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.
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.