Like the now-banned words “retard” and “lunatic,” the charge of conspiracy theorist is a classically Soviet slur. It is designed to make you think that your judgement is so distorted that nothing you conclude about the world could possibly be real.
“Conspiracy theorist” is akin to calling someone an enemy of peace and order. The Nazis turned everyone who disagreed with them into criminals. The Soviets declared all their critics insane and placed them under medical control. “Conspiracy theorist” is a sort of hybrid between these two delegitimizing labels. Conspiracy theorists are typically charged with lacking sane judgment and, simultaneously, with criminally defaming innocent people.
A paradox surrounds conspiracies. Do they exist? If so, conspiracy theories cannot all be insane; some must be astute observations of fact. So let’s take a moment to draw up a portrait of what a conspiracy looks like.
Enough about conspiracy “theories” — what are conspiracies?
Conspiracies function in secrecy and are designed to result in positive outcomes for the conspirators, which look nonetheless like coincidences to people hurt by the outcome (or, for that matter, to any observer who isn’t part of the conspiracy).
Conspiracies are harmful. If they weren’t, we would call them teamwork plain and simple. Because the outcomes of conspiratorial activity are bad for society, we have a vested interest in society to discourage or prevent conspiracies, as long as we are not infringing on other people’s liberties.
How do we counteract and prevent conspiracies? Well, we have to know about them so we can take action.
How do we know about conspiracies? This is difficult since by definition conspirators plot and scheme ways of achieving their self-serving outcomes without people knowing they planned it. They get undertaken by people who didn’t want us to know about them and who went to certain lengths to keep us from finding out about what they did.
To counteract conspiracies, we need to know about them; to know about them, we must engage in speculation and suspicion. We have to investigate and find whistleblowers. Suspicions about conspiracy theories have to be articulated before we have all the evidence. If we don’t articulate our suspicions then we never get around to investigating and finding the evidence. So we have a Catch-22.
If you refuse to indulge suspicions about conspiracy theories, you won’t be bothered to investigate. And you’ll never find out whether conspiracy theories were right.
Therein lies the rub. If someone responds to a question or concern about their private (secret) dealings by calling the questioner a “conspiracy theorist,” then our suspicions should be raised. The best way to counter a false conspiracy theory is to provide information showing that it was wrong. The worst way to defuse conspiracy theories is to remain in a non-disclosure mode, leaving a vacuum of information that will be filled with other people’s increasing speculations. Unless, that is, the goal is to make your critics more easily dismissed by steering them into riskier speculations.
Real conspirators actually find the accusation of “conspiracy theorist” useful. They can refuse to disclose necessary information, leaving a vacuum of information that will be filled with a range of theories, some quite rational and others outlandish. The more the conspirators bait suspicious people into stating theories that sound outlandish, the more the conspirators can justify operating in secrecy and not giving any information to exonerate themselves of shady dealings.
If you discount all conspiracy theories as crazy you would create a society where people can do secret wrongdoing and never be investigated or brought to justice.
Are all people who notice secret, harmful coordination among influential people, or who question whether such coordination exists, necessarily insane or defamatory? That depends on whether their suspicions are correct. Obviously some but not all people really do conspire to do things that they know are wrong, in order to benefit themselves.
Is it unchristian to talk about conspiracy theories?
No, not at all. Christians like Ed Stetzer have taken to print in order to tell Christians that they are not only crazy and criminal for indulging conspiracy theories, but also anti-Gospel and implicitly going to Hell. Stetzer is wrong. He decries “gullibility” but actually conspiracy theorists are not the gullible ones. People who accept at face value the official version of events and never question whether officials might be lying are the ones practicing gullibility.
Christians can never believe that nobody ever engages in such deceit and trickery. The prophets warn us about deceptive leaders seducing us with false concepts to enrich themselves and betray God. Paul repeats this wisdom in Romans 3:13. David in Psalm 5 tells us of people who “flatter with their tongues” while “their throat is an open grave.” Motives for such deceit and trickery range from revenge, which is banned in Leviticus, to lust for power exemplified in people such as Jezebel or greed as demonstrated by Ananias and Sapphira. The wisdom books from Job to Proverbs warn us about wicked people who abuse their power and get away with abuses by lying, secrecy, or manipulation.
