The Conspiracist Style

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by Neil Godfrey

suspiciousAustralia’s national radio broadcaster, Radio National (RN), aired an interview with Rob Brotherton, Visiting Research Fellow at Goldsmiths, University of London, trying to explain to us why conspiracies are generally “all in the mind“. Obviously Brotherton and RN are controlled by the Illuminati and are being used to convince a gullible public that a secret cabal is not manipulating the world economy, the world’s governments, the events in the Middle East and major terrorist attacks in the West.

Sucker that I am I raced out and grabbed a copy of Brotherton’s book, Suspicious minds : why we believe conspiracy theories. I began serious reading at chapter 3, What Is a Conspiracy Theory? Early on I came across this interesting passage:

There’s no denying that the label has less-than-favorable connotations in some intellectual circles, at least. “If you’re down at a bar in the slums, and you say something that people don’t like, they’ll punch you or shriek four-letter words,” Noam Chomsky once said. “If you’re in a faculty club or an editorial office, where you’re more polite— there’s a collection of phrases that can be used which are the intellectual equivalent of four-letter words and tantrums. One of them is ‘conspiracy theory.’”

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 931-935). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Ah, so that’s why a handful of scholars sometimes toss out “conspiracy theory” at arguments they appear not to have seriously investigated and that for all the world seem to me to have nothing to do with “conspiracy theories” at all.

I just want to isolate and share one thought from chapter 3 in this post. Brotherton rightly points out that defining what we mean by conspiracy theory is problematic given that at some point “one person’s conspiracy theory is the next person’s conspiracy fact. . . . ” so “blithely asserting that conspiracy theories are bullshit doesn’t get us very far.” Instead, Brotherton speaks of a conspiratorial style:

Richard Hofstadter, an influential scholar of conspiracism, talked about conspiracy theories as a “style” of explanation. Much as a historian of art might speak of the motifs that collectively constitute the baroque style, or a music critic might parse the subtle differences between dubstep and grime, our task in distinguishing conspiracy theories from regular old theories about conspiracies is to identify some of the most important rhetorical themes, tropes, and flourishes that collectively constitute the conspiracist style.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 925-929). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Not that these style-points are foolproof rules, either. Think of them more as indicative guides, Brotherton says.

So we’ve laid out six crucial elements of the conspiracist style. Before we take stock and move on, however, a note of caution is required. Coming up with a checklist can give a false impression of objectivity . . . .  

Think of our six characteristics as useful rules of thumb, rather than immutable laws. . . . 

It’s worth reiterating that none of the features we’ve talked about, in and of themselves, distinguish conspiracy fact from conspiracy fiction. Just because a claim meets our six criteria doesn’t mean it can’t be true.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1198-1215). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So what are those “six crucial elements”? 

1. Unanswered Questions

[G]etting hung up on determining whether a contested claim is true or false misses a crucial feature of the conspiracist style. . . .  Conspiracy theories are unproven by design. . . . 

As scholar Mark Fenster explained, conspiracy theories don’t merely aim to describe something that has happened; they purport to reveal hitherto undiscovered plots in the hopes of persuading the as yet unalerted masses. They come with a tacit admission that the ultimate truth is just out of reach, behind the next curtain, able to be glimpsed but not yet grasped. The conspiracy is forever being unraveled, but the holy grail of incontrovertible proof— the undeniable evidence that will alert the masses and finally topple the house of cards— has not yet been produced. Whether they turn out to be true or not, conspiracy theories, deep down, are unanswered questions.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 966-993). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Like those people who say that are not suggesting a conspiracy at all, but are “just asking questions”. — Or “JAQing off”, as Brotherton reminds us the saying goes.

2. Nothing Is As It Appears

Our second crucial element of the conspiracist style is the idea that we’re not merely being kept in the dark about something— we are being actively fooled. In the world according to conspiracy theories, appearances mislead, and nothing is quite as it seems. . . . 

Mike Wood and Karen Douglas explain that conspiracy theories operate on the assumption that “there are two worlds: one real and (mostly) unseen, the other a sinister illusion meant to cover up the truth.” As a result, conspiracy theories are contrarian by nature. They flip conventional wisdom on its head. In the world according to conspiracy theories, the obvious answer is never correct, and there is always more to things than meets the eye. Accidents are planned, democracy is a sham, all faces are masks, all flags are false.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1006-1034). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

3. Everything Is Under Control

Things seem a whole lot simpler in the world according to conspiracy theories. As Daniel Pipes put it, conspiracy theorists seem to have “startling faith in the capabilities of their enemies.” At the very least, they propose that when the conspirators set events in motion they are able to predict how things will unfold with seemingly clairvoyant foresight. The conspirators are apparently willing and able to pull together as a team in total obedience to the conspiracy, almost as if it were a singular organism rather than a collection of people, each with his or her own personal ambitions, scruples, families, hobbies. . . . 

