Noble: Yes, Virginia, Santa is a crisis actor
Virginia, charming and attractive, made a great first impression. Sadly, behind Virginia’s pretty face was a toxic soup of paranoia and lies.
As I drove us to the event we were attending, she enthusiastically shared that she was a conspiracy theorist. Since my eyes were on the road and my hands were at 10 and 2, the wave of disbelief that washed over my face likely went undetected.
I waited for her to say, “Only joking.” Instead, she spent the remainder of the drive making her case that 9/11 was an inside job. I just nodded and drove. Little did I know at the time that Virginia was merely foreshadowing.
Conspiracy theories used to be silly and harmless, scuttlebutt for grocery store tabloids blaring their nonsense at the captive audience of grocery shoppers stopping and lurching past them in the checkout line — photographic proof the lunar landing was staged, Elvis living the life in Palm Springs or the identity of JonBenet Ramsey’s true killer revealed.
Conspiracy theories from the 1990s now seem tame compared to today’s Golden Age of the outrageous. Remember when FEMA was an all-powerful shadow government poised to take control of the U.S.? Katrina almost defanged FEMA, but Alex Jones keeps the FEMA fear alive.
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Conspiracy theories find fertile ground along the political spectrum. The left has its own set of conspiracy theories, including the assertion that a wealthy benefactor paid off Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s debts (it was his parents) or that GMOs are harmful (they are not; science supports their safety, and you have been eating them for years).
Journalist Kurt Andersen, in his book “Fantasyland,” makes the case that suspension of disbelief and the tendency to embrace the fantastical is practically baked into American DNA, beginning with our colonial roots and supercharged during the anything-goes, all-truths-are-valid 1960s.
The Jamestown colony was pure fantasy; a get-rich-quick scheme of gold in Virginia. If the Spaniards could find gold in the new world, how hard could it be? Although Jamestown predated the Plymouth Plantation by more than a decade, it is Plymouth that enjoys the distinction as the foundational colony in American mythology because it was a religious refuge for devout believers and not a commercial enterprise like Jamestown.
However, Plymouth’s polished reputation obscures the fact that it too was a commercial venture. Much of William Bradford’s history, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” details the financial challenges the colonists faced, in particular the debt burden owed to London creditors.
Conspiracy theories defy the principle of Occam’s Razor, paraphrased here: “The explanation requiring the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.” Today, the more assumptions the better. It matters little how complicated a theory, as long as it makes the other political party look bad.
However, many Republicans are trapped in a perpetually reinforcing vortex of fiction. The “Deep State” is generically invoked to discredit the federal government. “Fake news” is screeched at any news that fails to conform to partisan bias. Evidence refuting conspiracy theories not only fails to change minds, but it also makes the beliefs more entrenched.
Education is one of the strongest correlates with belief in conspiracy theories. Regardless of party (but far more pronounced in the GOP), those who lack a college education are far more likely to embrace conspiracy theories. Other contributing factors related to conspiracy theory belief include anxiety, turmoil in personal life, insecurity in relationships and a predisposition to catastrophize.
Conspiracy theories also find a receptive audience in groups experiencing collective narcissism, who contrive enemies with whom they are at odds and to whom they ascribe nefarious activities. Jews, Democrats and school boards are recent targets of these groups.
There is no easy remedy for conspiracy theories. But there are tools to confront them. Corrective information from fellow partisans is the most powerful, but currently the least likely. It requires truth-tellers in the Republican Party, which are lacking due to supply chain issues.
Resiliency training takes the long view but is another potential antidote to conspiratorial thinking. When provided with knowledge and skills to confront uncertainty, people can blunt the reflexive responses of anxiety and insecurity. Considering our country fought its way into existence, resiliency must be baked into American DNA.
Claire Noble can be found online at Claire Noble Writer on Facebook.