In the past few weeks, perhaps you have become familiar with a video making the rounds on the internet which suggests that the Sandy Hook massacre – in which 20 children and 6 adults were slaughtered by a lone gunman – is actually a hoax perpetuated by the Obama administration as a means to generate support for gun control measures. It’s impossible to tell just how many people who have watched the video actually believe its content, but it’s gotten enough traction that the parents of victims and a doctor who sheltered 6 children are being harassed by the people who subscribe to its conclusions.
The first thought that popped into my mind – besides moral indignation – was how is it possible that people are so capable of being convinced that such an elaborate conspiracy exists by a hastily edited YouTube video, despite virtually all evidence to the contrary? Is it true that, as South Park claimed in its episode concerning 9/11 truthers, conspiracy theorists are “retards”?
Political incorrectness aside, while it’s tempting to label truthers as unintelligent, it’s counterproductive and erroneous. (Well, not entirely erroneous. But I digress.) People don’t believe in conspiracies because they are stupid; they believe in them because they reinforce their own personal narratives pertaining to how the world works, and give them a sense of self-importance in possessing a “knowledge” that other people refuse to accept.
Sandy Hook is far from the first conspiracy of this nature. Some people still believe 9/11 was orchestrated by George Bush, that President Obama isn’t a native American citizen, that “Agenda 21” is … well, something appropriately sinister. The paradigm for conspiracy has remained largely unchanged; Sandy Hook is just the latest subject to get this treatment. As Mark Fenster points out in Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, “conspiracy theory has always been a significant element of American political rhetoric,” and, by extension, an element of the cultural mindset. “Populist concerns about the concentration of public and private power and of foreign control over domestic authority” have always played a central role in politics and culture. This can be seen as early as the Revolutionary War, which was kindled as a result of mistrust and disapproval of the concentrated power possessed by the British monarchy. (Ironically, it was conceived from a revolutionary conspiracy itself.) The McCarthy hearings, in which Senator McCarthy convinced the nation there was a vast communist conspiracy attempting to undermine American democracy and used this as a justification to prosecute American citizens indiscriminately, is another example.
All of which is to say, Americans are perhaps uniquely inclined to believe in conspiracy theories. In fact, certain conspiracy theories are considered acceptable political discourse in American media, where in other countries they wouldn’t be tolerated. (Yes, I am bashing American media. I know, how daring of me.) The existence of man-made global warming is actually still questioned in America, despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that supports it. Skepticism of science and official evidence is, for whatever reason, tolerated in American discourse and seen as a legitimate alternative to the “professional” narrative. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that almost half of Americans believe in creationism.
Of course global warming denial isn’t quite the same as believing the government killed 26 people to pass (meager, toothless) gun control legislation, but there is a similarity. The impetus behind those beliefs generally stem from an adherence to a certain world view and a refusal to accept any evidence or perspective that contradicts this. For global warming deniers, it’s reasonable to conclude their reticence is a byproduct of their dislike of environmental regulations that would, in their view, hinder the free market system. And – surprise! – there’s a clear correlation between political ideology and acceptance of climate change. Acknowledging reality would be to acknowledge the failings of their previous worldview, and many people are unwilling to make that sacrifice. So they’ll turn to a perspective that offers them the ability to refute reality.
Liberals are not immune to this either, of course. Liberals, more than conservatives, were willing to embrace the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, largely because of their mistrust of the Bush administration. The inside job theories corresponded to the liberal perception of Bush’s amorality and were completely at odds with the perception Republicans held of government at the time. But more than either faction, libertarians have consistently embraced conspiracy theories. (If you don’t take Robert Taylor’s word for it, feel free to peruse TheDailyPaul.com’s forums. That’s OK, I’ll wait.) This isn’t to say libertarians are conspiracy theorists by virtue of believing in limited government; rather, conspiracy theorists tend to be libertarians by virtue of possessing a paranoid mistrust of authority.
Like many people, conspiracy theorists seek to define themselves through some type of accomplishment in their lives; an attainment of something valuable. Where conspiracy theorists differ from most people is they seek this accomplishment in their acceptance of some type of secret knowledge, an extension of Prometheus’ fire that only a select few may bear the burden of. Conspiracy theories provide an easy way to attain this knowledge. Damain Thompson alleges in Counterknowledge: How We Surrendered to Conspiracy Theories, Quack Medicine, Bogus Science and Fake History, that “people who feel they have been entrusted with a big secret feel empowered by this knowledge. If they know the 'truth'...then they possess information that can change the world.” Fenster elaborates, stating watching and accepting videos like the Sandy Hook video give “the viewer meaning and agency, and offers a sense of adventure and fun as she attacks the stodgy, conspiratorial state with the latest information technology.”
If that sounds rather adolescent, well, conspiracy theorists tend to be adolescent or a little older. (There are exceptions; I suspect the majority of people who question Obama’s nationality are rather old.) The conspiracy paradigm naturally appeals to the average teenager; it preys upon their relative impotency in the face of authority of parents, teachers, and other oppressive forces, and delivers to them a narrative that empowers them with knowledge. It extends into adulthood as those authority figures morph from adults to working in big businesses, banks, and the government. Of course, there are other reasons for this connection to age; people who consume information from new media outlets are more likely to believe in conspiracies than those who don’t. The younger you are, the more familiar you are with new media, and the more you’ll be exposed to conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories are also empowering in the sense that they present the world as being controlled and therefore controllable. (Even if it’s being controlled by the evil Satanic Bilderberg Illuminati-Jew Group that desires to enslave us and make us do…well, no one really knows, but it’s probably something evil.) It’s a fantasy. The world simply isn’t that malleable, and we are not as in control of things as we wish we are. Sorry to spoil anything, but the world isn’t going to be taken over by a secret cabal. (Though I wouldn’t discount Starbucks.)
If any of this sounds like a justification for believing in conspiracy theories concerning subjects like Sandy Hook, it’s not. Skepticism of government, or any other institution of power, is entirely warranted and a worthwhile virtue. I’m not denying that. But when people use skepticism as a means of justifying their own paranoia and fail to apply that very skepticism to their own conclusions, their inquisitiveness is no longer a virtue but a hindrance to the public discourse. It is not the mark of bold truth-seeking – as many conspiracy theorists like to portray themselves – but of intellectual cowardice. It’s a triumph of adolescent fantasy, not professional inquiry.
This isn’t to say conspiracies or unethical consolidations of power aren’t real; the NDAA, Obama’s drone war, warrantless wire-tapping…these problems all exist. But to some, those real conspiracies are not nearly as attractive as believing in a world where the government slaughters its own people, as perverse as that is. Ironically, the paranoid fear conspiracy theorists possess concerning the consolidation of power by the government or other entities has led them to consolidate their own version of reality, in which they arbitrarily dictate what is real and what is not in order to appease their own egos. This paranoid reality they’ve become beholden to exerts more power and control over them than any government or corporation could ever hope to.
It’s the ultimate conspiracy, and they’re blind to who’s in charge.