February 7, 2021

A Vaccine to Stop the Spread of Conspiracy Theories.

This week, 199 Republican members of Congress voted to allow Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), a woman who believes in and spreads some of the most incredulous conspiracy theories we’ve ever heard, to continue to serve on three House committees.

This vote came after House Republicans, led by minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), decided, collectively, that they would not hold her accountable for any of her past (and current) comments, which left Democrats, joined by just 11 Republicans, to do the necessary work of officially stripping her of these responsibilities.

These Representatives did the right and necessary thing. Not only has Rep. Greene promoted wild conspiracy theories, but she has also supported, condoned, or alluded to violence toward—even the execution of—some of her co-workers (who just happen to be women, and specifically, women of color).

But chances are Rep. Greene never wanted the committee assignments anyway, nor is it likely her highest aspiration to serve her constituents as a Congresswoman. It seems to be her goal, as well as the goal of others who support QAnon conspiracy theories, to spread them far and wide, giving them voice, votes, and ultimately, power. In fact, she’s said as much already.

This development should frighten every American.

There was a time when conspiracy theories—such as the earth being flat, or the 9-11 attack being staged, or school shootings being false flags—had no place in actual discourse, and certainly no place in government. But here we are, and we cannot—we better not—look away.

We’ve arrived at a point in time in which we can no longer legitimately pretend these things don’t exist—as Rep. McCarthy tried to do when he was asked about QAnon. Not only has the QAnon movement grown significantly, it has a presence now in the United States government, which means it has a voice to shape legislation.

So, what can we do?

We can start with these three things:

1. First, we can stop giving these theories more exposure by sharing them on our social media feeds. Even if we forward an article with an introduction that says, “I can’t believe anyone would believe this!” we ensure more eyes, more clicks, and thus more circulation.

2. Second, we can break our silence when we hear family or friends tout such things. Rolling our eyes, shrugging our shoulders, or in any other way letting the statements go unchallenged empowers their beliefs. So call them out.

When you do so, resist scoffing or mocking, which will likely only drive them further into the safe arms of conspiracy theories. Instead, try a curious approach. Ask, for instance, “And what proof do you have to support that?” “How do you think that’s possible?” and “Do you honestly believe Anderson Cooper eats babies?”

The power of proposing a question, rather than a statement, is undeniable. It puts the onus on the believer and doesn’t offer them the easy escape of playing the victim of our judgment. And, even if it doesn’t happen before our eyes, they just might go back to the drawing board. Besides, we’ve already tried to scoff these beliefs away or shame them down. It hasn’t worked. Let’s try curiosity instead.

Both of those things can help reduce the spread of conspiracy theories. Or, in coronavirus language, they’ll work like Remdesiver, a powerful treatment for those already infected with the virus.

3. But if we’re looking for a vaccine, something that gets to the root of the problem, then I suggest we consider expanding our imaginations.

I sense your doubt.

You’re wondering: Wait, wouldn’t conspiracy theories be connected with an overactive imagination? After all, you’d have to go out on quite a limb to believe these crazy things!

Allow me to walk through this theory.

Human society is, as we know, incredibly complex. There are so many moving parts at all times, and multiple factors involved in any single event. Things that we take for granted today would have been incomprehensible to humans living in previous times, just the way that life a few hundred years from now would be incomprehensible to us.

We, humans, are equally complex. Some people operate from a place of selfishness, while others give from the bottom of their hearts. Some people gossip and indulge in pettiness, while others take the high road, and their word is their bond.

But most often, all of these qualities can be found not only in the same person but on the same day. We are all a mix of shadow and light; there are more shades of gray within us than anyone could count.

Combine a complicated world with multi-faceted, complicated people, and you get a ball of yarn that no cat could untangle.

Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, divide the world in half.

On one side you have virtuous, good people, who would never hurt a soul. On the other side are villainous, hateful people who really shouldn’t even exist. On one side are freedom and utopia. On the other, a country overrun with violence and fear. There are people who care deeply about our country, and, apparently, people who actively seek to destroy it.

