I am reading a book by Brene’ Brown, Rising Strong, and this morning, she addresses why people believe conspiracy stories. Quoting Johnathan Gottschall, she observes that conspiratorial thinking “is not limited to the stupid, the ignorant, or the crazy. It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience.” He says that conspiracy theories are used to explain why bad things happen. “To the conspiratorial mind, shit never just happens, and the complexities of human life are reduced to produce theories that “are always consoling in their simplicity.”
This makes a lot of sense to me. How difficult it is to realize that the causes of a particular problem, like violence in one’s neighborhood, is due to a whole list of coexisting problems, from racial attitudes, too many guns among the populace, violence in the media, too few police officers, joblessness, alcohol and drug abuse…the list goes on. The problem with realizing the complexity of problems is that it makes one feel helpless, vulnerable and even hopeless. If one can reduce causes to one explanation then the solution seems manageable – just get the bad guys and all will be well.
There seems to be no solution to the above reflection. Understanding why people are quick to latch on to conspiracy theories helps me not to judge and prods me to try to calm a person’s fears. “All will be well,” I want to say. Yet I am not sure I myself believe that all will be well. I do know that for me, realizing that problems are complex and have many contributing causes is actually empowering. I can look at the list and simply pick one to work on. Violence in the media, for example. As a parent I can control the media my children partake in. Raising kids not prone to violence is one step, one small piece to solving a much large problem.
As for the bigger problem, helping those who are deeply afraid because of conspiracy theories, I do not know. Nor do I know what to do about those who deliberately spread such theories in order to achieve sinister ends. I just try to trust that my small contributions effect the whole and eventually conspiracy theories will lose their power