In Exodus the Ten Commandments lay out the biggest crimes that people must guard against: lying, coveting, stealing, killing, and forbidden sex–all things that one finds wherever one finds conspiracies. The mere fact that these are prominently condemned and assigned punishment means that people who commit them have incentives to hide or disguise their actions. The Ten Commandments are delivered after Jethro advises Moses to construct a pyramid system of judges. The Lord gave Moses these key laws when there existed the most appropriate form of carrying the laws out: inspection, examination, and discernment by fellow humans in a network of checks and balances. We should not lie about people, but that certainly does not mean that the Bible discourages us from theorizing about whether something wrong has taken place. Quite the opposite.
Sins fuel contrivance and concealment, a hallmark of conspiracies. Jesus Christ also warns us about wolves in sheep’s clothing and has a long diatribe in Matthew 23 against the conniving scribes and Pharisees–people who would go on to have him executed in a convoluted conspiracy that involved betrayal by one of Jesus’s disciples, the Roman legal system, and Herod and Caiaphas. Many of the accusations that Jesus levels against the Pharisees in Matthew 23 deal with disguises and willful self-misrepresentation.
If you go around telling people that it is anti-Christian to consider conspiracy theories, then you don’t know your Bible. In the Book of John, we hear the famous lines “the truth will set you free.” The Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians, “partake not in the acts of darkness, but expose them.”
Denying reality is part of abuse: Watch the Ingrid Bergman classic
We’ve heard a lot about “gaslighting,” based on the Ingrid Bergman movie from the 1940s. “Gaslighting” means you try to convince a person that they are crazy when you are purposefully doing things to torment them. You deny that the torments you concoct are happening at all. Gaslighting is the obvious reciprocal of conspiracy theories. The gaslighting abuser exploits the fact that people do not want to be accused of paranoia. The conspirator conspires, knowing that people who suspect the conspiring will be likely considered insane, so the victim is afraid to come forward. This sets up the victim to be abused and discredited simultaneously.
If we try to prevent both conspiracy theories and gaslighting, we find ourselves at extreme cross-purposes. Anti-gaslighting practices might lead to paranoia and excessive fear of coincidences, even obsessive-compulsive disorder. Anti-conspiracy-theory practices might lead to dangerous naivete and gullibility, allowing ourselves to be used or exploited when there should exist proper checks and balances to stop bad actors from conspiring to wrong others.
The sudden timeliness of age-old, impossible-to-disprove accusations
In another obvious case from recent history, let us go back to the autumn of 2017. Roy Moore was about to win a seat on the US Senate. Suddenly never-before-heard charges about him molesting a fourteen-year-old girl thirty-eight years prior surfaced in the Washington Post and derailed his candidacy. If you pointed out that this looked an awful lot like a setup, people cried “conspiracy theorist.” They treated you as if you were crazy for pointing out the convenient luck of this “coincidence” reaching the public how and when it did: the charges’ surfacing with no evidence after 38 years, at a moment when the charges would conveniently help the Democrats flip a coveted Alabama Senate seat to their side. This luck seemed too coincidental to be without some deliberate coordination by enemies of Roy Moore.
Why did the Washington Post suddenly send reporters to find out about decades-old history in Alabama, of all times, during a hotly contested election in which one of the main contenders would be destroyed by precisely such allegations? How could they be so lucky as to find someone who had proof that she and Roy Moore were in the same place on one day in the late 1970s, albeit with no proof of the actual abuse other than “her word against his”? Two scenarios would have to be weighed against each other to see which one made more sense:
Scenario 1: Roy Moore’s accuser was recruited by people who wanted him to lose the Senate seat. A network of people who had contacts at the Washington Post and the Democratic Party scouted Alabama and found someone who had a court document showing she was at a hearing on the same day in 1979 that Roy Moore would have been there. They then got together and coached the accuser to whip up a sex abuse story against Roy Moore, making sure that all of the details matched publicly known things about Moore. They contrived to make it so no detail was specific enough to allow Moore to contradict it with his evidence. The conspirators looked for other people who could come forward and claim that the accuser told them about the abuse at the time, thereby padding the numbers of “corroborating witnesses” while Moore had no way to recruit any witnesses in his defense since the alleged incident never happened and he would have had no occasion to discuss it with anyone.
