Are conspiracy theorists onto something or are they simply kooky? Perhaps it’s a mixture of both.
For most people, the term “conspiracy theorist” denotes a person on the fringes of sanity, cooped up in their basement indulging themselves in far-out, paranoid, and fanciful theories about the underpinnings of society.
Whether it be that the world is run by shape-shifting lizards, that our planet isn’t truly spherical, or that Tupac Shakur remains alive on a tropical island, theories such as these abound the internet, kept alive by those labeled as “conspiracy theorists.”
As such, the term conspiracy theorist is often used as a pejorative, allowing certain worldviews to be dismissed on the basis of sanity, or their lack thereof. And, oftentimes, the dismissal of these ideas is warranted – not every worldview is equally legitimate or deserving of attention, and some theories are so outlandish that to take them seriously would be a societal fault.
Currently, conspiracy theories are ostensibly enjoying a rise in their subscription rate, with swaths of the population believing that COVID-19 is either a hoax or government creation or a distraction from 5G, and QAnon subscribers believing that the satanic, pedophilic deep state is on the brink of being overthrown.
Some will read the above beliefs and laugh at their absurdity, others will nod in agreeance with their resounding truth. I’m here to make a case not for or against particular conspiracies, but to urge a closer examination of the term “conspiracy theorist” itself.
The Acceptable Realm of Discussion
The late French philosopher Michel Foucault was deeply fascinated by the power of discourse and taboo in modern society, and stated in an interview in 1991, Foucault spoke on the intertwining nature of discourse and systems of power, stating that:
“Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourses which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”
In essence, Foucault is saying that the arena of popular discourse is often demarcated by those in power, with certain ideas pushed to the fringes, often labelled “taboo” in order to remove them from the realm of discussion.
As I shall illustrate, this notion of taboo ideas often intersects with those labeled “conspiracy theories,” despite the fact that history is replete with successive conspiracies.
Take Big Tobacco, for example. It should come as no surprise to those reading this article that the Tobacco industry had foreknowledge of the damage it was wreaking upon citizens through their consumption of cigarettes, while citizens at the time had no idea the harms they were doing to themselves.
Through aggressive lobbying and marketing tactics in the ’50s, the Tobacco industry was able to control discourse surrounding the consumption of cigarettes, suggesting that all negative publicity and research surrounding cigarettes was “junk” or not to be believed.
Had someone identified these malicious practices prior to the 50s, they likely could have been labeled a conspiracy theorist, and yet, there was indeed a conspiracy afoot.
Furthermore, I would be remiss to discuss the popularization of the tobacco industry without mentioning the name Edward Bernays.
Edward Bernays: Puppet Master of Public Desire
Born in 1891 in Austria, Edward Bernays is resoundingly considered to be the godfather of Public Relations, having been a propagandist in WWI, and realizing that he may use his same PR tactics during peacetime for marketing purposes. Moreover, Bernays was the nephew of the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and utilized many of his uncle’s teachings to achieve his desired ends.
For example, while working for the ‘Lucky Strikes’ cigarette company, Bernays enticed women into smoking by suggesting it slimmed their waistline, gave them sexier voices, and through organizing a parade of young women smoking in the ’30s, which he described as women flaunting their “torches of freedom.”
In addition to this, while working for America’s biggest bacon producer at the time Beech-Nut Packing Company, Bernays used his advertising prowess to have bacon considered as a breakfast staple by speaking with 500 physicians, who unanimously agreed that a “bigger” breakfast is preferable from a health perspective.
Bernays weaponized this consensus to drive a marketing push for bacon, and as such, he is widely attributed to its popularity as a breakfast cuisine.
Bernays coined the notion of “engineering consent,” stating:
“We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…In almost every act of our daily lives…we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who pull the wires which control the public mind.“
And these conspiracies don’t just occur in the private sector either, as we can see with Operation Northwoods. In the ’60s, following the election of Communist leader Fidel Castro into Cuba, the U.S. CIA drafted a plan, titled ‘Operation Northwoods’ in which the government would stage an attack on American military and civilian targets and lay the blame at the feet of the Cuban government in order to launch a war against Communist Cuba.
While these plans were never actualized, due to their rejection by President John F. Kennedy, they were indeed real and declassified in the ’90s.
In fact, there is a belief that the term “conspiracy theory” was popularized in the wake of JFK’s assassination, as part of a CIA plot to discredit those who question the official narrative. Ironically, this belief has itself been deemed a conspiracy theory.
To use a more contemporary example, and to perhaps provide some empathy for those that subscribe to QAnon theories, we had the exposure and apparent death of Jeffrey Epstein.
It’s not conjecture to say that Jeffrey Epstein had worked his way into the deepest circles of power, as his well-documented friendships with Prince Andrew and former U.S. President Bill Clinton show. It also isn’t conjecture to say that Epstein had created for himself a sex trade operation (in some instances involving minors) which he conducted, in part, on his private island. These are all indisputable facts at this point.
And then, of course, following Epstein’s arrest, we had his mysterious suicide, in which all cameras pointed at him in his prison cell stopped functioning, the guard who was supposed to be watching him had fallen asleep, and he somehow managed to end his own life while already on suicide watch.
Does skepticism toward the above narrative make someone a conspiracy theorist? Or, does believing the above narrative make someone gullible?
Are Conspiracy Theories Crazy or Correct?
This piece isn’t an unquestioning endorsement of every conspiracy theory that’s ever been discussed, but rather, it’s a call to scrutinize more closely the potential weaponization of the term conspiracy theory, given that conspiracies have certainly occurred countless times throughout history.
Is the government employing clandestine tactics to alter the way its citizens think?
I’m not sure, but it’s certainly been done. And ultimately, this is the basis for most conspiracies that exist today.
Whether it be chemtrails, distrust in the moon landing or a belief that the 2020 election was rigged, ultimately, the underlying belief behind these theories is that the government is lying to its civilians – again, something that isn’t beyond the scope of imagination.
So, I would argue that if a theory has legs, we mustn’t be so quick to dismiss those who subscribe to it. Rather, we must empathize with their reasons behind subscribing to that theory, instead of relegating them to the “naughty corner” of ideas, in which they are de-personed and radicalized further.
Had Copernicus or Galileo asserted that the earth revolved around the sun in 2020 against prevailing knowledge, would their Twitter accounts be banned for saying so?