Making sense of worldly affairs has been an existential quest of human beings. In our personal as well as collective life, we try to find explanations which may not always be rational or logical. Yet they help us make sense of what is happening to us or around us. They help us navigate through worldly affairs. In ancient societies priests and the clergy used to carry out the vital function of meaning-making, while the other two classes, namely military class and working class – provided security and took care of material needs respectively. Things unexplained were often attributed to a power unknown; misfortunes, miseries and mysteries invariably found their way to evil sources. The practice of witchcraft in medieval Europe was part of this discourse that diagnosed deviance with diabolic conspiracy aimed to upset the traditional hierarchical order. It also found currency in statecraft and kingship. A belligerent king (and even the queen) would always find a conspiracy of disloyal subjects in every crisis
However progress in science and invention of new technologies helped demystify things. Now, in modern states, responsibilities of meaningmaking of worldly affairs have been entrusted to impersonal institutions. These institutions, with their hierarchical structures and functional complexities exude no less an aura of inscrutability than the structures they sought to replace. Though these institutions lack a transcendental halo around them, they enjoy immense influence over the life of common people. Men and women who helm these institutions soon emerged as elite decision-makers, even though they are no less infallible than other mortals.
In recent times, however, these institutions saw their credibility eroded to a great degree. People started to doubt or sniff a conspiracy in what is offered as an explanation, especially at the time of a major upheaval or disruption. Further damage to their credibility is caused when these assumptions or murmurs of conspiracy turn out to be true. The popular belief that the actual nature of things is kept hidden behind a smokescreen by self-serving elites grows stronger. The belief gets fillip when the mismatch between the lived experience of various sections of society and the explanation offered by authorities becomes evident. Identity politics that we see at present is primarily moulded by ‘lived experience’ or what is more profoundly captured by the German word erlebnis. Various identity groups, irrespective of their size and status, start to come up with their own version of things as they experience them, or as they believe they experience the world around them. The ways of looking at things may differ, and they rightly should; however, the problem arises when facticity is sacrificed at the altar of personal belief and collective prejudice on matters of public importance. Currently, we are witnessing such tendency where fact is countered with alternative facts.
In this process modern technologies and means of communications play a significant role. Explanations are readily constructed and instantly conveyed to large numbers of people in no time. These explanations become more popular when there is a vacuum, particularly caused by sudden disruption. When the novel coronavirus struck, a dearth of credible information was swiftly filled with a deluge of misinformation. Unreliable theories and stories about its origin and cures started to gain traction as actual cause or cure was not readily known.
Uncertainty, disagreement and lack of consensus make space for reasonable debate; nonetheless, they are also seen by many as signs of instability and insecurity. On the other hand, conspiracy theories display unwavering certainty as they are not necessarily constrained by facts and reason. They depend on collective credulity and social susceptibility. They give expression to a deep distrust of authority and a strong belief in a simplified and preferred version of things. Now, one may ask if it is something new that we are witnessing today and how it really matters. There is nothing new in people making up their own explanations or theories in response to a major upheaval or disruption in society. Conspiracy theories have been part of our political life for very long time. The secrecy that always accompanied the exercise of power invoked popular suspicion. They are not inherently problematic as long as they do not cross the threshold. However, they become potentially dangerous when combined with collective prejudice and are used as a tool of struggle for power
Today, conspiracy theories, with their widening adherence, have consolidated into ‘new conspiracism’. ‘New conspiracism’, is a version of conspiracy theory where conspiracy holds supreme, and theory loses its relevance (Muirhead & Rosenblum, 2020). It has become part of the political rhetoric. Taking advantage of the weakening credibility of institutions and heightened credulity of the people, unscrupulous political leaders mainstreamed conspiracy theories to polarize the society with sole objective of capturing or consolidating their power. Today, the rise of populist leaders, through peddling conspiracy theories that feed on collective prejudice, poses a major threat to democracy
At the heart of this battle, however, is the fight for the claim over reality – which narrative holds a greater sway on the people? It may seem to carry an appearance of a democratic practice; nonetheless, it is important we make a distinction between opinions and facts. Priority bestowed to subjective experience is often blamed for proliferation of multiple realities, which in turn, it can be argued, led to the rise of new conspiracism; however, it would be a mistake to equate superior claim of subjective experience with brazen disregard for factuality or empirical evidence.
Democracy demands certain basic common denominators on which the stakeholders may choose to disagree. But conspiracism takes away the common ground where democracy or for that matter any social dialogue may take place. The growing dominance and expanding support for climate-change sceptics, anti-vaxxers and the proponents of racial or religious replacement theories indicate future impossibility of dialogue. Their certainty and conviction will not allow room for dialogue.
So, what would be our role at this juncture? How can we confront this new form of conspiracism? We need to resist, however tempting and believable their narratives may appear. At the same time, we need to engage them to find a hole in their narratives. The easiest way to do so is to question their claims and put the burden of proof on the shoulders of its proponents.
(The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of Social Work, Bankura University.)