The Link Between Conspiracy Theories and Racism

light inside library
light inside library
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Am I Unbalanced?

I have dozens of boxes of books in my basement. This week, I put up bookshelves, and went through those boxes, deciding what books I would keep, and what I would discard. I found an old copy of The Sound and the Fury, and remembered how much I loved that strange, unbalanced novel.

Am I unbalanced? I often wonder. I’m a scientist, and prize rationality. But I wonder if I’m impatient with irrationality. Of late, I’ve been engaging with conspiracy theorists, wondering where the conversation would go. Could I make a difference? Could I explain rationally that vaccines are not fitted with tracking devices, and governments aren’t out to tear us apart? Of course, it never works. I never get anywhere. The gulf is too wide, especially in the COVID age, where people have time to consume even more social media. 

Twice in the last two weeks, I’ve had online incidents that can’t be described as anything but toxic. I should have handled myself better, but in my mind, was asking pointed questions of the other person. They didn’t appreciate the questions – they believed I was minimizing their opinions, which was not my intent. I wanted to understand their opinions. In both cases, the exchanges ended in the other person saying something overtly racist (in one case, about Muslims, in another case, about Black people).

I have to say, the book on my shelves I treasure the most is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. A simple tale about a man going up a river, looking for another man. But for every length of the river travelled, he feels himself slipping into a world without rules or constraints, and finds himself reverting to something primal. It’s a scary glimpse into not who we are, but who we could easily be.

The Relationship

What is the relationship between conspiracy theory and racism? Is there one? It might appear that conspiracy theories are a function of the time. We’re under lockdown. We have to wear masks. We can’t go to restaurants or gyms or movie theatres. Can’t visit our families or congregate at places of worship. These are all hardships, meant to prevent even greater hardship – namely, uncountably more death and loss. I think that’s a reasonable trade-off, in my mind. Err on the side of taking care of each other, even if it’s extreme. It’s the same reason we get vaccinated against diseases as a whole. Sure, there’s some risk factor in getting vaccinated (very very small), but the benefits far outweigh that risk.

I get that it’s hard to live in this age, but the devolution into conspiracy theory seems stark. The government is out to get us because there’s a secret cabal trying to control us, and turn us against each other. I could level the same accusation against religion. Or politics. Or the enduring Star Wars versus Star Trek debate. Pick your poison. 

But what if these conspiracy theories are just a gateway to being able to express racism? Unfortunately, racism is a part of North American culture in many ways. I’m a person of color. I’ve felt racism in my life, repeatedly. It’s why I don’t use my real name in my writing. (What’s that? Your real name is what??? That’s so strange and unpronounceable!) Racism does exist. Are conspiracy theories a good way to lay out a narrative – a story, if you will – establishing that certain demographics are controlling us, and should be hated? Are conspiracy theories a gateway drug into expressing what bubbles just below the surface, held back by social norms but now unleashed online as these theories spread?

On my bookshelf, there is a really nice copy of Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. It’s a book about saints, and as boring as that might sound, it’s tremendously interesting in the hands of this author. I think the protagonist of this book should traverse a different river in another content, looking for a different version of Kurtz. Restraint, social value – they have been eroded online in many ways, as we devolve into not who we want to be, but who we are. This might be a search worth making. A river worth travelling.

The Big Lie

The latest narrative exchange with someone online was this simple. The government is controlling us, turning us against each other, as certain shadowy people look to hold power and keep us down. I’m sure there’s elements of that out there, but I do know many government officials and politicians. They’re all human beings, last I saw. They’re imperfect and make mistakes. They don’t inherently know how to handle a global pandemic, any more than doctors or epidemiologists do. Any more than I do. They fail and make mistakes. I don’t think that makes them evil power-mongers. One exception I’ll make to this is Donald Trump. I think he is evil and a power-monger, so yes, there is some possible truth to those in government doing such things, but it’s not generally the case.

In the mind of this particular person, they took the government conspiracy to the level of comparing Muslims against Christians. Muslims can congregate in their jurisdiction freely, while Christians cannot. It’s a complete double standard that proves the corruption of the government, and why can’t I see that? Well, I looked into it. Studied the region and the regulations, looked at media reporting, everything. And I couldn’t find one shred of evidence that any of this was true. Muslims were not being given any preferential treatment whatsoever. Yet this person was adamant, and unapologetic. I didn’t bring up religion or church attendance anywhere in the discussion – it simply came up from this person as the exchange became more heated, almost like an exclamation mark at the end of their argument. The topping to the story. The goal of the conspiracy theory.

Are racists allowed to be openly racist because conspiracy theory allows them to twist truth to support and vocalize their view? I think that’s a part of what’s happening. Racism has long been bubbling underground, shunned and shamed, repressed and locked up, just looking for a way to emerge – so here it is, supported by the craziest, most disjointed theories you could imagine, alternative facts that proliferate online and, told compellingly, spread like they’re the truth.