What requires more imagination—believing that the world is this starkly black and white? Or recognizing that we are all confusingly human and that our humanness finds us, oftentimes, in various places along the good/bad spectrum from situation to situation?

We are imperfect, unfinished, unreconciled beings who struggle internally with feelings of unworthiness, not belonging, and insecurity.

Externally, the American Dream is increasingly unattainable, and those at the top of the hierarchical pyramid aren’t sharing the gate key.

And Coronavirus…well, what’s not to love about adding isolation, frustration, and fear into the mix?

In times of uncertainly and confusion, it’s natural that human beings will seek control in their lives. We want simple explanations for why bad things happen to good people. We want to trace every problem back to its origin. We want life’s questions to be answered so that even children could wrap their minds around them.

In our overly rational, left-brained focused culture, people want everything to be accounted for as if the world were one giant balance sheet.

But what happens when it doesn’t balance? What do we do when things are simply not explainable?

Jared Yates Sexton, author of American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World but Failed its People, defines conspiracy theories as “simplified explanations for complex phenomena.”

As an example of this in action, let’s take Marjorie Taylor Greene. In 2017, she looked out at the world and saw “things in the news that didn’t make sense” to her—complex phenomena. It was then that she “stumbled across” QAnon, which offered the simplified explanations she wanted.

She admits she was in a place of confusion about the world when she first heard these theories—theories that might have first seemed outlandish, but the more she looked, the more comforted she felt under their blanket. And rather than stay one moment longer in that confused, uncomfortable place she was in and accept that as part of the privilege—and even thrill—of being human, she found salvation in pre-packaged answers.

Consider how good she initially felt, or still feels, to have such simple, straightforward answers spoon-fed to her. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Now, she has a focused target for her rage.

A salve for her confusion.

And some sense of control.

Again I ask, what requires more imagination—swallowing whole, final answers that claim to explain everything that happens, along with the right people to blame? Or realizing that sometimes, most times, that the world is far more complicated and interwoven than anyone could trace back to a single cause.

It’s not only conspiracy believers who could do with a more active imaginative life, however.

Let’s turn the mirror around on ourselves.

I think we can all admit that, sometimes, before we even read an article, we read the comments. Even worse, sometimes we read the comments in lieu of the article.

In this way, reading, an activity that should be expanding our worldview, suddenly requires no imagination, no expansion, whatsoever. No need to sit in the unknown. The ready-made answers and opinions will be there to choose from. Pick your color, red or blue, and let the rest take care of itself.

We should all be paying attention to this habit, and refrain from it as much as possible. Because it only results in us becoming more and more rigid in our mindset, leaving less and less room in our mind for exceptions, variations, or nuance.

Michael Meade often reminds listeners in his podcast, “Living Myth” that the rise of conspiracy theories points to a lack of imagination in the culture at large.

For whatever else might be happening behind the scenes for an individual, I think we can agree that the loss of imagination is not only found on the individual level, but in the culture.

This should not actually shock us, as a healthy imagination, and a lifestyle that includes it is not often encouraged in our predominately reason-based society. Even children are encouraged to “grow out of” their fantasy-driven worlds at younger and younger ages. But a world lacking in imagination will only ever be as wondrous and awe-filled as our ability to live in the places in between right and wrong, good and bad, shadow and light.

So I suggest that we, collectively, choose to revive our imagination—not just as an escape, but as a way of life. Not just for entertainment, but as a tool that helps us sit comfortably in the unknown places.

For where is our imagination housed if not in the unknown? When we cultivate a healthy imagination, we can sit with phenomena that have no easy explanation. We can accept that some things don’t and won’t ever make sense. And we can live our lives without requiring a final, solid answer for every question.

Not only that, but imagination is the place where real, creative solutions to problems exist. Solutions that Q, the supposed leader of QAnon, could never dream up. Not in his wildest imagination.


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