Friday, December 24, 2010

New Hawaii Governor Will Work to Disprove "Birther" Controversy, and Some Further Thoughts on the Dangerous Intersection of Conspiratorial Thinking and Extremism

The newly elected Governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, is planning on doing all he can to counteract the continuing "birther" controversy among anti-Obama conspiracy theorists. He knew the Obama's when Barack was only an infant, so he knows from personal experience that he was born there and not in Kenya (or in Indonesia, Mars, Alpha Centauri). The facts, as the article makes clear, have already proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the President was in fact born here in the U.S. on August 4, 1961 in Hawaii. But as anyone knows when dealing with a conspiracy theorist, "facts" don't really matter. Birthers, like any other conspiracists, are basically gnostic in how they see the world. They, and the few like them, have the "special" knowledge that explains how the world "really" works.

This is a type of Euclidean model of seeing and understanding history. It worked within a very small framework, but as we've grown in our understanding of the larger world, it became more and more distorted because of several basic flaws in its understanding of how the world really works. Eventually, it leads to wildly distorted theories having to constantly adjust "facts" so that the system can stay intact. Eventually as well, the person or group that holds to these basically flawed premises, either go mad or reject this understanding for something that actually coheres with reality more accurately. In other words, these conspiracy theorists need to have their own Copernican Revolution in their thinking. The world doesn't revolve around us, we revolve around it.

Likewise, this mindset is also driven by a deep seated fear and anxiety (often legitimate in unstable times), combined with a narcissistic and egocentric impulse which desperately needs a scapegoat so as to place blame on the "other" whoever that "other" may be. These people also tend to strongly believe the myth of their own innate innocence. This Myth of Innocence, cannot accept that they are ever guilty of wrong doing, whether as individuals or as a group. Therefore they see the world in sharply dichotomous terms, us/them, black/white, good/evil, etc. This Manichean mindset combined with the aforementioned Gnostic impulse makes for a powerful ideological and intellectual witches brew. It both shuts our any competing truth claims as being part of the vast conspiracy and reinforces the most extreme sentiments within the "in" group.

When conspiratorial thinking is combined with extremist thinking (they often do exist together, though not necessarily. There are numerous "mainstream" conspiracy theorists out there) this potentially deadly dance between these two impulses can lead to violence. Of course we've seen far too many examples already of that deadly dynamic at work, whether among radical Islamists, Christian Nationalists, Jewish Ultra-nationalists, or fringe groups/cults. For those who don't buy into these conspiracy theories, but who have friends or family who do, it's important to both share with them the relevant facts and sources, but also to listen to the concerns of the person who does buy into these theories. As mentioned above, the fear and anxiety driving these notions is often legitimate, caused by actual hardship in their lives and the lives of many around them. This combination of gently but firmly confronting them with facts and real knowledge while listening in a respectful way to their real concerns may be what it takes to walk them back from this dualistic and ultimately self destructive mentality.

But if a person or a group does go over the tipping point, the tactic does need to change. Those who are closest can and should continue to persuade them away from this mindset, but when conspiratorial thinking is combined with extremism it's also appropriate to observe more intentionally those who are thinking and acting this way. Just as a person who descends for neurosis into psychosis needs closer oversight and maybe even intervention, so groups of people likewise need to be monitored more closely and if need be, intercepted before violence breaks out. Now admittedly this very act of monitoring and intercepting will only reinforce the conspiratorial thinking of these people and groups. To some degree that's unavoidable and shouldn't deter public officials or even concerned friends/family from doing so.

Again, if a family member or friend comes to believe they're the Prophet Elijah and begins walking into heavy traffic convinced they're invincible, we don't stand by for fear of reinforcing their psychosis. We call the police or an ambulance so that they won't do themselves or anyone else any harm, even if in doing this we incur the wrath of that family member or friend. So likewise we must be diligent in confronting conspiracy theories not founded in reality, but fear and simplistic thinking. And we must do the same when it comes to extremist thinking, especially when it combines with conspiratorial thinking, since this combination has proven to be so dangerous time and time again.

In the New York Times' article above, it ends on the hopeful note of "letting the facts speak for themselves." I wish I could be so hopeful that letting the "facts speak for themselves" will be enough. Facts are obviously important, but we must take into account that humans are also just as driven by their passions as by their intellect. To the degree we don't take this into consideration our analysis and therefore our engagement will be inadequate at best, and may end up reinforcing the very dynamic we want to minimize.

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