"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 4, 2023

Is It True? Fake News, Conspiracy Theories, And A World Of Assumptions

It feels good to be right, a confidence deep down in the bones, a certainty that dispels all doubts, beliefs that give purpose and meaning to an otherwise dreary existence. Certain things simply feel right and need no further reflection.  

According to some there is an international Jewish conspiracy.  The Old Testament makes it clear that the Jews are God's chosen people and can therefore act with righteous impunity, controlling international finance, Hollywood, and geopolitics. 

American right wing conspirators, say progressives, are out to establish an ultra-conservative regime which will subjugate women, restore Jim Crow, institute Christian theocracy, and return the economy to a Robber Baron laissez-faire state.

JFK was murdered not be a lone gunman but right-wing operatives, FBI informants, CIA black ops personnel, international bankers, and Cuban assassins. 

9/11 was not the work of Islamic terrorists but by a cabal of Pentagon strategists and right-wing zealots who designed the attack on the Twin Towers to justify military adventurism and the creation of an Orwellian state of siege and internal terror. 

Why do people go off the rails and look for answers in the realm of fantasy? Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:

The paranoid style is a result of 'uncommonly angry minds' whose judgment is somehow distorted, said Hofstadter; and following in the same vein some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism.  In this view the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs results in an incapacity for social or political action. 

To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought that they may gain more widespread acceptance when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities. A conspiracy theory helps explain these ambiguities and provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty.  Or that the human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.  

In very simple terms, many people are already disposed for various reasons to mistrust 'the facts' and have already internalized a belief that something is or is not true. 

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of conspiracy theories is that once you have adopted one theory on the basis of internalized feelings, selective 'evidence', and socio-pathological needs, you easily adopt others.  

Conspiracy theories aside, the tendency to make conclusions on presumptive, incomplete, or highly selective evidence is common. No issue being debated today is settled, despite its currency. Critical information is deliberately overlooked so not to upset the applecart. 

Abortion rights advocates, convinced that abortion has only to do with women's civil rights, and therefore ignore its moral and religious implications.  Popes John Paul II and Francis have talked compelling of expediency and charged women with acting out of narrow, practical interests, refusing to admit the moral and social consequences of their actions. 

Black activists conveniently ignore the systemic problems of the inner city and its persistent dysfunction. They operate on the assumption that white elitism, racism, and ingrained capitalist opportunism are the causes for social and moral incoherence in black neighborhoods - not the culture of entitlement, refusal to accept personal responsibility, and moral failure.

The meme, once broadcast, becomes viral.  The black man can do no wrong.  He is the inheritor of a superior racial history, one of African communal harmony, sensitivity to the natural environment, and of high spiritual evolution; and has been deprived of a voice because of white supremacy, greed, and ignorance. 

Gay and transgender activists insist that sex is a fungible quality - sex at birth is nothing but a 19th century, outdated and outmoded construct; and persistent claims to unique heterosexual legitimacy are nothing more than Biblical cant and Christian conditioning. 

All of these beliefs, once they become viral, are impossible to counter. Those who seek certainty and political righteousness willingly join the crowd.  It feels good to march with others for abortion, against climate change, and for the black man, homosexuals, and women. Codicils, caveats, and on-the-one-hand arguments have are not part of the libretto. Singing in one voice confers identity, meaning, and purpose. 

What is common to all true believers, and why they are so passionate about their causes is the need to belong? Without belief, belonging and purpose, we are only Lear's 'poor, bare, forked animal' condemned to live without respite in Hobbes' brutish, nasty world. 

Yet true belief and belonging breed intolerance, and America has become an angry, divided and divisive place, seemingly more so than ever before.  In today's electronic age, it is easier than ever to proclaim and spread beliefs no matter how irrational, and to attack others for their disbelief. 

Adherence to causes, therefore, is not surprising.  The promotion of a healthier climate or social reform are not simply political aspirations but moral choices.  It is wrong, say progressives, to sit back and let the world warm.  Social activism is a good higher than individual spiritual evolution or satisfaction of personal desires.  So not only is belief in a cause righteous and good, it is an expression of a superior moral attitude. 

Last but not least is the psycho-social phenomenon of perception.  Psychologists and sociologists have long been aware that perception is always subjective, influenced by assumptions and past experience.  Two eye witnesses are bound to see the same thing in different ways.  A devout Muslim will read his own assumptions about non-Muslims into the Old Testament.  A fundamentalist Christian will assume that Armageddon is near because of world disorder, distortion of traditional values, and perverted notions of social equality.  

God destroyed the world once, tried without success a second time (Sodom and Gomorrah), and promises in Revelation to do it once more, finally. How the true believer interprets signs of coming doom depends, like everything else, on assumptions, past influences, and disposition.  

Robert Browning, Lawrence Durrell, and Akira Kurosawa were but three of many artists who portrayed the fallibility of perception and the perennial predominance of subjectivity over objectivity.  Four observers, four different takes on 'reality'.   

Given what seems to be this common wisdom, it is hard to understand why so many are so self-assured and dismissive other's views.  The fragility of the notion of settled anything, absolute truth, undeniable objective fact should be obvious. 

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