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.

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