I notice a significant increase in the popularity of conspiracy theories recently. Some are byzantine, with such outrageous claims it’s a wonder they ever gained currency. And they seem to be gaining new adherents by the day.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new. But why do they seem particularly salient today? Being a part of a group of believers, either in a religion or a conspiracy, provides connection to others and affirmation from a community. In a time of isolation, those are particularly valuable.
But I think the biggest reason for the popularity of conspiracy theories today is that there is something happening to our world that we don’t understand and can’t control. An invisible illness is spreading globally and mutating steathily. Its origin is unknown. The date it all ends is unknown. Any control we have over it is partial at best. And it’s affecting nearly every person on earth in one way or another.
As ghoulish as it is, believing that some group of evil humans unleashed this on us intentionally is more comforting than believing that COVID arose purely randomly. At least we could find those evildoers and punish them, and then maybe it stops! Believing the sickness isn’t serious provides an even greater comfort…the terrible things that seem to be happening around us aren’t real! Everything is fine!
It is hard to accept someone is doing something awful to us on purpose, but at least it would preserve the illusion of human control. That we have no control and are being buffeted by random chance and a natural world that is indifferent to us is even scarier.
Someone is shaking our ant farm!
Or so we think. But in reality we are subject to an earthquake, this time of the biological variety. We don’t fully understand what’s happening, but we know something is.
Conspiracies also gained currency after 9/11. I suspect this is because people found it more comforting to imagine our government was in control, even in a malevolent way, than to believe that a small group of unknowns from the other side of the world could strike at the heart of our nation at any time.
What’s the solution? I’m not sure there is one, other than time. Distance from the events will give us perspective. But in the mean time, let’s remember that we are affected by randomness every day. Not everything has a pattern, a discernible cause, or a smoke filled room filled with evil, cigar chomping men behind it. Sometimes things just happen, and we have to respond the best we know how.