There is a caveat, however. The conspirators are staggeringly competent— except every now and then when they mess up just a little bit. . . .  If the conspiracy were absolutely perfect, after all, if the conspirators never let slip a single clue, then nobody would have any idea what they were up to. . . . 

As Loren Collins bluntly explained, the conspiracy always seems to be “exactly as competent and powerful as the conspiracy theorist needs it to be.”

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1064-1083). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

4. Everything is Evil

Sensational allegations have been a central motif of the conspiracist style, from the antisemitic blood libel to the first fully fledged conspiracy theories that emerged in the wake of the French Revolution. . . . .

At the very least, the conspirators are said to have a Machiavellian streak a mile wide. They “have a prize worth cheating for and the will and ability to stop at nothing to get it,” as Joe Uscinski and Joseph Parent put it. A common refrain among conspiracy theorists is cui bono?— who benefits? Anyone who stands to gain from some situation is automatically suspected of bringing it about. Adding to the intrigue, the villains often turn out to be the very individuals and institutions we normally expect to act in the public interest,

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1093-1110). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

5. Anomaly Hunting

But the conspiracist style imbues each small anomaly with profound significance, using it to cast doubt upon the entire mainstream explanation.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1151-1152). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

6. Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Conspiracy theories are constructed around an unassailable, irrefutable logic, according to which absolutely nothing can disprove the conspiracy— even evidence to the contrary.

Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1162-1163). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Which is why you know that my cynicism towards conspiracy theories only proves what a gullible pawn of the conspirators I am. And my awareness of this fact only demonstrates how incorrigibly deluded I really am.


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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on “The Conspiracist Style”

  1. Thanks Neil, I find myself in complete agreement with Brotherton (which carries the risk of being less critical….).

    I had a brief exchange of ideas with Richard Carrier’s blog a while ago: he presented the theory that Israel deliberately sank a US ship 40 years ago as ‘hard fact’. See http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/6191

    I now see that Carrier’s position display’s all six of Brothreton’s tell-tale signs of conspiracy theorism. Wish I had known in 2014……….

    1. I have to disagree on this one. Israel’s deliberate attack on the USS Liberty is a part of history. The details are all on record. Nothing secret. (That it is not so well known in the U.S. is a failure of U.S. media.)

      Yes, Israel did conspire to destroy the vessel in the 1967 war. But this was not a conspiracy of great universal evil, like a plot to take over or control the world or our institutions, etc. It was a local and clearly defined event and came to an end. No unanswered questions are extant. No anomalies sought out to create the larger than life narrative. The facts are all laid out. Nothing mysterious. The event is definitely provable, verifiable.

      For these reasons acknowledgement of this event is not a conspiracy theory. It is an acknowledgement of a documented fact of history. See the documentation at the Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Liberty_incident

      1. Sorry to say this, but you sound like an apologist: 100% certain that your are right, there is no need to examine the evidence…..

        If you would look closer, you would see that there is not a shred of evidence for a deliberate attack on the Liberty. It is a case of ‘friendly fire’; these things happen often during active battles, unfortunately.

        The ‘deliberate attack’ conspiracy is at the level of the ‘CIA bombed the Twin Towers’ theory.

        1. ?? No need to examine the evidence?? It certainly does need to be examined. I have seen it. I was very suspicious and at first disbelieved the claims that it was deliberate. Until I read the details of the evidence — not the guesswork or speculations. That’s not 100% certain — that’s very confident pending new evidence that everything I read was false.

          The difference between that approach and a conspiracy theory approach is that the latter is guesswork, speculation and the former relies upon evidence; and the latter sees something far bigger than one nation desperate to avoid certain actions getting back to Washington at a critical time – an event that only extended to that region and with implications that did not go beyond a limited time.

          I hope we can discuss conspiracy theories here and not get into some political debate over whether or not certain nations in the world can possibly act this way. It’s about the evidence available to all.

  2. Are there no conspiracies whatsoever? When I was a kid, nearly all the adults around me, insisted there was a Santa Claus. And, seemingly because of a tacit agreement among them, no one would clearly admit that Santa was not real.

    This seemed to me later, to be a sort of conspiracy; a tacit and at times explicit but secret agreement among adults, to lie to their children, and fool them.

