Conspiracism

The world is a crazy, amazing thing full of unbelievable places, people, creatures and stories. But despite the overwhelming quantity of fantastic and fascinating things all around us, we still have a desire to believe in something more.

Some would argue that religion exists to fill this void, and it does, but religion serves many other purposes: providing a moral compass, explaining human origins, and giving us an excuse to dress up on Sundays. Conspiracies, on the other hand, provide no practical benefit – they merely grant us with the sensation that we’re in the know about what’s really going on.

But what is a conspiracy, exactly, and what separates a conspiracy from a mere fictional tale or historical fact? And why is it that people who believe in one conspiracy tend to believe in many? Let’s start by identifying a conspiracy.

There are two important and interconnected components of any conspiracy: implausibility and secrecy. Conspiracies are, by their very nature, implausible. If a conspiracy were plausible, then it would be investigated and verified. And if a conspiracy was well known to be true, then it wouldn’t really be a secret. And if a conspiracy wasn’t a secret, then it wouldn’t be a very good conspiracy at all, and it wouldn’t provide the sensation that we get from having special knowledge.

As an example of the necessity of secrecy, let’s say that the dwelling place of Bigfoot was discovered. Biologists would study the creatures, hunters would kill them, and conspiracy believers would stop talking about them. After all, what’s there to talk about? Bigfoot is now no more mythological or fascinating than the gorilla or the chimpanzee.

As for plausibility, there’s actually a quick and easy way to determine whether or not a conspiracy theory is plausible. Simply ask yourself, would this require a large number of people working together in secret? If the answer is yes, then it’s implausible.

This is because humans have repeatedly and consistently shown themselves to be completely incapable of accomplishing even the simplest of tasks without complaining, bickering, fighting or dividing. There are countless examples of both public and private programs, large and small, that fizzled out before seeing the light of day. Believing in conspiracies requires an incredibly large and undeserving faith in the competence of humanity.

Take chemtrails for example. If the government were really dispensing chemicals into the atmosphere by aircraft, then this would require the silent collaboration of thousands, if not millions of chemical manufacturers, delivery workers, pilots, security staff, inspectors, air traffic controllers and many others. This easily fails the test of plausibility without even considering how stupid it would be to use a commercial transportation system to deliver a clearly visible agent in clear weather beneath cloud cover in open view of the public.

Before we continue, it’s important to make a clear distinction between people who believe in conspiracies (believers), and those who don’t (non-believers). In truth, many of us entertain one conspiracy or another. However, contemplating the existence of a conspiracy is most certainly different from propagating it as fact.

Actually, many non-believers have a proclivity toward acceptance of one or more ideas that contradict conventional thought. Whether it’s the lunar landing hoax, the presence of a second gunman on the grassy knoll, the existence of and our visitation by extraterrestrials, the US government committing the September 11 attacks, or the myth of global warming, we all seem to be attracted to one conspiracy or another. What separates non-believers from believers is that one group merely postulate the possibility that the theory may be true, while the other it accept it completely and will passionately proliferate the message to anyone who will listen. In this way, the conspiracy believer’s supposed skepticism of mainstream ideas leads to a conviction which more closely resembles that of a religious zealot than of a skeptic.

So why do some people believe while others merely speculate? Well, a conspiracy requires certain conditions in order to sprout. These include any of the following:

  • A mysterious or anomalous event or activity
  • An absence of explanation or of satisfactory explanation
  • A need to assign blame
  • A desire to feel important or intelligent
  • A pre-existing belief in supernatural or paranormal phenomenon
  • A resentment of authority

The first two reasons describe conditions that are external to the believer, and the last four describe the believer themself. After all, every one of us lives in the same world, but not all of us believe in conspiracies, so belief must depend, in some part, on characteristics of the individual. Conspiracy-believers would argue that it’s the ignorance of non-believers that leads them to reject these ideas, but as we’ll see, the belief in conspiracies actually says more about the believer than it does about the conspiracy.

Sometimes things happen for no apparent reason. Obviously there are forces at play that cause the event to unfold, but sometimes there just isn’t a greater meaning behind it, despite what we’d like to believe. As the saying goes, mistakes happen. But this is unacceptable to the conspiracy believer. A conspiracy believer is the kind of person who cannot accept that something disastrous can happen by accident or oversight. A meaningless tragedy is a breeding ground for conspiracy.

For some, believing in a conspiracy is a way of asserting their superiority over others. While they may not state this directly in conversation, believers often perceive themselves to be more intelligent, more aware, or somehow unique because of their special knowledge. They also tend to frequently use the word sheeple.

sheeple. [shee-puhl] -noun.

1. a group of people who, like sheep, mindlessly obey their masters. Why don’t people realize that this crazy thing I believe is true? Wake up, sheeple!

Believers also tend to subscribe to more than one conspiracy. Here are some of the more popular conspiracy topics:

  • Alien abductions, UFOs and crop circles
  • Chemtrails
  • The Lunar landing
  • The Loch Ness Monster
  • The September 11 attacks
  • JFK’s assassination
  • The Bermuda Triangle
  • Vaccinations
  • Global warming
  • Bigfoot

In order to best understand the inner-workings of conspiracy belief, let’s focus on the most complex and significant conspiracy affecting humanity today: Bigfoot.