Scenario 2: Roy Moore was a malicious abuser who seduced a fourteen-year-old girl in the late 1970s, and then never did anything of the kind that might sully his record in the forty years following. The accuser told scores of people about the abuse and none of them ever told anyone or reported it. During the years of the ongoing family court involving the young accuser, no records ever indicated that she had been involved sexually with an assistant district attorney working on the case, because this simply never came up. As Roy Moore became successful and rose up through the ranks in Alabama politics, the accuser and the people who had heard about her story all said nothing until one month before the Senate seat race, when their memories were all fortuitously lucid and synchronized to match each other. The accuser didn’t feel concerned when Roy Moore rose up through the Alabama Supreme Court and became embroiled in a debate about the Ten Commandments being posted outside the courthouse, but the Senate seat was the last straw. She went and found the Washington Post reporter who told her story fact by fact without any embellishment or distortion whatsoever.
To believe Scenario #1, we would have to believe that people exist in America who would go to devious lengths to sway an election. That is not hard for me to believe.
To believe Scenario #2, we would have to believe that a childhood sex abuse was so traumatic that it weighed on someone for forty years but the person and those who knew her would not have brought this to anyone’s attention for decades, in the South where getting “fresh” with a girl was never accepted as business as usual. The secret stayed secret through the 1980s when childhood abuse was a topic of frequent discussion in culture, through the 1990s when sexual harassment was a topic of frequent discussion in culture, and through the 2000s and 2010s. We would have to believe that someone who got sexually abused in the late 1970s was traumatized and that also the woman in her fifties would remember the details clearly enough to know the date of a family court proceeding she was at, when she was fourteen, and the identity of Roy Moore, who would have been a relatively unknown recent law school grad in their community when the abuse happened. We would have to believe that Roy Moore lost all sense of self-control and molested a young girl but then showed self-control for forty years of public service.
People can have their own interpretations depending on what they believe about human nature. Personally, the conspiracy scenario (scenario #1) makes more sense and that’s what I believe happened. Sometimes conspiracy theories persuade us because the cause-and-effect chain explains otherwise bizarre or unbelievable coincidences.
Conspiracies happen because human beings have motives to deceive and manipulate others. Human beings have a long-proven capacity to involve others in their schemes of deception and manipulation. Remember the saying, “where there is a will, there is a way.” If people want something badly enough and don’t have strong scruples, they will go to convoluted lengths to get it.
Conspiracy theories have long been part of public policy
Policymakers and anti-corruption campaigners have long understood the difficult-to-combat nature of conspiracies. They have baked such considerations into public laws. Conspiracy theories are most believable when something bad is already happening anyway, so why not write laws that force people collaborating on projects to prevent the bad things that go along with conspiracies? Think of how legal and social policy evolved after Theodore Roosevelt took on large corporations with antitrust law. Public policy leaders devoted countless years to fighting corruption by banning and criminalizing practices that allow the appearance of conspiracy theories. To be “negligent” and allow suspicions of misconduct to appear reasonable is its own kind of misconduct. Think of antitrust rules, anti-monopoly rules, laws against insider trading, rules constraining “conflicts of interest”, requirements for transparency, and rules requiring due diligence.
Public policy theorists figured out eons ago that the apparent possibility of a conspiracy is already incompatible with practices for the common good. If people looking at a situation can reasonably suspect a conspiracy and you can’t satisfy their questions by showing proof that you acted properly, then you have failed to conduct yourself in a way that serves the public good. Either you really did engage in an illicit conspiracy and tried but failed to cover your tracks, or you made decisions without documenting them for public scrutiny, or you created a situation where you could benefit improperly from occurrences which you had a reasonable duty to anticipate and prevent.
