To an outsider looking in, the idea of a “conspiracy theory” is simple: there is a theory, and that theory is about a conspiracy; the conspiracy is some great deception, vast enough to require many players. It is wicked, and the conspirators are inhuman. Believers in the theory must see themselves as “special” because they have secret knowledge about the deception; they are not fooled.
To the outsider looking in, the people who believe in the conspiracy theory are passengers on a crazy train, a credulous audience fooled by sensational stories, told by… whom? Some conspiracy of storytellers? Who are these storytellers? And how are they different from the “believers” themselves?
Our idea of what a conspiracy theory is, weirdly, reinforces the idea of conspiracy theories: we say they believe the lizard-people conspire against all humankind; but we believe “Q” and Alex Jones are conspiring against the ill-informed or weak-of-mind.
When we look at the way people participating in a conspiracy theory behave, tho, we don’t see a passive audience: they are finders-of-facts and connectors-of-dots, they are researchers who advocate for their discoveries and devise the theories that tie their discoveries together into a single, if unlikely, narrative.
This is a creative process, and creativity feels extremely good and right. It’s engaging, enlivening, it feels like accomplishment. Creativity is an essential human drive, but one that’s often discouraged as “impractical,” leaving uncountable humans the world over suffering without a “creative outlet.”
But here, here is a creative game that colors and shapes all the complexity of the world: in the inscrutable madness there are patterns, and in your human heart, you hold beliefs. “Do your own research,” and you can match some of those patterns to your own beliefs. You can marvel at the work of those who have created before you; your own creations will echo and accent and interact with theirs, build on their innovations, sharpen their insights.
Now you have creativity and community. Your ideas not only feel good to create, you’re receiving positive feedback for creating them. You protect and enforce the narrative as you create it, casting out displeasing theories and pulling in the delicious ones. This is power you hold only in part, as part of the collective, but this is still power. You’re helping shape the shared reality of your adopted mob.
And who is your mob? Your co-conspirators? Your creative collaborators?
They, like you, are not about to take seriously the outsiders who tell them they’re being duped. Duped by whom? Themselves? Because they understand themselves as the co-creators of the narrative. That you’d accuse them of being a passive audience suggests you are the passive one, you sheeple who can’t imagine creative-meaning-making! Maybe you believe all you’re told!
They are not mere believers in some conspiracy — they are the conspiracy! and the theory is a living, breathing theory of life itself — how it works, and what it means.
They work hand in hand to build this theory; they are a theory conspiracy.
They pull together the details with the “i’ll bets” and the “what ifs” and the “they probablys” and “it’s easy to imagines”… some of it is idle chatter, some of it sticks. What sticks best fits the theory, that shared theory of life that emerges from some combination of their emotional state, their experiences, their sense of right and wrong, what horrible things they can imagine happening and what horrible things they can’t; the co-conspirators don’t have all these things in common, but they share the final sum, the “bottom line,” and together they test out narrative threads and weave them into a pattern everyone recognizes. The details in some sense don’t really matter, so long as they support the theory.
The goal of the conspiracy is not to discover objective truth or weigh one fact against the next; the goal of the conspirators is to weave the world in the shape it needs to be to confirm the shared worldview. And so, to advance the theory, they run creative ideas past their collaborative partners and see if they catch on or fade. What fades can be forgotten. What catches on may become canon.
Call it crowdsourced, call it a hive mind, call it user-generated-content; none of these ideas are new. We are only confused by the twisting of the name.
Next time you hear someone reference a “conspiracy theory,” remind yourself, the name gets it backwards: it’s a theory conspiracy.
The so-called “believers” are the conspiracy; their theory is what unites them in a quest for domination of perceived reality. It may be a grand deception disguising uncertainty, fear, human fallibility to you and me, but to them, it is access to power.