue take on many of the same characteristics as conspiracy theories. For example, climate change denialism embodies all features of the contemporary rise of skepticism as a reasonable alternative to critical analysis. The facts of the matter are no longer up for debate; climate change is real, it’s caused by human activity and it is largely irreversible. Denial of anthropogenic climate change is indicative of a larger cultural phenomenon in which every aspect of science or other empirical facts is somehow up for debate and subjective interpretation.

Furthermore, these beliefs are rarely without consequence. The origins of anti-Semitism strongly resemble patterns in the development of modern conspiracy theories. The same can be said about the Inquisition or most other historical forms of oppression based on race or other ethnic markers. The inconceivable theory that President Obama is a secret African Muslim waiting for the right moment to gleefully impose Sharia law upon all Americans, a fear held by a disturbingly high number of people, has direct negative impacts on the daily lives of American Muslims.

It is difficult to have any faith in public opinion in a country in which four percent of the population (about 12 million people) believes that our government is infiltrated by shape-shifting lizard people intent on gaining political power to control society, according to the results from a 2013 poll on conspiracy theories.

Although it is both easy and tempting to dismiss conspiracy theorists as backwards-thinking individuals, this self-serving righteousness fails to address the larger issue of our society’s apparent preference for emotion over reason. It is much easier to ignore or reframe facts that upset our worldview. Still, despite the intentions of conspiracy theorists, we must publicly acknowledge that there is nothing vanguard about challenging the validity of empirical facts.

While it may be comforting to believe that Tupac really is still alive, hiding out in a cave with Elvis and Osama Bin Laden, failure to actively reject conspiracy theories at face value threatens to unravel the fact-based objectivity that is the cornerstone of American democracy.

Emily Hardin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Free Lunch appears alternate Mondays this semester.