Anti-corruption laws always require recordkeeping and disclosure, as well as third-party or independent review. Under many public policy rules, it would be improper for a company to do an internal investigation of a director who could fire the investigators. Even if no “conspiracy” led to the director abusing his power, the mere fact that the situation made such an abuse possible is enough of a problem for the whole scenario to be banned.
So from a general policy perspective, people who have a responsibility to the public or to a constituency can’t miraculously profit from fishy coincidences and then refuse to explain to people what their role was. Let’s imagine that a riot suddenly explodes after an article written by my sister, a journalist. I happen to have been trying to buy an expensive real estate property that gets burned down in the riot. I buy it after the riot for a fraction of the cost, then my sister’s article turns out to have been false. I can’t just tell the public, “look, it’s a series of unfortunate coincidences here. I have nothing to say about this.” My sister can’t claim she just forgot where she got her information on the story. We would have to have kept decent enough records in both our jobs that we can answer concerns to the public and demonstrate that we did not coordinate efforts and incite a riot with fake news, just so that I could buy a building that the owner wasn’t willing to sell.
What are fair suspicions about conspiracies in June 2020?
In our current context our understanding of conspiracy theories matters. A strange virus appears, about which we receive constantly changing information. The epidemic forces us to tank our economy, coincidentally just after several attempts to destroy Donald Trump (impeachment, Russia scandal, MeToo accusations) have failed, and when Donald Trump’s signature strength was his overseeing the strongest economy ever recorded.
Then, as the statistics about the coronavirus seem to indicate that reopening the economy was not only feasible but also likely and the economy would probably rebound, video of an indefensible and racially contemptible murder in Minneapolis leads to widespread protests, which turn into rioting and looting. Suddenly the violence goes not only national but also international. The market, which was set to recover from the coronavirus lockdowns, crashes again. Most of the serious unrest takes place in cities with Democratic mayors and in Democratic states but overwhelmingly the media and activists bring up Trump as the one to blame. According to some polls, his poll numbers crash again.
All the same thought leaders who pushed the Russian collusion, the Ukranian quid pro quo impeachment charges, and the overbearing coronavirus lockdowns, are now encouraging mass protests despite the fear of COVID contagion. Most of them are busy messaging on Twitter that Trump bears responsibility for racial upheaval. This goes on despite the fact that Trump led on prison reform, which will help many African Americans caught in the racially imbalanced criminal system, and despite the fact that Joe Biden has a troubling record on race. Biden not only supported draconian sentencing laws but also seems to have been cozy with segregationists.
Could this all be a coincidence? Perhaps. Strange things have happened. But again, we must choose between two scenarios.
Scenario 1: Nobody in powerful positions in the United States has any excessive hostility against Trump or allowed political bias to color their statements or actions. They are simply looking at Trump’s actions objectively. It just so happens that they were wrong about the Russian and Ukrainian scandals, but this isn’t because they tried to fabricate anything against Trump, it was just bad luck. COVID appeared and liberal officials really believed Trump was to blame because he did not act sooner to force governors to acquire and administer more tests. Early projections that led to calls for strict lockdowns were believed in good faith, as were the advice from professionals who said that anti-lockdown protests were epidemiologically dangerous but much larger protest gatherings against racism and police brutality were epidemiologically safe. People in hundreds of cities spontaneously decided to gather en masse. White supremacists and right-wing extremists infiltrated the gatherings en masse, posed as anarchists, and looted and rioted to discredit black people. Everybody at these protests blames Trump, correctly, because objectively he is an awful president whose words on social media have encouraged police to kill minorities.
Scenario 2: Trump poses an existential threat to Democrats and to establishment Republicans because they cannot control him and he has a direct line of support to people in the grassroots. His greatest strength was the economy so the Democrats worked with their allies in the social organizing world and in the media to escalate two crises to exaggerated levels of alarm in order to disrupt social order and tar Trump so that he would have to leave office early or be defeated by Biden in November. They took a virus in Wuhan that was somewhat more contagious than usual and called for wildly disproportionate quarantines with vaguely defined timeframes, knowing this would tank the economy and take away Trump’s ace for the November elections. When it seemed they could not get most Americans to blame Trump for the pandemic or the depression, they seized upon a brutal police killing and ramped up the rhetoric about it, in coordination with their media and organizing contacts, so that more upheaval would get Americans to see Trump as the angel of death.
