Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories?

I’ve been following the controversy surrounding Barrack Obama’s pastor, Reverend Wright with amazement. Mind you, I am not amazed at the words that Wright spoke, but at the fact that those words stirred up the amount of disbelief they did. I’ve lived in the USA a short time, but long enough to understand that conspiracy theories are the bread and butter of the average human being. Is it really surprising that several believe that HIV was designed in a laboratory and African peoples deliberately infected with it? Is it surprising that people believe the federal government was involved in facilitating the influx of drugs into inner city communities a few decades ago? It shouldn’t be surprising at all, folks. We’re living in the age of paranoia, and given the events of the past 500 years, understandably so.

Just take a look at the annals of recent human history and you will see a legacy of brutality and sadism that will wrench your insides. Governments have been known to turn a blind eye as atrocities are committed. Not surprisingly, governments have also been implicated in sponsoring assassinations and forms of experimentation on civilians. Think of the Holocaust and of the racist experiments carried out by the likes of Dr Mengele. African Americans certainly can’t afford to forget the Tuskegee experiment. And who knows what happened in South Africa under the apartheid era. The indigenous societies of the Americas and Australia also have sad stories to tell.

Unfortunately, we readers of history have short memories. We forget how much power we cede to religious leaders, scientists, bureaucrats and politicians to make decisions about our everyday lives, and then we are shocked when one or more of these people is able to use that power to cause irreparable damage. Victims don’t forget, though. Perhaps it is the memories of the victims that makes us uncomfortable and makes us want to turn the page when confronted with uncomfortable truths from our past and present. And yet, even when we willfully forget, there is something in us that maintains a fearful fascination with what we call evil. If you don’t believe me, pay close attention to religious and political discourse, to the types of books that top the best seller lists, and to the most popular programming on television. You will start to suspect that the American public, and humanity at large, is obsessed with the idea of dark, powerful, underground forces controlling the world.

Frequently, conspiracy theories are dismissed in the media as ludicrous or absurd. Very few take the time to examine the relevant question: why do people believe in them? It’s not necessary to share a person’s beliefs in order to understand where those beliefs are coming from. So why, when faced with these theories, does the mainstream media tend to shut down any attempt to examine them or discuss them? Why do reporters and anchors spend more energy being offended that people can believe such theories, than investigating the theories and the people who subscribe to them?

I suspect that conspiracy theories have such a strong hold on people because, first of all, there’s a certain amount of truth in them. For instance, the idea of a government designing viruses for specific population groups is not a far remove from the following facts: that some nations are acknowledged to possess biological weapons, that the Tuskegee experiment on African American men was allowed to proceed, unhindered. When these facts are brought together in an environment where racial injustice, prejudice and suspicion prevail, then a conspiracy theory is inevitable.

Secondly, conspiracy theories manage to tie up all the loose ends and to explain the mysteries that the official narrative leaves unaddressed. Official theories explaining the origins of HIV/ AIDS and its epidemiology are often self-contradictory and convoluted while the conspiracy theory gives a clear-cut black and white explanation; no ambiguous grays are allowed to linger. The result is that people are more attracted to the version with a clear beginning, middle and end and where the good guy and the bad guy are easily distinguished from each other.

Thirdly, conspiracy theories tend to fit in with the predominant Judeo-Islamic religious narrative in the community. If the community is Muslim, Christian or Jewish, then it is predisposed to believing in scenarios that end in catastrophe (the apocalypse, the end of the world, the decimation of the entire community by disease) and involve a battle between good and evil.

Conspiracy theories should not be dismissed, however ludicrous they may sound. If people believe strongly in a conspiracy theory, then it is probably because they are living in fear and believe they have no power over their own destiny. These feelings are understandable among people living in extreme poverty, people battling an epidemic that has crippled their entire society or people who have been victimized time and again and continue to be victimized. Journalists are uniquely placed to identify the fears that predispose people to believing conspiracy theories. By examining those fears and asking questions about them, they could expose gross inequalities in society, thus provoking people to address those inequalities.

Admittedly, that is an idealistic scenario. Media exposés don’t always lead to corrective actions being taken. However, I would like to believe that talking about our fears as a community could help us gain some kind of agency and make it possible for us to dream of surmounting the Kilimanjaros in our lives.

This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Friday, February 1, 2008


I recently watched the Senegalese film, Guelwaar for a second time. It seems almost strange that the one character who caught my attention was the one most conspicuous by his absence. I am referring to Pierre Thioune, the deceased outspoken Guelwaar. Although he was dead, the memories of the other characters painted an interesting picture of him.

Thioune’s personality captured my attention mainly because it seemed to be so full of contrasts. The first impression that I got of him was that of a devout Catholic who led his community by example. Not only did he allow the Catholic women’s group to meet in his house, but he apparently also requested that his funeral service be held in Latin. Significantly, he had also performed a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Afterwards hints of his extremely human nature began to creep in. In his youth, he would disguise himself as an old woman in order to pursue an affair with the wife of the village's religious leader . Furthermore, unlike his wife, he had no qualms over accepting monetary support from his daughter who was working as a prostitute in Dakar.

The effect of these seemingly incompatible qualities made Thioune a three-dimensional character in my eyes. Importantly, they provided a hint of his strong will and of a moral code, admittedly of his own, that he adhered to. All of these qualities came together in his political ideals which eventually brought him significant influence and respect. These political ideals are, admittedly, the feature that clinched my admiration for Thioune.

One scene stands out in my mind as epitomizing my view of Thioune. It was set at the height of the famine period. The people were unable to support themselves, hence were receiving food aid from foreign groups through the government. A ceremony was organized for the symbolic handing over of the aid, and several dignitaries, both local and diplomatic, had been invited. Thioune was one of the individuals invited to make a speech. However, his speech stirred up a lot of controversy among the different groups present. They had expected him to express gratitude to the donors. Instead he had lambasted them, bitterly accusing them of degrading the people and killing their dignity by reducing them to beggars.

Thioune’s words were extremely strong. They were critical in that they upset the status quo. His words gave some of the aid-recipients food for thought. However, they also marked him as an enemy of the established system. By speaking out on that day, he exposed his belief in the significance of human dignity. Thioune was not a stupid man. He must have known that his words would have consequences. However, his pride and his moral code made the dignity of his people his agenda.

I believe Sembene was using Thioune as his mouthpiece and that Thioune’s speech in this specific scene was the main message. Because I was particularly struck by this message, it is only natural that a specific part of it found resonance with me. Guelwaar summed this part up in a few words, saying that famine, drought and poverty resulted from a country saying one thing from generation to generation: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you… (with arm outstretched as if begging).

Creative Commons License
This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.