Q Anon and the Psychology of Conspiracy

I was listening to a talk radio show on the way to work recently and they had a caller on who was educating the show’s incredulous hosts on the sagacity of Q Anon, a shadowy internet personality who has recently entered mainstream consciousness. Q purports to divine the future of America through various signs such as typos in the President’s tweets. The evidence, said the caller, is “all around”.

I don’t know your personal feelings on Q Anon or on conspiracy theories more generally, nor do I particularly care. What I was struck by in this conversation was the seeming lucidity of the caller. He sounded like a young kid, granted, maybe mid twenties but not unintelligent. In fact, he seemed possessed of a reasonably sound and healthy mind. Up to that point I had taken for granted that conspiracy theory was more in the realm of the provocateurs, the senile, the drug-addled, etc. But this guy didn’t seem to fit any of these molds. For lack of a better word, he seemed like a regular guy.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a spiritual side, that we have an innate desire to believe in something higher, something more powerful, something that makes sense of this meaningless world. I agree with this. Many people, it seems, have a propensity (susceptibility?) to perceive communication on a metaphysical level. Some seem to be capable of understanding a language that the rest of us find inscrutable. I supposed this is how we get Q Anon believers and people who see the Madonna in a grilled cheese.

However, I’ve also taken for granted that that spirituality would be naturally well-guided and ultimately positive. Until recently.

In the 100,000 or so years that homo sapiens has inhabited this rock, people have come to understand the reality of innate spirituality and furthermore, the deleterious effect of this instinct when not properly channeled. Enter faith. Elders assumed, rightly, that if people were going to place their immutable faith in some higher power irrespective of its worthiness or rationality, it might as well be in a faith that we as people control. As such, we invented a religion that would both satisfy the fundamentally human desire to believe in something bigger than ourselves (thus protecting ourselves from our own nature,) while simultaneously channeling that belief into something valuable, something that objectively improves the world around us.

For instance, it is primarily due to the spread of Christianity throughout the world that the Arab slave trade, perhaps the most brutal and enduring of all slave trades, came to an end. (Yes, the spread of Christianity brought its own host of negative consequences, but I think even an a priori-level cost benefit analysis will reveal that humanity ultimately made out like bandits in that compromise. At any rate, it’s a discussion for another time.)

On the other side of the spectrum, we predictably see the opposite. As faith in formal religion implodes, people increasingly latch onto informal religions—conspiracy theories, superheroes, Harry Potter, etc. What makes conspiracy theorists particularly insidious is that it’s impossible to contradict their faith. In fact just doing so only proves them right. As soon as someone demonstrates evidence that a thing is false, that person necessarily trips the theorist’s “gaslight radar”. The rational person becomes—in the theorist’s eyes—just another undercover spy trying to throw them off the scent. It becomes a downward spiral of self fulfilling prophecy where “evidence” of the theory’s validity is “all around.” In the conspiracy theorist’s mind, nothing could be more obvious.

For as long as this decline in established religion continues, we can expect more and more people glomming onto pseudo-religion as their spiritual outlet—as the thing that offers them meaning in a world that is all too often lonely and cold. How this will ultimately change humanity I will leave up to you to decide, but if I were a gambling man…

P.S. All this being said, I am open to the possibility that I am wrong. Despite a long precedent of conspiracy theories proving false (or at least never being proved true by any reasonable standard), and despite my own self-declared level-headedness, I harbor in my mind and heart the narrow splinter of possibility that I could be dead wrong. I truly hope that never happens because it would send my delicate constitution into a Kafkaesque free fall where I would begin to question the validity of everything I had come to understand was “true”. (Aside: I think The Truman Show is one of the scariest films ever written. Perhaps more on this later.) All existential crisis aside, I will, in the event of this Q business proving true, admit I was wrong, apologize, and promptly exile myself to the country to live out my days in a state of ungodly hermitage.

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