HOW TO MAKE SENSE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
© copyright by Rob Ager Dec 2010
WHO IS AND ISN'T A CONSPIRACY THEORIST?
Believing in conspiracy theories is neither a professional occupation nor an academic discipline. We don’t tick boxes on questionnaires to identify ourselves as "conspiracy theorists", nor can any medical test be done to identify a person as such.
The term “conspiracy theorist” is a judgement that can be assumed in relation to any group or individual. There are broad social patterns that lead to some people being described as conspiracy theorists more often than others, but realistically speaking we are all conspiracy theorists. All of us, from time to time, will believe that two or more people in a particular context have conspired to achieve a mutual aim – be it cheating in a card game or engineering an international war. It isn’t by definition a lapse in logic to believe that a conspiracy has or is going to occur in a given situation. Conspiracies do happen and it is a natural facet of healthy thinking and self-preservation to seek out awareness of conspiracies that may affect our lives.
Despite these simple truths, the term “conspiracy theorist” is often used in debate as a claim by one party against the character of another – a cheap and unimaginative way to avoid rational discussion. We already exploed the dictionary definitions of "conspiracy theory". So let’s now look at the dictionary descriptions of the term “conspiracy theorist”.
The following online dictionaries list the term “conspiracy theorist” as a noun, but offer no further description as to what the term means.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t feature the term at all.
The Cambridge Dictionary does contain a description: “someone who believes in a conspiracy theory”. This idea that a person who believes in one or more “conspiracy theories” is a “conspiracy theorist” supports the notion that everyone is a conspiracy theorist … because everyone believes in at least one conspiracy theory at some point in their life.
Since the official dictionary definitions are lacking in specifics, let’s look at which people are being called conspiracy theorists and by whom.
A Wikipedia list of conspiracy theorists lists 169 (surprisingly few) individuals, and in some cases organisations. Its criteria includes anyone actively defending one of the theories listed in the Wikipedia article Category:Conspiracy theories. Recognizable names on the list include Adolf Hitler, The Association of Free Press, the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, David Icke, Bill Hicks, Western Islands (publisher), Gore Vidal, Alexander Litvinenko, Alex Jones and Oliver Stone. Being that the list is compiled from other Wikipedia articles related to specific conspiracy theories, the logic on offer is that anyone who believes in something that a Wikipedia author has described as a conspiracy theory is by definition a conspiracy theorist.
An additional blurring of the argument as to who is and isn’t a “conspiracy theorist” is the position of open-mindedness. If a person says that they suspect that a conspiracy may have occurred in a particular context, but that they aren’t sure … does that make them a “conspiracy theorist” or not? Or how about if another person says they haven’t seen any direct evidence to support a particular conspiracy theory, but that they wouldn’t be surprised if it was true? Or how about people who don’t claim to understand the truth of a particular matter, but simply assert that they find a particular government’s version of that matter to be unconvincing and possibly deceptive? These entertainments of doubt in response to claims from authority are natural and healthy because without them there would be no public scrutiny of authority. Such sceptical investigation is an essential feature of any functioning democracy.
This flimsy way of categorizing who is and isn’t a “conspiracy theorist” is also used in corporate media. Once a media source has taken the stance that a particular allegation of conspiracy is unfounded, that same media source often describes people who do believe in the conspiracy as conspiracy theorists.
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