Growing up, the alternative kids were a refreshing, if sour, addition to the adolescent stew that simmered over the course of the high school and college years. On a larger scale, the counterculture ambassadors of the past several generations, the hippies and the punks, have made invaluable contributions to all aspects of society, from philosophy to pop culture.
As I concluded in the last post, although I dispute the notion that the counterculture outright rejects the mainstream in the way it often claims, it does represent a whole spectrum of useful and challenging perspectives.
Then there are the conspiracy theorists. This special breed of contrarian makes “shocking” claims about things on which the rest of society has reached a consensus: The World Trade Center was imploded as part of an inside plot! We never landed on the Moon! The Earth is actually flat! COVID is a hoax!
Unlike regular counterculture representatives, I have little tolerance for conspiracy theorists. They are the nouveau riche of critical thinking–showing off all their fancy, superficial deductions based on selective facts (or, often, “alternative facts”) and disregarding the rigorous, scientific deductions that have formed the foundations of entire academic disciplines.
So why do I mention counterculture and conspiracy theories together when I don’t think of them the same way? It turns out that they share a myopia about how things are in the mainstream world.
Here’s the thing: we live in a socially engineered world. Humans are social creatures, so social engineering is how to get us to do stuff. The whole point of parents raising kids within the parameters of the dominant society and any applicable subculture is to socialize them. Socialization is a psychological and sociological term that describes this process of turning out productive citizens. Everything I’m saying here is all widely accepted and fully documented. (Read: it’s not a conspiracy, at least not in the secretive sense.)
The angst and rebellion of adolescence occurs when a young person becomes self-aware enough to understand that socialization is a thing, that the world they live in is not the rigid “because I said so” that their parents represented to them. They need to demonstrate to themselves and their friends that they are independent of these somewhat arbitrary standards. People who remain nonconformists into adulthood can do so for legitimate reasons: there is such a thing as remaining committed to a stance of nonconformity as a matter of principle and conscience.
Conspiracy theorists are a different ilk. They are perpetual intellectual adolescents. They desperately want to show that they aren’t duped by the mainstream media and the legions of scientists who want to shove their priorities and theories down our throats. The best way to do that is to take the most extreme stance on the most otherwise-agreed-upon issue. (Ergo, flat-earthers.)
There’s no way for a conspiracy theorist to distinguish himself by aligning in opposition to something that is underhanded but easily proven true; for example, the for-profit privatization of the U.S. prison system, or the widespread water pollution in American cities. Those are terrible things that have been downplayed at various times by powerful groups, but they are provable. However, the conspiracy theorists, as a group, want no part of these fights. There’s too many other people already on those bandwagons, and therefore no way for them to feel (1) special and (2) persecuted.
The overriding theme in almost all conspiracy theories is what “they” don’t want you to know, because “they” are busy carrying out some dastardly scheme to impair, imprison or enslave everyone. Although the theorists drench their invective with a torrent of dramatic terms, they are describing something rather mundane–society and human behavior.
People often function from a place of self-interest. Groups of people have ways of coordinating this self-interest on massive scales. Throughout history, nobles, chiefs, religious leaders and community officials have leveraged their power to advance goals that benefit them personally. They may also attempt to carry out some of these actions in secret, so that they don’t have to answer for it.
This always happens. It isn’t special, it isn’t shocking, and it isn’t a revelation.
To the intellectual adolescent, though, it can be a shock. And instead of digesting the social programming and underhanded actions of people in power, they rail against it and become distrustful of every established theory and fact.
Matters of science are especially vulnerable, because the scientific method itself is a series of ever-better approximations, not stone tablets from the heavens. Every time the scientific consensus yields an update or correction in our collective understanding, the conspiracy theorist shouts, “See! They can’t keep their story straight!”
Granted, there are times when skeptical minds have prodded and uncovered legitimate conspiracies. I don’t have an issue with true critical thinking and smart questions. My quarrel is with people who mistake blather on social media or gossip heard at a barbecue with a legitimate challenge to the status quo.
People who are truly critical thinkers don’t dismiss entire academic disciplines by claiming with zero proof that “they’re all in on it.” Critical thinkers ask questions, uncover facts, and evaluate thoughtfully. By their words, it’s quite easy to identify the adolescents, even if, like a stopped clock, they’re right twice a day.
By their words… speaking of which, I have in my possession a two-page tract that was handed to me on the train on two separate occasions over the past week. It has “conspiracy theorist” written all over it, and that was before I started doodling on it. If you want to see this mindset in action, I will be dissecting the tract in my next post.