A newish version of 1984 sits on my shelf, highest spot. The last lines of that book are: “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” I hate and love this book. It shows us how we can be subservient to things even though they’re clearly wrong. How 2+2 can equal 5, and people will just accept it. It’s the first real novel about an enduring, global conspiracy theory and alternative narrative meant to exert control.

So the new Big Brother isn’t necessarily government. It might actually be conspiracy theory spreading like wildfire over the internet, controlling people, shaping their narratives by appealing to their basic human nature as they float on up the river, past the statues of the saints. Big Brother is a set of lies told over and over again, until they sound like the truth, as we end up valuing opinion like it’s the same thing as fact. As any voice on the internet carries the same megaphone as people who are trained and educated, people like doctors and scientists that have created much of the civilized world that we rely upon for our day-to-day lives – but whom we can’t trust when it comes to the present day.

We Call Ourselves to Action

What to do about this? Live and let live, I say. Let people express their opinions. Of course. But I think we have to confront this sneaking thing as well. When Marlow finally met Kurtz, he found a broken human being utterly corrupted by his own narrative, one that was far away from reality. When Winston Smith reached the end of his story, he had gone from a skeptical member of the Ministry of Truth to a full-out believer of the Big Lie. Is this what we want? For the lie to spread? I think we have to speak out, just as we have to speak out when we see racism in display. Have you ever seen anyone online spew racist hatred, and simply sat back and said nothing? Why did you do that? Are you condoning those words with your silence? These are questions worth asking.

If conspiracy theories lead to harm, such as racism, shouldn’t they be confronted, too? I think so. I think we owe it to ourselves to have the conversation, to raise the temperature a little bit on this discourse so that it doesn’t spread like an infection. Let people have their opinions. But let’s challenge things where we can, because otherwise, what good are we doing?

A few years ago, I had a flood in my basement. The hot water tank let go, and a number of the boxes of books were ruined, at least at the bottom level. I lost many many books. Laid them out on the lawn, in the sunshine – they were rotted with mold. I took pictures of them and sent those photos to the insurance company. They cut me a cheque for my loss. That money went into my bank account, and was spent on many things. I traded books for ice cream. For a bicycle seat. A new phone.

Stories are important. They always will be. But there’s a difference between that and reality. Stories help us explain reality, but they don’t become real. Maybe that difference is being blurred in this day and age. I think I’ll start to restock my shelves with the stories I’ve lost, the ones that floated away in the flood. I love the descent into those fictional realities. Love creating my own fictional realities – it’s why I write. And sometimes, I do have to tell myself that it’s not real. This is just fiction, please remember that. We live in a real world, where our words are important, where we have to take care of each other – something that’s much easier to do if we stay away from the lies. Especially the big ones. 

Dream hard, rage hard.

11 thoughts on “The Link Between Conspiracy Theories and Racism

  1. There is so much here, Trent, so much that I don’t even know where to begin. But I know that I don’t have an answer to your fundamental question … are conspiracy theories and racism connected. But … let me back up.

    Like you, I come from a profession that prizes rational thought. As an attorney, I believe there are rules and laws and an orderly way to analyze problems and issues. You lay a foundation, you marshall facts, you state your case. What I find these days is that simply doesn’t happen in so many ways … I get to believe what I want to believe seems to be the common response these days from those who buy into the conpiracy theories, the racism, the lunacy of where we are these days. And all I can say in response is “No, actually you don’t get to just believe whatever you want to believe.” I mean, seriously, there has to be logic and facts and rational thought behind your beliefs, right? I just don’t know how to deal anymore with these people who keep yelling and making noise and perverting our society and our norms because they “get to believe what they want to believe.”

    As with you, I’ve known my share of politicians as well. Hell, I worked directly with elected officials for the last 18 years of my professional career. Through that work, I met plenty of others. I also worked in the bowels of government bureaucracy for 21 years. When I see these people claim that government is trying to control us, that there are horrible, evil people working in government who ignore the law, ignore what is right, who want to control our every movement, I just … can’t take it. It simply isn’t true. Sure, there are lazy people in government, just as there are in any large bureaucracy, but lazy does not equate to evil and controlling. Those who work in these jobs are doing the best they can to achieve the objectives of the agencies they work for — to meet the needs of the people, to provide, to help, to build. I am just so tired of hearing about how there is this cabal in these government agencies who are secretly trying to control us. It just ain’t true.

    Here’s the reality for me — we live in world that grows ever more complicated. We live in a world in which more and more people are being left behind. We live in a world where people can work full-time and not make enough money to live on, and their employers treat them as though they are no more important than a kitchen appliance or a chair in the dining room. In such a world, people look for answers, for reasons, for scapegoats. It’s easy then to see how people who are struggling and suffering find solace in racism or in conpiracy theories.

    And meanwhile, our leaders do nothing real that addresses the foundational issues that is causing this.

    1. Can you imagine if our leaders stood up and actually did things that were right for people, rather than for the sanctity of their own jobs? I feel like we need leaders these days, who fight the tough fights. Because we’re in a tussle now, one exacerbated by COVID and the Trump era. Rationality was once a goal, now it’s an inconvenience and cute modality for cancellation and other perceived ills. Strong leaders with strong voices – where are they? I’m sure I could find them if I looked hard, but they’re drowned out these days. Soggy and coughing water on the beach.

