Beware of “us vs. them”!

May 1, 2021 - 12:00am -- Living City

Beware of “us vs. them”!  
Conspiracy theories have a long history, and Christians can be culprits

By Brett Salkeld

Conspiracy theories have always been with us. Was Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone? Was the moon landing faked? Did the U.S. government carry out the 9/11 attacks against its own citizens? 

But in 2020, conspiracy theories took center stage, leading to real-world consequences in ways that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago. 

Conspiracy theories played central roles in both the fallout from the U.S. election, culminating in the shocking attack on the Capitol on January 6, and in the exacerbation of the worst public health crisis in 100 years. Along the way, they have had devastating effects on our mental health and closest relationships.

But what exactly are conspiracy theories? Why are they becoming so concerning at this moment in history? And what should people of faith make of all this?

Oddly enough, what we generally mean by “conspiracy theory” is not simply a theory about a conspiracy. Genuine conspiracies happen with some frequency. 

Big Tobacco famously conspired to hide what it knew about the health risks of smoking. The United States Public Health Service really did lie to the African American men in its infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Watergate happened. 

But these kinds of conspiracies are never exposed by conspiracy theorists. Instead, they are generally uncovered by investigative journalists or lawyers.

Shadowy elites pulling the strings

So, what distinguishes a “conspiracy theory” from an actual theory about a real conspiracy? Conspiracy theories are identifiable in two significant ways. First, and most obviously, they can be recognized by their content. Generally speaking, conspiracy theories imagine a powerful group of shadowy elites pulling the strings behind the scenes of major events or even world history. 

“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fabricated document purportedly revealing the plot of Jewish leaders to control the world, is a famous historical example of this. The role of this document in fomenting anti-Semitism in Europe in the early 20th century sadly demonstrates that the Covid-19 pandemic is not the first time that conspiracy theory thinking has contributed to a tragic death count.    

Nowadays people speak of a New World Order manipulating or concocting or even faking a global pandemic to enforce a “Great Reset.” People imagine Bill Gates plotting to sterilize the planet or Hillary Clinton drinking the blood of children, but the basic structure is the same: elites perpetrating great crimes on the unwitting masses.

Untwisting the argumentation

Less obviously, but more importantly, conspiracy theories can be identified by the form or style of their argumentation. In particular, conspiracy theories are designed to be unfalsifiable. 

This is what makes them so frustrating to confront. A conspiracy theorist knows how to turn any evidence against their theory into evidence for it. Counterevidence becomes proof of a cover up, or is “just what they want you to believe.” 

This basic pattern is supported by numerous techniques. One is to avoid making statements that can be easily pinned down. 

Instead, one might, like the serpent in the garden of Eden, just ask sly leading questions based on half-truths. “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?’”

Another is to make a whole series of claims so that one’s audience or interlocutor is simply overwhelmed. Thus, a theorist’s argument is not seen to be undermined if any, or several, of those claims is shown to be false.

Conspiracy theorists will often even make mutually contradictory claims, insinuating that even if one or the other is false, their basic claim stands. This is one way that conspiracy theorists immunize themselves against fact-checking. 

Another is to scornfully ask, “Who checks the fact-checkers?” In this way, the conspiracy theorist can pick and choose whichever evidence they decide best fits their preconceived conclusion, dismissing any counterclaims with the wave of a hand. 

Conspiracy theories are generally conclusions in search of arguments.

Conspiracy theorists imagine themselves to be critical thinkers because they question what they call “the mainstream narrative.” 

Of course, being a critical consumer of media is essential today. The irony, however, is that the conspiracy theorist’s suspicion of mainstream coverage leads them to be awkwardly credulous of anything that claims to be counter to those established sources. 

For instance, there are people so suspicious of mainstream medicine that they will believe almost any claim made by any health practitioner that challenges conventional medicine. Moreover, any example of a misstep in mainstream medicine is enough to justify belief in almost any claim from outside the establishment.