Myths of gigantic ape-like humanoids are as old as the hills that the creatures are said to inhabit. Not only are these stories ancient, they are also widespread. There are myths about massive, bipedal wildmen from every corner of the world, including:

  • The Yeren of Mongolia
  • The Yeti of the Himalayas (also called Abominable Snowman)
  • The Sasquatch of Pacific North America
  • The Hibagon of Japan
  • The Yowie of Australia

But what’s the difference between a myth and a conspiracy? First of all, myths tend to be hundreds or even thousands of years old, while conspiracies have usually only been around few decades. Second, there isn’t necessarily anything sinister or secret about a myth. Myths are usually more mysterious than they are nefarious, and while they may be unproven, they’re not intentionally hidden. A conspiracy, on the other hand, requires a cover-up or at least a suspicious lack of information. Third and finally, myths tend to be a little less plausible than conspiracies, often incorporating magic, spirituality and fantastic creatures. This means that myth believers are usually less adamant about the veracity of the story than conspiracy believers. In fact, myths are often presented as simply an elaborate moral lesson or a tale meant to astonish.

All that being said, it’s possible for something to be both a myth and a conspiracy. This is exactly what happens when conspiracy believer adopts a myth as a conspiracy by asserting that it is factual and being concealed by some malevolent organization. Because Bigfoot believers are so adamant that Bigfoot is real, even to the point of dedicating their lives to finding him, the Bigfoot myth can be categorized as a conspiracy.

So why do people believe in Bigfoot? One explanation could be that Bigfoot is real, but this doesn’t explain why people believe so strongly that they would sacrifice their time and money to find him, nor does it explain why they feel compelled to convince everyone they meet. Sure, they’ll point to the many volumes of pictures, videos and stories compiled over decades as evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, but the real reason they believe isn’t the evidence. They believe because they are enchanted by idea of a mysterious, ancient beast roaming the wilderness, undiscovered by humans. They want Bigfoot to be real.

The discovery of a living Bigfoot creature could have a significant impact on zoology, origins and animal rights, but Bigfoot believers aren’t scientists or anthropologists – they’re merely infatuated with the idea of Bigfoot being real. After all, what would they do if Bigfoot was confirmed to exist? And whose ends are served by spreading the news that Bigfoot is out there waiting to be found? If humanity’s track record is any indication, discovering Bigfoot likely wouldn’t turn out well for the beast. If they really cared about Bigfoot, believers would be participating in the cover-up.

Unfortunately Bigfoot believers are more interested in exposing the truth than they are with scientific discovery or animal rights. The allure of spewing facts and spreading stories to unbelievers is just too powerful for them to resist. The fact that those who believe in Bigfoot also tend to subscribe to other conspiracy theories supports is evidence of this. After all, what are the chances that someone who believes in Bigfoot also believes in alien UFOs, chemtrails and the Loch Ness monster? Extremely high, apparently.

This actually highlights an important concept: the purpose of perpetuating a conspiracy. What do believers hope to accomplish by spreading the truth about a conspiracy? Even if, for example, one were to accept the idea that the September 11 attacks were perpetuated by the American government, that individual has no ability to administer justice to those responsible. The only thing they can do is spread the conspiracy. Conspiracies are self-serving, sensational stories that serve no real purpose other than to assert intellectual superiority and tantalize the imagination. Actually, it’s likely that a conspiracy believer would be disappointed to learn that a conspiracy has migrated to the realm of fact, since they would no longer be able to spread the truth about it.

Conspiracy believers like to think, and would like us to think, that they are doing us a favor by babbling into monotony about some crackpot theory. But in truth, it is the listener who is performing the favor. The believer is engaged, passionate and full of purpose as they outline the precise details by which the conspiracy is orchestrated. All the while, the listener is patiently internalizing their criticism. In this moment, the believer is their savior, delivering them from solitude and obscurity into the loving arms of paranoia and delusion. In the minds of the listener, believers are foolish and eccentric, but in their minds, they are valiant champions of truth. As Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons state in Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort:

“Conspiracism is a particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm.”

There are also costs associated with being a conspiracy believer. As we just mentioned, anyone coerced into listening to a believer’s stories will likely suffer boredom and irritation, but believers themselves also pay a price for their conviction. Depending on the nature of the conspiracy and both the frequency and aggression with which the believer shares it, the believer may be insulted, ignored or avoided. This can result in damaged relationships and a tarnished image, which may affect the believer’s credibility and career.

If you’re a conspiracy believer, ask yourself what you’re really accomplishing by spreading rumors and accusations. Ask yourself if it’s worth it to annoy others with your wild tales. Ask yourself what you’re willing to sacrifice on the altar of conspiracy. Ask yourself if it really helps Bigfoot to go around telling everyone that he exists.

If you truly love Bigfoot, leave him be.