As Christmas in Wales is further restricted by a new lockdown based on the sort of evidence we always have to take on trust, Nigel Jarrett looks at conspiracy theories and the issue of free speech.
Haven’t you seen them: the shadowy emissaries of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos encouraging us to flout coronavirus restrictions so that so-called Big Pharma can take a further step towards our manipulation as a means of advancing the interests of the super-rich? They are everywhere. No-one can point them out because they are too good at concealment, which is unrelated to whether or not the cause they serve is advanced or postponed. For sure, they’re not wearing masks. Bill Gates a philanthropist? What a cover!
Well, that’s the theory. It’s a conspiracy theory, the conspiratorial element lodged in scepticism. We are right to question everything; it’s the basis of understanding and the route to identifying error; it’s how we confront despots and devise ways of overthrowing them. But the Gates-Bezos-Pharma theory is unusual in that it originated in social media and is defined by their characteristics, the most disturbing one being the ease with which rational inquiry descends quickly to malevolence and hostility.
Most theories depend on peer assessment, a process that in pre-internet days took time and involved lengthy and detailed argument and counter-view. Social media confer invulnerability. Their freedom of access, restricted wordage, and global reach accelerate fantasy, hostility, and rancour. No-one reads 200-word Facebook posts or endless Twitter threads, and it’s extraordinary how many acrimonious exchanges are conducted reductio ad Hitlerum; ie., in the likelihood that they will hit the buffers with a mention of the Holocaust or invocations of Nazism, source of the ultimate put-down. It’s therefore also odd that so many intelligent people, used to sensible and even convoluted discourse that may end in agreement or not, make fools of themselves by crossing swords in this simpleton’s arena; innocent enough when sending birthday wishes (though often to ‘friends’ who have become spectres from their past) but so often a battleground when discussions of serious issues are curtailed by the nature of the medium.
The Gates-Bezos-Pharma theory and others like it fall at the first hurdle in that any conspiracy would involve an impossibly large number of people to form a consensus. It’s less credible than, say, the UFO story claiming that the US military and government picked up on radar an out-of-control spaceship in the skies above the Nevada desert. They impounded the crashed ship, it is said, and secreted the crew of green-glow aliens in a government ‘facility’, where they have proved immortal and been kept alive. The account is almost believable in a sort of X-files way, in that such an occurrence would alarm the populace if it were true and gained currency. But even with fewer people in the know and able to become conspirators, it seems unlikely that someone involved would not have leaked the story by now. That they never have may be because the story is untrue; but conspiracy theorists discount anything that might suggest they are in the wrong. Any sense of being imperilled by the prospect of an extra-terrestrial invasion is thus eternally deferred, as is the inter-galactic search party from Starbase Zog intended to find out what happened to its hapless space-explorers on route to the Blue Planet. Homunculi being escorted from their spacecraft by hastily-assembled generals and scientists remain fictional and worry no-one. That President Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King were shot and killed not by lone inadequates but by mesmerised dupes of a foreign power might be true but would come as no surprise if it were. That’s one of the big problems with conspiracy theorists: they do not accept responsibility for justifying their departures from the norm, but expect supporters of the norm to prove that the departing theory is untrue. It’s the sort of muddled dialectic that would get you thrown out of a foundation course in philosophy, a subject which, among other things, teaches one to think straight and in rational sequence.
Conspiracy must be distinguished from contrariety, though it may evolve from it. Denial of the Holocaust and climate change can result just from dispassionate interpretations of history and science, the worst effect of which would be to make one notorious and/or unpopular. While vested interests – racism and fossil-fuel production respectively in this case – might support contrary findings, their role is not to be confused with initiation, or the encouragement of research which will lead to its results being vindicated. But that’s a matter for the researcher’s integrity. Theories surrounding the death of Hitler, for example – that it never happened and that the old boy was spirited to Argentina in a submarine – are adduced to support the idea of the Führer as indestructible. It’s a happy addition to fascist myth-making and the promotion of racial superiority, but it’s not a conspiracy. Like a conspiracy theory, however, it’s a lie. Conspiracies always invoke the clandestine, and the only secretive thing about the transport of a reportedly dead warmonger to obscure sanctuary is that it would have to involve stealth.
The theory that coronavirus is a hoax and obscures a plan by rich men for world domination is different. It’s a conspiracy theory in that it proposes a secret attempt by forces unknown – but in this case involving hyper-wealthy capitalists and their government lackeys – to disempower us; we who are not like them. It implies that death by coronavirus of millions of people is worth the freedom to be gained by not supporting Big Pharma’s attempts to profit from producing new vaccines, or even – in the theory’s more fantastical variation – supplementing their attempts at control by burying in the inoculant phials some kind of microchip. Therein lies its danger; if enough of us believe it, more of us will die. Donald Trump’s final flailing conspiracy theory of voter fraud also has consequences: that it has bred distrust of democratic processes in millions of Americans and will do so even after Joe Biden has been sworn in as president.
In his new book The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination, Richard J. Evans proves beyond reasonable doubt (my italics) that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in their bunker below the garden of the Reich Chancellery in 1945. The book explores theories that it did not happen and that the bodies were not taken above ground and burned mostly to ash. One Argentine ‘witness’ claims to have seen Hitler in an Argentinian town in 1953 wearing huge boots, riding a black ladies’ bicycle from house to house, and selling herbs. When we are not dismissing bizarre theories, conspiratorial or other, we are laughing at them. We cannot laugh at those which threaten societal stability. Evans argues that conspiracy theorists are seeking compensation for their exclusion and marginalisation; their self-esteem is boosted by the illusion that they know the truth while everyone else is deliberately covering it up or is being duped by forces real but unknown. They prevent us from assessing contrary opinions and making up our own minds. So often the contrarians are marshalled to support the theory, which is an extension too far of what they believe.
Do we allow the conspiracy theorists a voice? Of course we do, unless we wish to suppress free speech. Do we allow them to browbeat us? No, we don’t. To conclude ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ is the method of law and science, even after they’ve weighed contrary legal and scientific opinion. Science, rationality, is all we have in order to decide these issues. We should, as they say, follow it. And in the absence of personal expertise, we opt for its mainstream character, if only because there are too many of its voices to form a malign deception.
Nigel Jarrett is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review. He’s a former daily-newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies award for short fiction and the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times. He is also the author of a poetry collection, a novel, and two other story collections. His work is included in the two-volume anthology of 20th– and 21st-century Welsh short fiction. He lives in Monmouthshire.
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