    Would it be wrong to speak here of a “conspiracy?”

    Many might call it say, a “white” or “noble lie.” And I often saw signs of similar things to the Santa story, in religion. People telling rough adults, “children, ” that they’d better behave. Because there was an invisible figure, who always saw them. One who knew if they were naughty or nice. And who would reward them accordingly. At Christmas.

    1. Yes there certainly are conspiracies everywhere and we’ve all probably participated in some of them at some time. But most are banal (such as the one you mention); others are limited in scope and capable of verification, and so on. 9/11 was certainly the result of a conspiracy — of 19 hijackers and Al Qaeda. But believing in these does not qualify us as “conspiracy theorists”. I hope the six elements of the conspiratorial style capture what is really meant by the conspiracy theorist.

      1. Right. This has long been a pet peeve of mine. Everyone agrees that there was a 9/11 conspiracy. They just disagree about who the conspirators were. There are also many differences in the style of logic applied and the assumptions about the world that go into different ideas about 9/11 conspiracies. There are no doubt some people with irrational ideas about how al-Qaeda operates; irrationality is not limited to the classic 9/11 Truther “Rumsfeld did it” side.

        In fact, if you think about it, one of the main justifications for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was an irrational 9/11 conspiracy theory.

        Consequently, I tend to chafe at the term “conspiracy theory” because it seemingly ought to include all ideas about conspiracies. However, there’s no obvious alternative terminology. I say when “irrational conspiracy theories” when I’m not feeling like I’m into the whole brevity thing.

  3. Let me clarify with another passage addressing the other side of conspiracies by Brotherton:

    Conspiracy can be necessary and benign. People conspire to throw surprise parties for their friends. Intelligence agencies conspire in the interests of national security (in theory, at least). That said, cruel and destructive conspiracies are not uncommon, from plots to bump off a spouse and cash in on the life insurance policy, to horrific terrorist atrocities. Secrecy is sometimes necessary precisely because the deed being concealed is morally suspect. But even these kinds of plots tend to be limited in ambition and scope. Conspiracy scholars Emma Jane and Chris Fleming aptly sum up the kind of conspiratorial activity we know about. “As far as we are aware, we do not live in a world with one or two powerful conspiracies in operation— but in one in which millions of minor ones— and perhaps a few medium ones— are grinding away all the time.” The majority of real conspiracies, they add, are “so banal . . . it’s hardly worth theorizing them.”

    The conspiracist style has no time for such trifles. . . . .

    Brotherton, Rob (2015-11-19). Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories (Kindle Locations 1098-1106). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

    1. I might endorse the distinction between talking about real conspiracies, and the paranoid conspiracy style. Though if say our intelligence agencies conspire, then not all conspiracies are banal or ineffective. And if the Santa myth is a conspiracy, then not all conspiracies are small.

  4. If a conspiracy is a “private” plan by a group of people to work a “public” change or mischief, world history – politics, industry, diplomacy, crime, intelligence operations, palace coups, war strategies or secret societies – has more than a few examples! Some “multicultural education” groups I knew personally, operating on the now quite influential “race-gender-class” ideology of the 1960s-1970s, called their activities “agenda networking”. There are problems with irrational beliefs in an over-arching secret single global conspiracy (Bilderbergers, Elders of Zion, Illuminati, &c), but not in minor examples (Comintern instructions, US/UK pro-Israel lobbies, major bank top-boardroom policy-making).

    My taxi has arrived – back later!!

    1. Our authors in fact aren’t denying that there are some conspiracies. They are just suggesting that most are either small, or benign, or even beneficial. However, I’d note that what is beneficial to one person, might not seem so beneficial to another.

      Most parents for example, once believed that misleading their children, letting them believe in Santa, is OK. Since it helps make their children behave. However? I feel that in the longer run, teaching kids to believe in an often invisible, supernatural being, will often partially and even permanently cripple their developing powers of logic and reason.

  5. It sounds like the authors allow that we shouldn’t entirely neglect conspiracies as entirely false. Noting that “conspiracy theory” is just an academic four letter word, overlooking some very real things.

    To fix a too-arbitrary rejection of noting even actual conspiracies, the authors try to differentiate between noting actual conspiracies, vs. lapsing unto a style of over-paranoid rhetoric.

    But the authors acknowledge that the attempt to differentiate these two, is not entirely objective.

  6. If by the way, the Santa myth is indeed a very large and staggeringly successful conspiracy, then this answers the author’s objection, say, that conspiracies could not possibly be as “staggeringly competent” as they would need to be, to maintain a secret among a rather large group.

