References for the factual claims in this blog are provided at the end.
In the last few days, the “plandemic” conspiracy theory has been gaining traction online. It’s a rehash of several earlier conspiracy theories, such as that Bill Gates, whose charitable foundation funds vaccination and contraception around the world, created the covid-19 pandemic in order to reduce the world population and enrich himself. It’s not a coincidence that Gates has been very critical of President Trump. The Trumpian right is full of similar fantasies, emblematized by the letter “Q” (for Qanon) worn by many Trump supporters. These theories are obviously insane, but in precisely what sense?
There’s actually quite a bit of psychological, sociological, and philosophical research on so-called “conspiracy theories,” which are surprisingly hard to define and explain. The philosopher Quassim Cassam rightly suggests that it’s no good focusing on the kinds of reasons these people give for their beliefs; we need to focus instead on the kinds of thinkers these people are. Psychological research shows that once someone comes to believe that a powerful, secret, malevolent group is responsible for something (e.g. a terrorist attack), he is more likely to believe the same about other events (e.g. a pandemic). Sociological research adds that conspiracist thinking is correlated with both highly polarized societies and authoritarian government. All of these dots line up in the Trumposphere.
But philosophers and psychologists generally argue people who buy into conspiracy theories “can’t all be crazy,” because there are so many of them, and besides they seem reality-adjusted in other ways. Well, that brings us back to the question, what kind of crazy? Five years ago a man sleeping in the park accompanied me on my dog walk. At first he told me about how he’d been locked out of his supported accommodation for the weekend. After a while he was explaining that the clouds in the sky were poison, and alien warships were hiding behind them. When he got to the point of calling President Obama a “black devil” who spent most of his time “all coked up,” I gently eased out of the conversation. What bothered me wasn’t his freewheeling delusional ideation, which is common in some psychotic conditions. In fact it’s tragic that many societies marginalize people who occupy slightly non-mainstream realities. (This is one reason that prognoses for schizophrenia are far worse in Europe and America than in India and Nigeria.) What bothered me was how right wing paranoia had infiltrated this man’s delusions. Aliens behind the clouds, fine. Obama high on coke? Definitely not. He famously joked he allowed himself exactly eight almonds in order to relax after long, grueling days.
A lot of people begin their social media posts with lines like, “I’m not a conspiracy nut, but this kind of makes sense….” This line is inevitably followed by claims that “make sense” only to people who have already been possessed by the spirit in question.
“Crazy” is a complex and controversial concept. Most people who believe in Qanon or Gates’ responsibility for covid-19 are not “crazy” like this man I met in the park. However there are excellent reasons to say that yes, in another sense, they are all insane. Partly this is because their beliefs are both implausible and utterly impervious to evidence and arguments that disprove them. But at least as important is that their commitment to these implausible and intransigent beliefs is driven by (1) their loving identification with popular political movements and charismatic leaders, and (2) their hateful opposition to out-groups and their leaders. When combined with distrust of experts and mainstream media, this love-hate group-think is a large part of what makes it impossible for these people to think intelligently or ethically about certain issues. And in that sense they are not mentally healthy.
What if we proposed that are “possessed” by malevolent spirits? I use scare quotes here in order to signal that I’m not blaming their insanity on some comic-book demon, as if they were themselves in no way responsible. In ancient Greek polytheism, the fact that a god wanted you to commit a crime almost never relieved you of responsibility: to the contrary, it was a way of describing your guilt. In terms of right-wing conspiracists, it’s easy to see why: each of them plays their small part in nourishing the spirit that possesses them. They are its hosts, in cooperation with political institutions, digital networks, big data analysis communications firms, funding and lobbying organizations, and many other interlocking systems. Yet the spirit is more than the sum of these parts: the thoughts and feelings it generates do not originate within the boundaries of any individual human being. It somehow envelops, haunts, or possesses people. That’s why a lot of people begin their social media posts with lines like, “I’m not a conspiracy nut, but this kind of makes sense….” This line is inevitably followed by claims that “make sense” only to people who have already been possessed by the spirit in question.
Back before the rise of the alt-right, Paul Levy had already developed an argument like this about American conservatives. He claimed that the “psychospiritual disease” in question could be understood by synthesizing Jungian psychology with quantum consciousness studies. Personally I’m not ready to commit to those theoretical frameworks: I think they should both be taken seriously, but I’m not certain they’re sufficient for explaining what’s going on. The key point for now is that we lack good explanations for how so many people can be so mind-numbingly wrong about facts, devoted to staggeringly incompetent and selfish leaders, and fixated on non-existent enemies. Explanations based on economic exclusion, racism and demographic change, or poor access to information are all crucial parts of the picture, yet manifestly unsatisfactory. If we say instead that these people are “possessed” by malign spirits, we’re holding a space for an additional layer of explanation. We’re raising the possibility that it’s useful to think of the problem as a dynamic self-organizing system with a point of view, thoughts, feelings, goals, and the capacity to act. A malevolent god indeed, and how do you relate to or placate a god?
p.s. This is a huge topic, and I hope to return to other aspects of it in future posts. Let me conclude by noting that of course conspiracies cross political boundaries. I’ve seen progressives re-posting the plandemic nonsense, and you’ll find ant-vaxxers on both sides of the aisle. This of course makes perfect sense, if you think of conspiracist thinking as a kind of possession.