Conspiracy-conducing conditions

This past year provided a kind of “perfect storm” for conspiracy theories. First, conspiracy theories have always held the most appeal in times of uncertainty. People naturally want to understand what is going on in the world. So, when things seem particularly chaotic and unpredictable, conspiracy theories often step in to fill an uncomfortable gap in understanding. 

In addition, those most prone to conspiracy theories are often those who lack a sense of agency in their own lives — something 2020 amplified for many. Watching conspiratorial YouTube videos and sharing them with social media contacts can create the feeling of actually doing something in a world where very little feels within your control. 

And social media itself has become a massive factor in the spread of conspiracy theories. Social media algorithms are built to keep eyes on screens. This means that they favor not truth, but reactivity. 

Conspiracy theory content thrives in such a context. Even rebuttals serve to enhance their profile. A lengthy and heated argument that generates dozens of comments and additional interactions with those comments will feature prominently on our feeds. 

Studies have shown that falsehood spreads much faster than truth on these platforms. YouTube’s algorithm has repeatedly pulled people “down the rabbit hole” as increasingly extreme content keeps people glued to their screens. 

Combine this with pandemic-related restrictions that mean more time alone on our screens and less time interacting with real people, and you have a recipe for disaster. Social media can easily become an echo chamber and, for many of those worst impacted, their conspiracy theory social media contacts have become their most basic form of human community.

Our personal response

As Christians, we are called to seek truth. This calling can itself be twisted into conspiracy theory thinking. Conspiracy theories claim to be showing us the truth that is hidden from the masses. One notable element of conspiracy theories is that they often claim that the truth is deeply hidden and, at the same time, perfectly obvious for those with eyes to see. 

Moreover, marginalized groups are often tempted by conspiracy theories because the world feels stacked against them. Christians who feel like they are on the losing side of a culture war on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage can find conspiracy theories involving their cultural nemeses compelling.

So, the first thing Christians might do about conspiracy theories is undertake an examination of conscience. Have you engaged in any of the kinds of dishonest argumentation typical of conspiracy theorists? 

It is possible to use the term “conspiracy theory” as an accusation to dismiss honest questions. On the other hand, if people who care about you have expressed this concern to you more than once, it is probably something you should pray about.

Almost all of us would also benefit from carefully taking stock of our relationship with social media. Do we find ourselves turning to social media to numb our anxiety, only to find ourselves more anxious when we finish? This is how addiction works. 

Relatedly, are we cultivating real-world relationships?  We need to have a social life beyond social media and look after our neighbor, friend or family member whose life might have been thrown off kilter by the pandemic and may be living almost entirely online.

In addition, we may want to curtail the spread of conspiracy theories in our social circles, especially when we see dangerous real-world consequences, such as vulnerable people expressing vaccine hesitancy based on misinformation. This is challenging and frustrating work, but there are a few things we can do to increase our chances of success. 

Concrete suggestions

First, directly arguing with someone in a public forum is unlikely to be beneficial. People who are challenged tend to dig in their heels — this is more likely when the forum is public and it is very difficult to save face. 

Instead, try private conversation or correspondence. (This also avoids feeding the algorithm!) 

Second, acknowledge any true thing you can find in what the other person says or believes. Affirm basic goals or values that you share with them. Conspiracy theories tend to operate in an “us vs. them” paradigm, so anything you can do to break down the sense that you are the enemy is valuable. 

If you show genuine solidarity with someone’s concerns, there is often much more room for movement on the particulars of their theories. 

Third, ask honest, open-ended questions, and let the person talk. Loneliness and anxiety are often at the root of conspiracy theory thinking. Sometimes, if those issues are addressed, the conspiracy theory does not need to be held on to so tightly. 

Finally, don’t let debates about conspiracy theories define your whole relationship. Often people don’t need arguments, but fresh air. Invite someone for a walk. Ask about the grandkids. Bake someone some muffins. Work to rebuild the social fabric that is lacking in the lives of so many these days. 

Even if someone doesn’t renounce their conspiracy theories, you will have done them, and the world, some real good.

Dr. Brett Salkeld is archdiocesan theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, Canada, where he is responsible  for deacon formation. He lives there with his wife and seven children.

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