Sunday, April 2, 2017

How Conspiracy Theories Help Us To Feel Alive

            Our news these days seems to be literally overflowing with stories about conspiracies and accusations of conspiracies.  One very prominent conspiracy to come to the surface recently is that where Russia supposedly influenced the American presidential election through hacking into the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee as well as those of other organizations and individuals.  Trump, who is an admirer of Putin, of course, vociferously denies this possibility and says that because the C.I.A. made a mistake with regard to missiles in Iraq that, in effect, it can’t be trusted about anything.  However, supposedly the C.I.A. has made corrections to its methods since the Iraq days.  And a bipartisan group of members of Congress wants to further delve into this matter.  The truth is that it is a rather serious accusation that is being made, and, therefore, one that merits further investigation.

            But some accusations of conspiracies remain accusations without any foundation to them.  For instance, the accusation that the news media were conspiring against Trump in his bid for the American presidency.  This accusation has turned out to be totally baseless.  If anything, the ongoing free coverage in the media that Trump and his outrageous statements received were a major factor in his election.  But the accusation of conspiracy certainly riled up Trump’s supporters and helped to stimulate them to life out of their numbness.

            This is because, in general, the accusation of conspiracy generates a lot of abrasive friction both between people and within people.  The accusation of conspiracy creates a little focused tension-pocket of overstimulation.  And we can define the idea of a conspiracy as a focused tension-pocket narrative where one person or group of people supposed tries to secretly control and manipulate some aspect of the life or lives of another person or group of people.  Obviously the individual or group of people supposedly being controlled or manipulated resents this considerably and wants to shut down the supposed actions of the perpetrator or perpetrators and wants to see some kind of justice appear.  Perhaps even punishment if possible.

            In more traditional organic societies, a focus on a conspiracy was a way for a person to handle excessive flowing blendable continual emotions that threatened to swallow up his sense of self and cause him to lash out uncontrollably in an undifferentiated manner.  Such emotions tended to predispose a person to act like a savage, an animal.  With a focus on a conspiracy, a person could channel his strong emotions in such a way that he could more easily maintain the integrity of his sense of self and thus maintain his identity as a human.   The conspiracy theory allowed a person to expel his excessive flowing blendable continual emotions in a safe way.  There could be a focused target for his emotions that would necessitate his concentrating his emotions so that they could be directed outside of himself in a defined way.

            In modern technological society, a focus on a conspiracy serves a different purpose.  Now the emotional problems that a typical conspiracy theorist would experience are numbness and jadedness as a result of a lack of organic stimuli in living environments today.  So the conspiracy theory today is not used to help shape and guide an excess of organic stimuli but rather to shock a person to come alive with the abrasive friction generated by the presence of a supposed conspiracy.  As in other forms of abrasive friction today, the conspiracy theory is like an addiction that gives a person kicks and that never fully goes away.  Because once you believe in it, and it keeps you alive, it’s hard to give up.

            And, in truth, it almost doesn’t matter if the conspiracy is real or not.  In both cases, the belief in a conspiracy in today’s world helps to pull a person out of the numbness and jadedness that he is experiencing, helps to pull a person out of the sensory distortion – the understimulation and the overstimulation – that he experiences living in modern technological society.  Perhaps it could be said that it is almost better that the conspiracy is a product of the believer’s imagination.  A real conspiracy is subject to being exposed.  Then the perpetrators can, at least potentially, receive their appropriate punishment and the conspiracy terminated.  And the perpetrator loses the source of his focused abrasive friction, his kicks, his shock therapy.  Whereas, if the conspiracy is imaginary, no perpetrators can be effectively brought to justice.  Unless charges are effectively trumped up (no pun intended), there usually just isn’t enough evidence to charge a supposed perpetrator for his misdeeds in an imaginary conspiracy.  As a result, the believer can feel perpetually aggrieved. There simply do not exist the means to get to the bottom of the perceived conspiracy, to resolve it by effectively exposing the perpetrators and punishing them and preventing them from ever trying to repeat the conspiracy or create a new one.  Having the lost cause of perpetually fighting an imaginary conspiracy can pull a person out of his numbness and jadedness and keep him alive indefinitely.

            The case of Russia may be the one instance where Donald Trump is fighting against a conspiracy theory.  Most of the time, Donald Trump is constantly coming up with his own new conspiracy theories.  To the extent that his supporters psychologically merge with him to become a part of the collective sense of self that he generates, they too believe in all of his conspiracy theories.  The supporters, together with Trump, are all stimulated to life by the abrasive friction generated as a reaction to these theories.  And the fact that Trump is always coming up with new conspiracy theories, new surprises, new shocks to his supporters nervous systems, gives them ongoing new kinds of abrasive friction, new stimuli to give them new kinds of kicks.  Trump is an addiction and each of his conspiracy theories is an addiction.

            The notion of Trump being like an addiction to his followers is, of course, just a metaphor.  It gives us a handle on what he is doing to his followers, so we can understand how he was, as it were, thrust upon us.  Just as a metaphor I used in a previous article of Trump being like political Viagra also gives us understanding of the strange political situation he presents not only to Americans but also to people in the rest of the world who are going to feel the effects of his governance.  To the extent that Trump jolts people out of their numbness, he is like a political addiction.  And to the extent that Trump gives numb people a way of feeling a sense of potency in their lives again, he is like political Viagra.  So both of these metaphors can be used to explain Trump’s meteoric rise on the American political landscape.

© 2017 Laurence Mesirow

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