A conspiracy theory is when you think that some people are working together against the interests of others.
In modern language a “conspiracy theorist” is understood to be a person with unreasonably paranoid beliefs about implausible conspiracies. It’s a label with negative connotations of mental illness and wrong-headedness because we know that some mental disorders are accompanied by paranoid conspiracy beliefs. I’ve known a few people who have abused too many drugs and wound up thinking everybody was conspiring against them. People on the radio were talking about them, they believed, and one guy who was describing the global conspiracy against him told me in all seriousness that his refrigerator compressor had been programmed to cut in “to avoid embarrassing silences”.
I’ve also had people close to me experience very lurid conspiracy beliefs under the influence of hospital painkillers. My own mother – while waiting for hip surgery – told me the doctors were planning to burn down the hospital for the insurance money and that the nurses were bringing their children to the hospital to get free meals before school.
So, we associate conspiracy theories with mental instability. Sane people, it is implied, don’t have them.
That said, maybe I’m nuts, since I have a lot of conspiracy theories. Here are some in which I believe unshakably.
Snack food companies conspire to make people unhealthy. They really do. They put together edible substances in ways that make them extra-tasty and enjoyable to eat, not caring that the products they make have next-to-no nutritional value and can actually make you unwell. Those companies conspire with marketers to make you want their products so much that you pay absurd prices for them and eat way too much of them far too often for your own good. They conspire to try to suppress information about the harmfulness of their products and to avoid putting warnings on the packaging of their products. Why do they do these things? To make money. Money is more important to them than your health. I knew a young man who worked for a big snack food corporation. He told me how his company had hired some top food scientists from a taxpayer-funded institution. I asked him why and he told me the goal was to reduce how much real tomato went into tomato sauce (ketchup, if you prefer) in a way that customers wouldn’t notice. A few cents saved on every bottle of sauce meant a whole pile of money. He told me about lots of other scams too, but the general idea was that the people in that company are focused on getting people to buy stuff that isn’t good for them.
Tobacco companies conspire to sell products that cause great harm. You don’t need me to spell this one out. Populations with lots of smokers have more cancers and other illnesses. But the tobacco companies never stop fighting to hide the facts and to push their products. Why? They care about money more than they care about people.
Gambling businesses conspire to extract money from people who can’t afford to lose it, and conspire with politicians to prevent laws being passed to stop them.
Energy companies conspire to suppress alternatives to their products.
Crime gangs conspire to commit crimes and conspire with law enforcers and politicians to ensure they aren’t punished.
Incumbent political parties conspire with each other to prevent the rise of alternatives.
Alcohol companies conspire to encourage people to drink more than they should, then conspire to avoid laws restraining their activities.
Weapons manufacturers and marketers conspire to sell as many of their products as possible, conspire to create environments of fear to prompt more sales and conspire to prevent laws being passed to curtail their actions.
Corporations and practitioners involved in the “health” industry conspire to extract as much money as possible from us when we are at our most vulnerable, and they conspire with politicians to prevent us from protecting ourselves from their predation.
I could go on all day with example after example of readily verifiable conspiracies in our day to day lives. Banking interests, legal interests, tech company interests, media interests . . .
Conspiracies against us as human beings are common and we accept them as part of life. We realise that people and organisations with power and wealth conspire to maintain and increase their power and wealth. We are not amazed by this, and we don’t regard people who talk about it as crazy or paranoid.
Yossarian, in Joseph Heller’s great novel Catch 22, tried to get the air force doctor to pull him out of active service on the basis that he was mentally ill. His argument was that he believed people were trying to kill him, but of course he failed because it was self-evidently true that people were trying to kill him. It was no paranoid delusion: it was true. Knowing it was true and wanting to escape was actually proof that he was sane. So, back to the firing line.
Like Yossarian, we live with organisations and people who are willing to cause us harm because they profit from harming us. We might fantasise about escaping, but we believe escape is extremely difficult, if not impossible, because the people and organisations involved in the conspiracies are working together to keep us corralled where they can keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing all along. Not only that, but they spend immense resources convincing us through intense propaganda that the situation is normal, good and proper and that no other sensible options exist. The most powerful interests in society conspire with media organisations – which they own – to baffle and confuse us.
So, here comes my point.
Since we are totally surrounded by webs of clear and present conspiracies that work against our interests, why do we trust organisations that are part of those conspiracies to tell us where to draw the line on asking questions, having doubts and asking for more information?
I don’t. I like to keep an open mind on things and try to weigh up evidence for myself. I try to push aside pure propaganda and look for verifiable facts. I take “official explanations” along with whatever other information comes along and I try to form opinions based on evidence.
Is the Earth flat? No.
Did people walk on the moon? Almost certainly, I believe.
Was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour a surprise? I don’t think so.
Who organised the killing of JFK? I don’t know, but it’s messy.
What’s the real story behind 9-11? I don’t know, but it’s messy.
Is human activity changing the Earth’s climate? I believe so.
Did Covid-19 come from a lab or did it jump from another species in a non-laboratory context? I don’t know.
Did Jeffery Epstein kill himself? I doubt it.
Is war against China a good idea? No.
I have to live with a lot of unknowns but that’s life. My starting point in many cases is that the most rich and powerful organisations in the world have a clear agenda. They want more money and power and they don’t care if the methods they use to get those things cause harm to little folk like me. I assume they are going to do bad things and I assume they are going to work hard to hide that fact. I assume they are going to lie and cheat and keep on with their conspiracies. Because that’s what they do every day all around us in plain sight.
By their definition I’m a conspiracy theorist, since I don’t buy the official versions of anything straight off the shelf just because somebody wants me to.
I’d be crazy if I did.