      1. I don’t see them anywhere, to be brutally honest. Leaders are more concerned with keeping their crazy base happy than with responding to the needs of their nations, states, and communities. Somewhere, somehow, the rest of us need to figure out how to start making more noise than the crazies.

  2. I occasionally engage with conspiracy theorists online. I have approximately zero hope for changing their mind, but leaving them to post their crap unchallenged just helps others who aren’t unbreakably anchored to reality (and that’s pretty much everyone on at least a few issues) to drift further towards the conspiracy theory abyss.
    The most effective approach is to make them look like idiots, poking holes in their arguments, and trolling them in general.

    1. I think this is the natural temptation, to call them out. I think I want to understand these people, how they’ve got this far. Were they always like this and just suddenly were enabled? Or have they changed in the last year plus, into something totally different? I don’t know. Wish I could reach them, but like you, X, I have little hope of that.

  3. Racism begins with the fear of people who are different and who you do not understand. (Yes?)

    Conspiracy theorists starts with a fear of goverment. (Yes?)

    My personal opinion is that they have a tendency to show up on the same people because of the fear that lives inside of them. I do know people who believe conspiracy theories but are not racist. (Or atleast I have never seen or heard them act that way.) But I would say almost everyone I know to be racist, believes atleast a level of conspiracy theorys.

    COVID is making everyone go crazy though so dormant fear is growing in almost everyone.
    Anyway. If there is a link, I would say it’s fear, and pandemics breed fear. Political and economic unrest breed fear. Isolation breeds fear.

    I hope your doing well Trent. Intense, engaging post.

    1. I think you’re right there, Mary. Fear brings out dimensions of personality that are quite amazing – things that otherwise would have been left unsaid, actions that would have been contained in a tin can on the kitchen counter. Not right now though. It’s a grand experiment we’re going through, figuring out who we really are.

  4. My comments really can’t do justice to this post. I think KingMidget and Mary Grace Writing both have written intelligent responses worthy of the post. I do feel a little, “called out”. Over the the last 15 months I have learned more about the people in my life than I would ever care to. Friends, Family, Collegues, Acquaintances, and OnLine people. I have found that there are people I love, care about, look up to, admire who fall into your categories of racist and/or conspiracy theory supporters. That in itself was a resounding blow to my people “radar”. How could I possibly care about these people? What does that say about me? Does that make me as bad as them? In the first couple of months when people started letting down their veils and started revealing their true selves I argued, I tried to convince, I tried to explain with facts…as we all have stated here, there is no changing their minds. Each time, after feeling battered and bruised my final comment would be, “We will have to agree to disagree”. Their response was a flat, “NO we do not. You are wrong” and then they would continue with the nonesense. That is when I started “unfriending” and “blocking” people from my life both online and in “real” life. I very seldom engage now. When our lockdowns are lifted and we venture out into the world again I know some of my relationships will never be the same. Some will not even exist. You can’t un-know these things you have learned. I think they broke something inside of me that can’t be fixed. Humanity … does it even exhist anymore?

    1. I think humanity exists still, but we’re exposing more rifts between it. Once, we sought to distinguish ourselves through skin colour, or language, or race. Fortunately, we’ve more or less realized that’s just not going to work. But now we’re sorting ourselves by our belief systems, and the degrees to which we believe in extremes. We all believe in extremes. I don’t even know what mine are, they’re to ingrained. I guess the question is: can we access people who believe something that’s so different from what we do? Maybe that’s the goal of humanity. To unite across the divergence of thought.

  5. I have to first ask if this is totally fiction because you have tagged it thus, and one can never be sure with you?

    This “Stories help us explain reality, but they don’t become real. Maybe that difference is being blurred in this day and age.” was it for me.

    I honestly don’t know where to start. What more can I add to the dilemma Kingmidget faces over people wanting their own beliefs to define reality? And it’s great he is even an attorney.
    What more can I say to List of X’s noble aim to at least help those who may still be closer to being helped?
    And how can I deny the pain SilkPurse feels when I had those very close to me and I regarded very rational got caught up in the COVID theory wave?

    But, I hurt within to think of how frail we must be when I consider it is still regular people probably just like you and me who got caught up in all these. I get more confused about how humanity seems so happy with eroding all concepts of objectivity and facts. I think somewhere along the line, we read ‘relativity’ very wrong. I think.

    Oh, and please, don’t ask about my writing. I wish I had the confidence I once had to post all those things I once posted on my blog. And how kind some of my followers were to have indulged my apparent mediocrity. I am trying to experiment with a little fiction. If I release it, I will do so without the delusion it is something fantastic. But, maybe I won’t air my laundry out here in the same space as you all.

    1. Doc, I can never be sure of me either. I can only fake the truths and try to establish the fiction as real. It’s all a blur. I won’t ask you about your writing, but I will inquire as to your life. Are you well? It’s been so long since you’ve been around, I’m just really glad to hear from you.

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