    How could this have been achieved? A widely-known secret can be loosely kept. .. if a given secret is widely thought to be very useful in maintaining something that is seen to be a great good. Like getting bad children – and ultimately bad adults – to behave.

    So if religion – say, the promises of all the miracles we ask for – was known to be a lie to a fair number of people? Still that lie might not be exposed everywhere. Because it is widely regarded as being extremely useful.

  7. When I was younger, and listened and talked to priests and ministers, many would in fact hint that much of Christianity was a white lie. Especially, if you suggested that their promises of physical miracles were false, they had a stock reply: “But what harm is done?”

    Rather than denying falsehood, note, our preachers were arguing that the 1) promises of miracles did no harm in any case.

    And then? Next our more intelligent preachers went on to hint that 2) the promises if physical miracles, even if false, were useful. Some holy men hinted specifically that promises of huge spectacular physical wonders, the promise of such material gains, at least attracted people to church. Where the people could eventually be taught an allegedly higher, truer, more “spiritual” Christianity.

    So in effect, I found that a certain percentage of our elite leaders – even our religious leaders – as much as admitted that much of religion, Christianity, was not quite wholly true. And they defended the false promises anyway. Arguing in effect that say, though the promises of physical miracles, “all” we “ask” for (John 14.13), might be a lie, they were a white lie. A lie leading to real goods.

    But what goods did even false promises lead to? In part, promises of future miracles lead to “spiritual” benefits, we were told. Promises of future wonders gave simple people “hope.”

    But what was the final benefit? Finally false promises, often pacified an impoverished and discontented population. Assurances of better days in the future, helped our leaders produce an obedient, hopeful population. A people dutifully tolerating exploitation, onerous rules, hard labor and poverty, for now. Tolerating such things – because the exploited classes had been promised future rewards. Material or spiritual. On earth or in heaven. Even though evidence seemed to suggest that those rewards were not real.

    So in my own experience, I have found that a certain percentage of our elites, if properly approached, would strongly hint that indeed, much of Christianity was a white lie. Promises of physical miracles especially were often tacitly conceded to be false. But it was hinted, a number if goods came out of these lies. First, 1) the people were given hope. And secondly? 2) Our leaders were handed a pacified, obedient work force.

  8. No doubt most priests and ministers believe in most of the faith the espouse. But many religion scholars doubt much if religion today. And indeed therefore, some practicing preachers have unspecified “doubt,” and lapses in their “faith” that their message is true.

    In fact, I have found that privately, some will hint they do not believe in parts of the religion they publicly support. Many especially, do not believe in promises of physical miracles, all and whatever we ask (John 14.13). Since they often asked or prayed for miracles that did not arrive.

    So here we have priests and ministers hinting the themselves do not quite fully believe all of what their churches are telling everyone else to believe. And yet, to avoid getting into trouble with the churches, to hold on to their jobs, note, they normally do not tell others that major elements of their message are untrue.

    So what do we have here, finally? What we have is 1) a group of leaders. Who are 2) supporting in public life, something they believe to be at least partially untrue. Who are in effect, supporting a lie. Who are furthermore, most of the time, 3) making sure however, that most of the public doesn’t discover that much of what they say, is not true.

    But what next, is 4) their Motive? Why are they doing this? Why support things they don’t entirely believe are true? As it turns out, they have dozens of reasons for this. In part it is to preserve their own jobs. In part it is because all these deceits are thought to serve an imagined “higher” truth.

    However, if we look closer, we may find that the deceits and hypocricies, the duplicities of our clergy, our clerks, will often serve, as much as anything, the wolfish economic interests, the avarice, of their former direct employers: the higher or ruling class. The” lords.” Who were often thought to be gods.

    Here’s something interesting therefore. In effect note, I’ve had some priests and ministers tell me privately that, in effect, they are a conspiracy. First, they agree that say, their promises of miracles are false, a deception. But they say, they continue to support untrue things publicly. In order to support their own “higher” notion of what is good.

    And, in effect, these things are widely known and accepted among many of them. Anyone who can read and understand, can find thousands of scholarly religion articles that clearly doubt one or another elements of religion. And yet the authors of these obscurely-worded journals, however, chose not to make that doubt explicit; or easily understood by commoners.

    Why would they do this? Why hide things from commoners and children? Finally, here, we can begin to guess why they are doing that. And we can begin to show why their ultimate reasons and motives finally, are not good.

  9. It takes a certain level of gullibility to think our history happened just the way it was presented to us. For instance, speaking of religion, Seneca said “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.”

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