Australia’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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