Every now and then, I come across a publication conferring incisive analytic heft to cultural phenomena that society usually considers undeserving of serious consideration. The last great one I read, for example, was Harry Frankfurt’s treatise, On Bullsh*t. When deftly executed, such writing can start with a knowing wink, but quickly plunge the reader into the unexpected depths of seemingly shallow waters. I recently found a paper from U.K. think tank Demos that provided just such a dunking.
The Power of Unreason: Conspiracy Theories, Extremism and Counter-terrorism is a discourse on how many extremist groups use conspiracy theories as a “radicalizing multiplier” of their ideologies; in some cases, even as a spur to violent behavior. The topic has certainly been explored before, but the Demos paper is a more thoughtful wake-up call to the real life impact that conspiracy theories may have on the rest of us sheep-like masses.
The authors analyzed literature from more than 50 extremist groups, including the KKK, Al Qaeda, the Aum Shinrikyo cult, eco-radicals and anarchic collectives and found that conspiracy theories are present across the ideological spectrum. While there are differences in the details of who’s pulling the levers behind the curtain, “the consequences, however, are often the same: pointing to forces beyond our control, articulating an enemy to hate, sharply dividing the group from the non-group and, sometimes, legitimizing violence.”
One of the intriguing ideas presented is conspiracy theory as a form of empowerment. These theories are “alluring because they offer a grand, complete, unified explanation that can account for everything as human intention” and they’re “premised on the rejection of mainstream producers of knowledge.” In other words., experts are part of the conspiracy and I, as the common man, can better place my trust in personal reason and experience.
There are concrete recommendations here for governments and civil society to consider. And they are timely — the report’s publication preceded the wave of parcel bombs from Greek anarchists that shut down the country’s mail system in early November. An analysis from a former Athens-based Foreign Services Officer suggests that the group’s anti-authority ideology, aimed at the collapse of consumer society, rubber stamps their violence against willing, “petty-bourgeois drones.” Whether or not there is an explicit conspiracy outlined in the mail bombers’ ideology, their construct of passive collaboration as an excuse for violent behavior echoes in Demos’s analysis of the conspiracy theory as a “rhetorical device to justify the killing of innocents.” It’s OK to hurt these people because they’re complicit with the opposition.
The Demos authors suggest that if we are to effectively counter extremist groups, society must address the conspiracy theories that are part of their mythos. Ironically, it’s often difficult for government institutions themselves to refute conspiracy theories because their attempts at debunking are often seen as further proof of their collusion. It can also be a hard sell because — as the Demos authors rightly point out — some conspiracies have turned out to be true.
Ultimately, the paper pushes for an investment in critical thinking. We should teach our citizens not what to think, but how to critically consider the world around them. A valuable lesson and a great read.