To believe in Scenario 1, the “conspiracy-free” scenario, we would have to believe that Trump is objectively responsible for many bad things in his presidency. We would have to believe reporters, Democrats in government, and officials at places like the CDC all made their decisions with no bias at all. We would have to believe that complicated or intricate public campaigns such as “everyone must stay at home for three months” and “everyone gather at specified collection points” took hold with no concertation, or at least no concertation colored by the establishment’s abiding desire to see Trump removed from office.
To believe in Scenario 2, we would have to believe that human beings are capable of enormous evil and would exploit a disease and a community’s painful past of racial injustice merely to gain political power.
Which of the scenarios strains your sense of objectivity more? Before you answer, let’s go back in time and remember a woman named Lucretia. She lived in the sixth century before Christ, in Rome. Her experience may help us gauge how deep evil runs in the human soul.
The rape of Lucretia
In History of Rome, Book I, Livy recounts the infamous rape of Lucretia.
During the time of Rome’s monarchy, Lucretia was a beautiful and moral wife to Collatinus. Sextus Tarquin, a wicked man, wishes to commit adultery with Lucretia. To accomplish this, he visits her while Collatinus travels away on business. Trying to seduce her with no luck, Tarquin finally threatens her with murder. She still refuses. So then, Tarquin adds a twist of dishonor to compel her to sleep with him. According to Livy, “When he saw her inflexible, and that she was not moved even by the terror of death, he added to terror the threat of dishonour; he says that he will lay a murdered slave naked by her side when dead, so that she may be said to have been slain in infamous adultery.”
Lucretia will accept death, but she cannot allow Tarquin to control the terms of her death to the point that he can contrive a false dishonor. In order to save herself from the worst fate–having an adulterous reputation, even if false–Lucretia succumbs to Tarquin’s advances at last so that she can live long enough to make her honor publicly known. This sad surrender buys her enough time for her husband Collatinus to come home.
Collatinus arrives, knowing nothing of what has transpired yet. She tells him everything that has happened and makes him swear he will avenge her honor. Once her husband has taken this oath, Livy tells us what happens next: “‘It is for you to see,’ says she, ‘what is due to him. As for me, though I acquit myself of guilt, from punishment I do not discharge myself; nor shall any woman survive her dishonour pleading the example of Lucretia.’ The knife, which she kept concealed beneath her garment, she plunges into her heart, and falling forward on the wound, she dropped down expiring. The husband and father shriek aloud.”
Lucretia’s story meant a great deal to Romans because it symbolized Roman honor. They credited the bravery of Lucretia for causing a sequence of events that culminated in the abolition of the monarchy and foundation of the Republic. But her story matters to us today for a different reason.
Lucretia’s tale represents an early “conspiracy.” In order to control events, the mastermind engages in premeditated deceit and clandestine action. Tarquin’s manipulation shows us plotting and insidiousness at its finest. Human beings can devise evil plots with so many twists and turns that sometimes we face an almost impossible task in trying to avoid their traps.
Deception is not only a personal vice but also a social and political weapon. The Romans did not look favorably on Tarquin’s threat to frame her for adultery in a plot requiring two murders (her and a slave). They did, however, understand that humans can do such terrible things. The entire concept of a Republic with stable laws and due process, meant to protect the innocent against even crafty abuse, owed its structure to the lessons of Lucretia’s tragedy. Romans needed a Republic with checks and balances, because any human, if given absolute power, is capable of carrying out tremendous evil. A major part of the evil includes hiding or disguising one’s vices to keep popular approval.
Why do we think we are smart simply because we reject conspiracy theories?
