What to do with people trapped in conspiracy theories…
I’ve been wrestling with a question for some time now. A question that I don’t have a good answer for, or really a whole lot of insight into. A question that just leaves me with a boggled mind and I’m not sure what to do with it. The question is this – Why do we humans have a tendency to grab hold of certain ideas and beliefs? Especially ideas and beliefs that don’t hold up upon examination. Things like conspiracy theories, beliefs about cultures or people that we are not really familiar with, and more.
What is it about these ideas and beliefs that attract people? I think the answer is probably far more complex than any simple answer could possibly offer. Which is kind of ironic really. A core part of these ideas and beliefs are grounded in simple explanations for complex situations. They hold a binary worldview in which there are only two possibilities and the true believers are clearly on the side of good, while anyone else is obviously bad. They offer us concrete answers in a world that is more and more confusing and often without any satisfying answers. They allow us to believe that we can shape and bend reality to us, as if we are the center of the universe. They offer us a sense of control over our lives and the world around us.
Dr. Steven Novella of Yale School of Medicine wrote an article on conspiracy theories and said that conspiracy theories connect the dots of random information and allow followers to see an invisible hand operating behind the scenes. They all have the same script. It’s like a long-standing mad lib in which the story is the same, but we get to fill in the blanks with different names based on our ideology or theology.
Here’s the script – There’s a rich billionaire who works with a secret international society of behind the scenes influencers who actually control the levers of government, money, and communications. And they work with some kind of grassroots movement organizations to get what they want – which is the destruction of the things we hold dear. I’m not sure why though – I guess the reasoning has to do with making money and controlling people. And there’s always some kind of a savior who is exposing all of this in cryptic ways so that only the true believers will know. And in the end, the savior figure will bring down the bad guys, arrest them or have them killed off, thus saving humanity, or the nation, or some group of people. The end.
Doesn’t matter if the rich villain is George Soros or the Koch brothers. Doesn’t matter is the secret society is the Illuminati or the New World Order or the Monsato corporations who invests in genetically altered foods. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Black Lives Matter or the NRA. Doesn’t matter if we venture into theology either – the popularized beliefs in some strands of Christianity around the Rapture have the same story. They all have the same story – the same script. It always goes the same way. Just the names chosen are different.
Why are people drawn to these things? Why do so many grab hold of these scripts and treat them as though they are Gospel truth – willing to end relationships, lose employment, and refuse to hear anything from even loved ones that might question the truthfulness of the theory? It breaks my heart to see people held in such bondage.
Why do so many gravitate to destructive fantasies rather than deal with the reality that surrounds us? Maybe reality is just too painful or scary to deal with.
It is sad to see people willingly and readily grasp at conspiracies and hold them up as true, but deny reality around us.
The next question is this – what do you do with such people? I don’t know. Conspiracies have been around for a long, long time. Just to give you a sense of this – there were conspiracy theories around the death of Roman Emperor Nero. People latching onto conspiracies are not new. They aren’t going away.
So what do we do? Again, I’m not sure. And there is no magic set of perfect steps either. Here’s some thoughts.
First, do a self-assessment. Are you in the right frame of mind to deal with conspiracies? If not, step away. Don’t do it. You need to take care of your self first before you can deal with something like this.
Second, realize that facts and data aren’t going to help. People caught up in conspiracies have their own set of data and believe it. They trust their data sources. They don’t trust yours. So don’t get bogged down in a data dispute – you won’t win. You’ll just be frustrated.
Third, determine what your goal is in confronting those who hold onto conspiracies. You may have several goals that shift in the course of a conversation. That’s ok. You will have to shift based on how the conversations go. Coupled with this is the fact that you aren’t going to convince someone caught up in a conspiracy theory.
Fourth, don’t let someone else determine how you deal with them. This is really important and essential. Others don’t get to dictate the conversation or how you react or treat someone else. They don’t get to label you either. The same applies to you as well. So you may want to literally remind yourself of some things. Remind yourself, if you are a person of faith, what your calling is. As a Christian, I’m called to see the image of God in all people, to seek shalom, and to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. These guide my interactions, especially the really difficult interactions. But I have to remind myself of these things before I go into the conversation to make sure I’m in the right frame of mind and am not just reacting to anything that is being said.
Fifth, remember, you are not the other person’s savior. That job is already taken. So take it easy on yourself. It isn’t your job to save someone else, to convince them and make sure they see the truth, etc. You are called to love and to tell the truth. That’s it. What they do with that is up to them. You have no control over the other person, what they say, what they do, and what they believe. The end result may be that you have to wipe the dust from your feet and cut the person out either temporarily or permanently. Sometimes that is the most loving thing you can do. Give yourself breathing room, and don’t be too hard on yourself – the world is already doing plenty of that.