We have certain beliefs about conspiracies. There are some we ascribe to, others we reject. Most of us are probably uncomfortable with the whole topic. It makes us squeamish. It is a sign of some sort of weakness. It’s one of the few remaining public taboos. While we’re encouraged to bare all without embarrassment, an avid belief in conspiracies is something most of us are reluctant to admit. Still, conspiracies, both in their particulars and in the way they’ve evolved as a genre of stories we tell about ourselves and the world, matter. There are bound to be some that have foundation in fact, and others that touch on underlying truths the way ancient myths might not have been literally true, but stood, and stand, for great truths.
We also have an unsettled relationship with inevitability. Our inability to agree on questions of inevitability are at the center of the great crises we face. Our inability to agree on, not only what to do, but even on whether these predicaments exist, is a marker of the tremendous impasse we are caught-up in! Our conceptions of inevitability are quite personal, though conditioned in ways that are beyond our direct control. We each have had our own experiences of inevitability, and they form how we relate to the entire notion. Inevitability connects with responsibility. When we acknowledge inevitability we are at least opening up a space for questions of our own culpability.
Conspiracy and inevitability collide. Some say that we construct stories of conspiracy to make sense of random acts that have hurt us deeply. We want to feel these events were inevitable, constructed out of understandable if murky specifics that lay out someone’s culpability and preserves our sense of order while maintaining our personal innocence. We can map this motivation onto any conspiracy and it will roughly fit. But just because there is a psychological necessity for a certain mechanism doesn’t mean that there is nothing else there. But it does say something about our relationship with certainty.
A conspiracy takes a mystery and explains it. It places blame and elucidates a chain of causality. These are deep human needs. This doesn’t discount them, it just states a fact. We need to understand our world. We need to feel that we know who is to blame for bad things happening, and we need to feel that our understanding of the way things work can be validated, even when confronted with mystery.
Inevitability is a sensation akin to deja vu. It is a feeling that given a set of surprising events culminating in a notable outcome that we would have expected nothing else if we’d been privy in advance. It’s a way of climbing atop a shifting and perplexing reality and putting ourselves in command of it. This is the common notion of hindsight, itself a rough-shod treatment of the potential for Epimethean understanding.
“Of course! How else could it have ended!” we say, at least to ourselves, and we’ve countered the effects of surprise and girded ourselves, as we come to expect further repercussions. At least now they won’t hit us by surprise! Of course, whatever comes next will most likely be a surprise as well! We don’t have accurate foresight. Our hunches might play out, but the particulars will always be beyond our divination.
Divination. That gets at part of this. The word describes acting as if we were divine. It is distinct from a claim of omnipotence. It doesn’t declare that we are all-powerful, but it does respond to our wish to be all-knowing.
This essay has me struggling with what sounds to me like too pat an explanation of conspiracy and inevitability. It sounds like the kind of reassuring crowd-control messages we hear to disregard the man behind the curtain and keep ourselves enthralled to the Mighty Oz!
There is something false about countering our desire for explanation that results in conspiracy stories by taking up a stance that is outside of our human limitations and attempting to know better than we do. It is an attempt to usurp power from us, or more accurately, to re-establish or retain power over us by a force that is, while not greater than we are, at least more powerful than we are.
If it were a level playing field – Oh! such a dangerous set of words strung together! – and it was all of us on a level, and only the gods who played at omniscience and omnipotence, there would not be a problem. Our various attempts to deal with uncertainty and powerlessness would rub against each other, but none would dominate.
This isn’t the case. While some conspiracy stories are quite probably fabricated by the powerful to gull and confuse the weak. Others are constructed by the weak to gain a sense of control in relationship to the powerful. In all cases conspiracy stories are consumed by the weak. Perhaps this is the cause of our discomfort at admitting our credence.
This is what makes any attempt to explain them away, either specifically, or broadly, as I might seem to be doing here, is corrupt.
Yes, corrupt. Corruption is a relationship with the truth that puts truth at the mercy of some other agenda. Truth is treated as a means to an end. It’s not that the corrupt always lie. It’s that they lie even when they are telling the truth.
I remain fascinated with conspiracy and have a firm belief in my ability to detect inevitability. I’m aware this admission is taken as a sign of weakness. I’m also aware that these aspects of myself act within a greater context of my relationship with uncertainty and I use these factors as often to bolster my sense of unknowability as I do to confirm what I think I do know. I see the power relationship involved in these dynamics and use that to get a lay of the land, to detect the slope of the field, to see where the power lies and who is paying and who is benefiting from the sacrifices of others.
I can get drawn into the power of a story of conspiracy, or be bolstered by a sense of inevitability while maintaining skepticism about the details. They are like myths and legends. They are true. They can, and when they grow directly out of a condition of powerlessness, they are about truth in and for itself, not as a means to some other end. In this they have power and give us strength against those who are ruthless.
Our credulity regarding conspiracies is a first step towards sincerity. We approach the edges of cynicism and recoil. While the powerful and corrupt pass easily through cynicism to a profound nihilism – something they attempt to project on those they fear. Sincerity can only be approached with humility. It is despised by the powerful. They’ve lost the chance and hate those who might still reach for it.
Sincerity does not ask for certainty in the end, although it can grow out of a yearning for knowing. It’s a yearning for knowing that doesn’t just stop at gaining an advantage but goes on through to exploring the limits of what is known, what can be known. Al of these are there in the turmoil of mixed thoughts and feelings we immerse ourselves in when confronting any mystery. For us today, these are most often told in the form of a conspiracy, they bump up against our sense of what is inevitable, including a deep foreboding that there are immense consequences that the dominant public story suppresses.
If awareness is our greatest attainment, then these struggles with conspiracy can be seen as the acts within a troubled sleep, a sign that someone is on the verge of awakening, on the brink of awareness. As opposed to Propaganda which deals in masses and the moods of the herd, these interactions are individual. They confront us one at a time. We slowly begin to acknowledge a common humanity with those whom we would otherwise never cross-paths. It is a first step on the road that the poet William Stafford was referring to when he wrote,
“Here’s how to count the people who are ready to do right: