Tag Archives: fantasy vs. reality

The Golden Age of Conspiracy

I have an unhealthy obsession with conspiracy theories.  When I say this please don’t misunderstand me.  I don’t actually buy into the stated details of conspiracy theories, I’m just fascinated by how much devotion and faith people put into them; how a person will take several demonstrable facts and then loosely connect them into something–which at first glance–sounds like a plausible narrative, which will appeal to a wide spectrum of people.  Despite what some might think, I am wholly unconvinced that either intelligence or education plays a significant role in deterring people away from believing in conspiracy theories, because such theories are not really about filling the gaps of our mind’s ignorance and shortcomings.  It’s more about satisfying a base desire for witnessing something greater, higher, that is closed to the majority of the “deluded” masses.  This is what makes conspiracy theories appealing to its proponents.

I was still young when Lady Diana died in 1997, but I was old enough to take note of the reactions people around me had to the news.  It took about four minutes after hearing the news for several members in my family to staunchly announce how they didn’t accept the “mainstream” story.  Why didn’t they accept it?  What tangible evidence did they have to make them doubt the news report?  Essentially none, but it didn’t matter.  There suspicion was that the simple answer must be a distraction to cover up the real story.  Or as my mother put it, “I cannot believe that there isn’t more to this whole thing.”  This sentence, I believe, captures the mindset most of us have, most of the time, when we are confronted with some awestruck piece of data.  The official report of the incident was that Diana and her boyfriend died after crashing in a road tunnel in Paris, due to the driver losing control of the vehicle.  But this just wasn’t big enough for most people, who to this day maintain there has to be more to it.  And no investigation will be enough to convince any of them otherwise, because any investigator who comes up with a different conclusion will simply be evidence of the greater conspiracy.  Most conspiracy theories follow a similar line of reasoning.

We have an innate aversion to simplicity.  Just repeating a story we hear isn’t enough, we need to add more complex details onto it to make it more digestible for wider consumption; refine it and move the narrative forward with facts we think ought to be included with the official details.  It can’t be that politicians are simply corrupt and self-serving, they must also be secretly operating under the direction of an unknown shadow government, which is menacingly pulling the strings behind the curtain [and (occasionally) this shadow government has to be made up of shape-shifting, inter-dimensional lizards, whose bloodline traces back to ancient Babylon].  It’s not enough to say that life on earth is simply adaptive to its environment, there has to be more to it; some kind of grand purpose and intent operating on a level too complex, too powerful for our meager minds to fathom.  This line of thinking is especially strong when we don’t have enough facts to draw any kind of clear conclusion, in such a case we’ll reason that even a conspiracy theory is better than no theory.

Simple reasons and answers are often not enough to do the job for us, because simplicity can never meet the expectations of our innately suspicious imaginations.  What does satisfy out suspicion is a narrative that goes counter to the “mainstream.”  That only those of us who are of the most elite intellect can grasp.  “The Illuminati may be fooling you but it’ll never fool me,” is the popular tagline.  Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories is the layer of excitement they bring to everyday facts.  It is stimulating beyond belief to lose oneself in all the various plots and details of a hidden world, even if its veracity is only verified by a very questionable set of complex circumstances; this just makes it more exciting.  The other part of the appeal is the strange level of remote plausibility it brings to the table.  For instance, there is no denying that people have conspired in the past (and still do today), often for ominous reasons (an example being the documented long history of unethical humane experimentation in the United States).  And this air of remote plausibility is more than enough to keep people’s suspicions on high alert, except when it comes to scrutinizing the various details being used to support the particular conspiracy theory they have chosen to embrace.

We know that the human mind is in many ways constrained in its ability to rationalize the world, thus we are constantly seeking the higher, the greater, the unimaginable as our answer of choice.  The strange thing is that as the answer we are seeking becomes more nuanced and complex the simpler it will begin to seem to us, and we will insist that our highly elaborate–immensely complicated and circumstantial–answer is really the most simple and obvious of them all.  Because by that point we have already accepted the narrative of the conspiracy, where the grand conclusion is being used to fill in the details, instead of the observable details being used to arrive at the most possible conclusion (be it simple or complex).

Precisely because there appears to be something innate about the way the human mind is drawn to conspiracies the ease by which ideas are exchanged in our lifetime makes it a ripe golden age for conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists to thrive.  The reason being that this greater medium of communication, and the great vastness of information available to us in which we can indulge our niche interests, also makes it possible to feel as though we are exploring new pieces of data everyday without ever really having to step outside the conclusions of the particular niche interest we are being drawn to.  Given enough time, we’ll cease wanting to hear from an opposing view contradicting the knowledge we have invested so much time in attaining.  The deeper secrets we have learned will become a part of the way we view and interact with the world.  In short, the conspiracy will become a part of your identity, a personal matter for you to defend, and all competing and alternative data will work only to confirm what you already have accepted to be true.  Reducing reality to a matter of popular vs fringe consensus, the veracity of which is to be decided based on how titillating it is to one’s cynically credulous senses.

Thought-Crime is Imaginary

Every person of a halfway sound mind can distinguish between her/his fantasy life and the real world.  We all occasionally ponder away, daydreaming about a fictional version of ourselves, doing things we know we couldn’t possibly accomplish in reality; that’s why it’s called fantasy, where our minds offer us an escape from the limitations of our daily environment.

We know that we will never start a rock band; we will never write a bestselling novel; we will (probably) never get the opportunity to do something extraordinary in the face of human history; people will not travel far and wide seeking our grand wisdom when we are old and “wise”.  And none of that matters.  Because when we are daydreaming about the alternate us–the us we can imagine ourselves being–the fact that we recognize the futility of the scenarios created by our minds is a non-issue.  In this regard, fantasizing about oneself as more accomplished, more polished, stronger, and in other customarily decent settings, is perfectly acceptable and expected to just about every person (because, as already stated, we all do it).  However, from what I can gather, this reasoning also appears to completely negate itself when our fantasies go out of the acceptable fold of social decorum.

We find it disturbing when we hear that someone is having impolite thoughts on a topic, or about a person.  Thoughts of violence, sex, and misconduct, are seen as more threatening in comparison to the more positive-minded daydreams we occasionally indulge in.  Unsurprisingly, we grant more validity to people’s thoughts when we see it as potentially harmful to ourselves (and others), even if the source of these threatening thoughts is the same as the source of the uplifting thoughts.  And the fact that there is as much of a chance of any person acting on their indecent thoughts as there is of her/him acting on their decent ones, does nothing to the way we reason that the potential for harm is far too great to leave it to pure chance, causing us to respond with due repulsion towards the originator of the bad thoughts–the person having the indecent fantasies.  Moreover, our behavior towards said individual is such that it makes little distinction between someone having thoughts about an action, and actually carrying them out (after all, it is true that the first step in committing a crime, is thinking about committing the crime).  Hence, despite the low probability that anyone who has ever thought about doing something horrible to someone else (be it a fantasy about committing assault, murder, robbery, etc.), one never knows whether or not the person doing the thinking is simply soothing their frustration through daydreaming, or seriously plotting to make good on their unsavory fantasies.  Although all of this is completely noncontroversial, there is one fact that needs to be addressed on this topic; namely, that thought crime is imaginary.  And it is imaginary in the literal sense of the word, in that it occurs solely in a person’s imagination.

Now, the question becomes how exactly can one be held accountable (or be treated as if to be held accountable) for actions that, at the core of it all, never happened?  For example, if someone has a fantasy about physically hurting me, but never acts on these thoughts, why is it that (were this person to reveal these thoughts to me years down the road) I would instinctively behave as if an attempted crime has actually been committed?  No harm has actually been carried out against me, and more importantly no harm will be carried out against me; the offense was, quite literally, completely imaginary.  So, why the moral indignation on my part?  Of course, it should be mentioned that this is solely a hypothetically generic me, I personally don’t think I could care less if anyone is daydreaming about hurting me, as long as they don’t carry out the act (to be honest, I’m fairly certain that more than one person I’ve known has thought about punching me in my face on more than a few occasions).  But that’s not how we collectively react to hearing about someone else’s repulsive fantasies, even more so if these fantasies are about someone other than ourselves (in which case we will gasp in union at the plight this innocent person has suffered for being the subject of the potentially-dangerous thought-criminal’s mental trespasses).

At the base of it, I think the lack of control we are capable of exercising in regard to any other person’s thoughtful offenses against our person is what motivates the knee-jerk repulsion we fell towards any criminal fantasies someone might daydream about against us, or any other individual; since we do not have direct access to any mind other than our own, we reason that we can never be completely assured of the daydreamers true intent.  This is all understandable, and most of us recognize the threat associated with criminal thoughts, even if no actually desire exists to follow through on said thoughts.  And this is the reason why most of us choose to never share our darkest, indecent thoughts with anybody, lest we risk being ostracized from social discourse.

The thing that is left unanswered for me, though, is the reason for the inner guilt a person feels for having thoughts that might verge on the criminal, despite being fully aware of never actually wanting to carry them out.  Most don’t really need other people scolding them for their “wicked” thoughts, they do a fairly decent job of performing the mental self-flagellation all on their own.  I understand feeling repulsed at the knowledge that someone else has been having uncivil thoughts about a third party, since you don’t have any way of accessing someone else’s mind to truly confirm just how serious the potential harm is, but you do have access to your own thoughts; you can know how dangerous your crime-infested daydreams are to others.  And if you can say with reasonable certainty that the indecent things you have fantasized about have little to no chance in manifesting themselves in your real life interactions, then why engage in this immense grief over your imaginary crimes; at least in the case where you yourself are the perpetrator, is it still inappropriate to say that thought-crime posses of no real danger?  And if not (and you fear that to accept your indecent thinking would desensitize you to actually doing indecent things), how can you carry on contributing and interacting with a society, when you can’t measure or control the seriousness and danger of the mental concepts that you have created?  And how badly does it speak of a society that has taught you to fear the thoughts in your own head as being so lethal that you should internally apologize and repent for any impolite/uncustomary thought that pops into your mind?  Or can society even be blamed for a reaction that is so fundamentally human(e)?