Is It Rational to Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

by Begüm GÜVEN

Contradictions pretty much constitute the essence of our civilizations. We don’t mind taking a few hits, making mistakes and end up with more mess than we started, given that we also progress on the side. This seems the only way to make sense to the black and white world of ours; drawing inspiration from Freud’s theory, we can talk about a death drive clashing with the pleasure principle from which development emerges.


Shouldn’t be we surprised then, when alongside scientific theories, also another kind of explanation gains popularity? Can we be naive enough to conclude that conspiracy theories try to restore mysticism into an over rationalized world? Frederick Jameson explains conspiracy theory as a “poor person’s cognitive mapping”. It can be argued that modern-day explanations mostly consist of how things work while leaving the reasons why they are happening in the dark. Yet, conspiracy theories don’t have to be regarded as antidotes to rationalization only; since the core elements of those theories such as skepticism and ontological insecurity are shared with scientific methodology as well. Modern science also discusses if everything is what it seems to be, and progresses by breaking up with what is known as contemporarily true. The biggest difference however is that, while scientists have authority and support from official information, conspiracy theories are like spider webs from which no one can conclude who is behind it. They are also similar to alternative medicine: they make sense if you commit to them.


Brian Keeley defines conspiracy theories as “an explanation of an event by the causal agency of a small group of people acting in secret.” Pete Mandik adds to this definition intentionality of the agents to the unraveling of the following events. It is also known that conspiracies are not unique to our era, but were prominent throughout history. After all, world history is made from contingencies, but in retrospect, people appropriated these events to follow a linear history. Conspiracy theories may have found a place in history as the foretelling of events’ future interpretations. From secret societies of Jewish communities to ambivalent plans of leaders, human societies hosted a variety of them. There had always existed an exotic Other, whose characteristics were unknown. However, it is a new phenomenon that we switched to the distrust of the state itself. Before it was our enemies that harmed us; it now seems that we don’t trust our own governments’ intentions. The other is now modern society itself.


According to Lacan, ‘big Other’ is the symbolic order which includes language and institutional law. We grant power to the users of the language of the law, we believe that there is more truth in the words of a judge for example. Using the concept of big Other, Zizek explains conspiracy theories as a distrust to institutions:


“Distrust of the big Other (the order of symbolic fictions), the subject's refusal to ‘take it   seriously,’ relies on the belief that there is an ‘Other of the Other,’ a secret, invisible, all-powerful agent who effectively ‘pulls the strings’ behind the visible, public Power.” (1)


It is now considered as naivety if you believe in the official explanations of events. There is supposed to be a secret agenda, a powerful group of elites that has big amounts of money. Conspiracy theories cannot be refuted completely for they talk about real historical agents, yet they cannot be believed in without examination as well. They are “floating signifiers” as Zizek tells us, and they can be “appropriated by different political options to obtain a minimal cognitive mapping.”


One of the most influential conspiracy theories is that of Qanon, prevailing in the USA for some time now. According to Qanon, there is a secret agenda, a deep state against Donald Trump attempting to take him down. This theory appeared first from an anonymous account called Q at 4chan, which is not a trustable source at all, in the first place. Q accused Hollywood actors, politicians, and many many others with child sex-trafficking, claiming that they were laying a plot on Trump for that he was trying to reveal and punish them. Yet believers of Qanon do not just stop there, but believe that everything is connected, thus explaining everything under the dim light of Qanon. They are very successful in creating a community (or cult) for they use hashtags like WWG1WGA which means “where we go one we go all”. They are also starting to gain popularity and authority in the US by the support of candidates that are running for congress. One of them is Marjorie Taylor Green that won more than 40 percent of the vote in Georgia in the Republican primary. She is now a Republican candidate running for the general election in her conservative district.


Qanon hits a sweet spot in Americans by showing Trump as a messianic figure in these chaotic times of theirs. They “trust the plan” which means that whatever unbelievable thing Donald Trump does or says is plotted beforehand, and is a step towards justice in America. When Trump mentioned “the calm before storm” in one of his talks in 2017, Qanon supporters came up with “Great Awakening”, preparing for a great change in their country. Commenting on photos of celebrities, circling their tweets with red, and explaining the hidden symbols of media are just a few hobbies of these believers. They are irrefutable because they use the double bind they created to their own advantage: they believe that if media engages with Q, all the ugliness of the media will be shown publicly. But if media disregards Q, there will be public outrage, and the associations of media with criminal acts will be shown anyway. Thereby, they have trust in themselves and this makes them pretty influential. Even Time magazine chose Q as one of its top 25 influencers.


We can try to explain the psychology governing these people by saying that belief in conspiracies is elevated when people unable to feel in control. Or we can say that the human mind is prone to make sense of the experiences, or that there is always prejudice against powerful groups. Yet whatever we came up with, the absurdity of the picture depicted in front of us will not diminish. Most of us will keep believing that supporters of Qanon must be stupid or lonely and isolated. But can we keep pretending that they are outside of our societies? We cannot exclude the fact that they are also a product of our society. Just as us, they find rational ground to their own theory. And just as us, they harbor multiple cognitive biases. (2) (3) (4) (5)



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