When I presented two scenarios to explain the turmoil of 2020, I laid out a non-conspiratorial and a conspiratorial scenario. As I explained, we will pick one scenario over the other not only based on whether we believe in conspiracies, but rather, based on whether we believe people are capable of gross deception and incredible evil. To believe that everything about 2020’s pandemic, depression, and riots has been coincidence, we would have to discount the role of malice in countless influencers of society. To believe that some of 2020 has taken place due to conspiracies, we wouldn’t have to discount the goodness in some, but we would have to believe that others are in fact truly evil people.
So, to use the terms of Ed Stetzer, who’s “gullible”? The one who thinks people are good at heart, or the one who thinks at least some people are not good at heart?
Fast forward to the postmodern era, a time when social media, audiovisual recordings, and vast populations afford evil people almost limitless resources for deception and manipulation. Has human nature changed? I think not. Tarquin was not an exceptional man. If anything, he was quite typical. Once people find that they can manipulate others and deceive crowds in order to acquire what they want, they will often go to those lengths.
And yet many of my highly educated friends today consider themselves incredibly sophisticated because they don’t believe in any conspiracy theories. They scoff at Alex Jones, Q Anon, truthers, birthers, and political junkies.
Some conspiracy theories are flatly ridiculous, such as the notion that men never landed on the moon or the Sandy Hook massacre did not happen.
Others are not even theories. Take, for example, what happened just before and after the 2012 re-election of Barack Obama. Hilda Solis was labor secretary in September and October of 2012. Back then the unemployment rate hovered close to 8%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced a wonderful drop in the unemployment rate. This news flooded the news cycle and drowned out headlines that weren’t going well for Obama, such as the fallout from the losses at Benghazi. Then a few weeks later, it turned out that the unemployment figures were wrong. The adjustment showed that the unemployment was leveling off. Solis reacted with indignation when people asked her about the mistake, saying it was preposterous that anyone would ever imply the BLS would fake numbers just to win an election.
Would they fake numbers to win an election? We’ll never know what happened with the BLS statistics in October 2012, because all we can prove is that a set of flattering statistics were false and a later set of statistics, which were more accurate, did not flatter the president as much. We cannot prove motives or concertation. But it would seen suspicious, at any rate, that this mistake would help Obama just before an election. And whether it was a conspiracy or not, the BLS did something very wrong; they released false data. Given the sensitivity of Hilda Solis’s department, the bureau needed to take extra steps to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
As we consider all that has happened in 2020 (and we are only halfway through it) we must keep in mind these life lessons about conspiracies. Can we prove that powerful people deceived the masses in order to advance their political agenda, even at tremendous and devastating costs? No. But we cannot discount the possibility of a conspiracy. And most importantly, we can see what was wrong and critique that. We can call for people to be held accountable for what they obviously mishandled.
And we should investigate. Is it possible that people in social media would float a false story about white nationalists infiltrating protests and staging looting so that it would be blamed on left-wing groups like Antifa? Is it possible that someone very evil paid Derek Chauvin to kill George Floyd at a time and place when it was arranged so that the murder would be caught on film? These are wicked things to imagine people doing. But the sequence of events worked so overwhelmingly to advance certain political interests and social narratives, we are not unchristian if we want people to dig deeper and find out more. We know Charles Stuart, a man in the Boston area, killed his wife in 1989 and made up a story that a black man had done it so he could collect insurance. We know that Jussie Smolett went to great lengths to stage a fake hate crime, even paying two black men to pretend to be white men and to attack him in front of a security camera so that he could blame racist Trump supporters.
Both Stuart and Smollett were willing to endanger large numbers of men of another race to serve their schemes. The Boston police raided black neighborhoods looking for the killer Charles Stuart reported. Had Smollett’s hoax not been discovered, violence could have broken out and innocent white men could have been targeted.
If the racial unrest of 2020 came from a plot, at an early or late stage of unfolding events, then we should know. We should know if our society has been manipulated and if people were harmed, distressed, and even killed in vain for a lie. I can tolerate the charge of “conspiracy theorist” more than I can tolerate the complacency of not asking painful questions.
In the end, what matters most is the truth.