The world is awash in conspiracy theories. You do not have to talk to political extremists, nor do you have to select leftists or rightists. Everyone of whatever persuasion, it seems, cannot hold a lengthy discussion on almost any topic without delving into unfounded narratives about unspecified “global elites”, “business interests”, liberals, conservatives, or what-have-you.
The world is a lot more complicated than something that can be explained with a catchall bugaboo like “racism” or “white guilt”, “paternalism” or “radical feminism”, “socialism” or “billionaires”. Business interests compete with each other. Politicians bicker for power. Alliances come and go. Cahoots don’t last. Bad people will eventually double cross each other. No matter how elite you are, there is always something you cannot have. And the tiny turbulence caused by a butterfly can influence the fate of the mightiest of kings. There is nobody at the steering wheel unless you believe in God, and history has proven that God behaves like a single dad trying to keep a houseful of unruly children; improbable disasters are frequent and something is always on fire.
We should all know that. We should all know large scale conspiracies do not easily exist. Anybody who has ever been in a student council, worked for a company, or tried to manage an organization knows how hard it is to keep just three people on the same page. Organizations tend to develop a will of its own and taking its reins against it is an odious task. If you extrapolate how hard it is to guide the direction of a small company to controlling a significant portion of the world, you should be able to see that it is, in all practicality, impossible for a small cabal of “elites” to control everything.
Conspiracy theories run the alphabetical gamut from Alaskan pipelines to zoning regulations. It could involve events in ancient Egyptian times or something in the news last week. The Germans tell conspiracy theories about the Turks, the Turks about Iraqis, the Iraqis about Iranians, Iranians about Pakistanis, Pakistanis about Indians, Indians about Chinese, Chinese about Japanese, and everybody about Americans. If you are an American you would know how little Americans care about the Pakistani-Indian border, but there are newspapers that claim there is an American conspiracy there.
If the price of crude oil goes up, or down, or stays the same, it’s the Americans who did it – no, it’s the Jews – nope, it’s the international banking syndicate – no, no, it’s the Global Muslim Conspiracy – oh, no, it’s the Free Masons – it’s the Hollywood elite – it’s the environmentalists – it’s the academic establishment – it’s the this – it’s the that – it’s whoever you don’t like. It’s the Mothers Against Humanity.
Perfectly reasonable people believe in conspiracy theories. Some theories are less obviously preposterous than others. Few are even plausible on the surface. But none stands close scrutiny. Most of them are utterly ridiculous. A little reflection should reveal the obvious falseness of these claims.
Yet people believe them. Why?
In the 1990 movie The Grifters by director Stephen Frears (which is based on a novel I never read), there is a conversation explaining why some people choose the life of a professional con artist. An old grifter explains that some people choose the life, not for the money, but to fulfill the inner desire to be the one person in the room who knows what is really going on. Some people may become actors, writers, painters, or dancers in hopes of fame and fortune, but the most realistic ones choose these professions out of a deep inner desire to pursue the artform. The movie proposes that life-long grifters are the same. And they pursue this life from a desire to be the best at being the one guy in the know.
Knowing something that other people do not know gives us a sense of power. It separates us from people who do not know. Knowledge puts us in an elite group. An esoteric conspiracy theory is something other people, the sort of people who get their information from common sources such as established media and government reports, would not know. It is “inside information” that only you and some of your friends know about. The ones who do not follow your line of thinking can be dismissed as sheep, or “sheeple” in modern jargon. Conspiracy theories are always disguised as enlightenment, inner knowledge, and a guide to the way things “really are”. Whatever the topic, whether it be vaccines, climate change, voter fraud, or cholesterol, the believers of conspiracy theories see the non-believers as gullible mugs. Whether they are liberal or conservative, regardless of what they believe, they see themselves as being superior for believing what they do.
We live in a time when knowledge, like never before, is power. People who knew how to code, like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk, arguably made their fortunes based on this knowledge. Knowing the right people might land you a movie role or a political appointment. Knowing the right stock to buy could make you rich. Or just knowing the right clothes to wear, and where to buy it, can give you a measure of social status. There is a lot to know in this world, but knowledge is fragmented like never before. Older people do not know how to use gadgets younger people use with ease, and vice versa. We are made to think, at every turn, “If only I knew”. Our lack of knowledge that might have made us successful, rich, famous, powerful, or just accepted, make us feel powerless.
This perpetual sense of powerlessness nurtures the desire to be the person in the know. It fosters the hunger to be a member of the select few who can see the truth. The feeling that you lack control over your life makes you gullible to the idea that somebody else does. But knowledge, even if it is false, gives you a sense of power.
This is how grifters operate. They make you feel superior for believing their lies. They know that, deep down, you want to be in the know too. They know you want to be a member of the secret club that will make you rich through a wire scheme. They know you will believe that that stock market is rigged, and that you want to be in on the take. They know you want to be separated from the sheep. The sheep you despise. The grifters know this because they, more than anyone else, have a deep seated desire to be on the wise side of the con. They know that, at some level, everyone has the same desire.
A conspiracy theory is a mutant con, a grift nobody benefits from. It is a virus of an idea that has spread like the contagion. It mates and fuses with other viral thoughts. It mutates and evolves and adapts to its environment. It survives by making you feel superior, so that you will spread it with an air of authority. And that every person who spreads it will feel proud for gaining a convert. The virus survives by making you feel smarter for believing in it.
The pathology underlying the spread and growth of conspiracy theories is that everybody wants to be a grifter. Everybody wants to be in the secret club where they are separated from the sheep. Call it the Grifter Syndrome, if you will. The reality is that you don’t know how to write code and become a tech billionaire. You don’t know how the economy works. You don’t know the intricacies of government, international finance, vaccine development, or aeronautic engineering. You struggle to fill your tax forms. But you want to be separated from the sheep. Which makes you a prime candidate to be a believer in the next viral idea that will make you feel like you are. The Grifter Syndrome is the pre-existing condition that will make you susceptible to conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theorists often point their fingers at “elites”. But by believing their theories you are promised that you will be among the few who can see the truth most people cannot. By definition, an elite. Because they know you want to be one. The truth is, not everyone can be an elite. This is why the world has become so polarized. If you divide up the world into tiny little echo chambers, you can be an elite in the chamber of your choice. In your own secluded group, you can believe yourself to be on the wise side of the con and throw your disdain at all the silly suckers who have yet to see the light.
The first step into treating a sickness is accepting that you have one. The chances are, you already have the Grifter Syndrome. Maybe it is time to reflect on that.