Outside the Asylum
Last week, my partner Kate was hospitalized due to some complications from late-stage kidney disease. Thankfully, all she needed was to be put on a diuretic. But it's been a hell of a month.
So today, I'm only going to submit one thing for your consideration. It's a pet peeve of mine, and it's used almost daily to censor and direct discussion--and to discredit dissidents. It is one of the primary tools for protecting the status quo.
Meet the conspiracy theory.
Or, rather, meet the idea of a conspiracy theory.
This is Wikipedia's definition:
A conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.
And here is the definition from Dictionary.com:
[A conspiracy theory is] a theory that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot:
Did you notice the difference between the two definitions? Dictionary.com gives a fairly unbiased definition; there is no judgement given on the value of conspiracy theories, no position on whether they are right or wrong. Dictionary.com merely says that a conspiracy theory "rejects the standard explanation."
Wikileaks, being a more warded cultural artifact than Dictionary.com, introduces another idea into the concept of a conspiracy theory. The words when other explanations are more probable assume that the conspiracy theory is somehow shady or crazy, or at the very least held by stupid people with wrong ideas. And what is it that is less probable, in Wikipedia's eyes?
An explanation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation.
The idea of a conspiracy theory, by Wikipedia's definition, thus rests on the notion that most of the time, it is improbable that there should be "a conspiracy by sinister and powerful actors, often political in motivation." In other words, it's just plain unlikely that small groups of powerful people might get together in private and make political plans that don't benefit the majority of the population. It's also unlikely that small groups of powerful people would be willing to commit immoral or even illegal acts in pursuit of their goals, if they could be assured that such doings would remain private. A small group would never make malicious plans in private and then carry those plans out, to the detriment of other people, the nation, or the earth. That's crazy talk.
When you look at Dictionary.com's better definition, it states that a conspiracy theory departs from the standard explanation of an event. By that definition, the term "conspiracy theory" is a synonym for "dissenting opinion." That definition also begs the question of what makes the standard explanation standard.
In many cases, an explanation becomes "standard" when a majority of people believe it. But often that is not the case. In fact, the most famous example of the label "conspiracy theory" being applied to an event, at least in the United States, is the Kennedy assassination--and considerably more people believe in the so-called conspiracy theory about JFK's death than those who believe in Lee Harvey Oswald the lone crazy bad apple:
So nearly 2/3 of Americans believe Oswald didn't act alone--yet their opinion is the conspiracy theory, and the opinion of the minority is the "standard" explanation. This reminds me of how left-wing policies which show majority support among American voters are described as dangerously extreme, while the politicians who embrace policies almost universally loathed are described as "centrist," making them the center of an imaginary bell curve--just because they say so. But, in truth, you need a majority to create a "standard explanation." There are two other ways you can do it. One is old-fashioned and hearkens back to both rationalism and empiricism. For instance, no matter whether a majority believes that 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has certain effects or not, it still does. It is rationally provable through an analysis of evidence.
The other way to create a "standard explanation" does not rely on evidence any more than it relies on popularity. You can create a "standard explanation" by the use of authority alone. What you do is this: take people and institutions held to be authoritative, for whatever reason, and have them repeat the explanation until it becomes standard. We just watched this happen for the past three years with Russiagate, and, before that, we saw it happen with 9/11. Both these "standard explanations" derived solely from the repetition of words by authority figures arose in response to various kinds of collective trauma. This is not accidental. It is much easier to create a standard explanation through authority alone when people are upset.
The truth is that there is no such thing as a conspiracy theory. There are only different kinds of hypotheses. These hypotheses can be good or bad, probable or improbable, rest on discoverable evidence or on faith alone. We find out which kind of hypothesis it is through discussion and debate, or through investigation and research, if more data is needed. If, after we make our judgement on the hypothesis, new data is discovered, the entire discussion can be opened again, and different judgements made. Insane or foolish ideas are winnowed out, over time, through the use of rational thought by a community. Sometimes the community discussing the matter stretches back through history. Sometimes proving or disproving a hypothesis takes decades, or even centuries.
I know about this process, you see, because I trained as a scholar. Scholars are not the only people involved in this rational process, nor should they be, but scholars are one of a few types of people whose working lives are dedicated to it. Journalists also, if they are really doing journalism, dedicate their working lives to that process, as do scientists, and sometimes even artists.
As a scholar, then, I object to the term "conspiracy theory." Its assumptions are false. There are many examples throughout history of small groups of people acting in secret to the detriment of others. It is ludicrous to assert that such behavior is so improbable as to warrant the immediate dismissal of an idea. Worse than that, the term "conspiracy theory" is what Garrett Hardin, author of Filters Against Folly, called a "conversation stopper." Its purpose is to bring an end to the discussion. Rather than trusting the community and its use of rational thought to arrive, however long it may take, at a sound conclusion, the term "conspiracy theory" cuts that process off before it can truly start. Those who use the phrase aim to quarantine certain ideas and their purveyors. They fit such notions with a leper's bell. Any who refuse to comply with the intellectual quarantine become unclean as well, and if they refuse to identify themselves as such, there will always be those willing to do so, for pleasure or for pay.
Perhaps we should remember, at this moment, someone who, albeit briefly, defeated those who wish to quarantine ideas: