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.

Purpose vs. Meaning

I have some terrible news. There is, in fact, no meaning to life. This is not something to be alarmed by, though it may well alarm you. That’s only because you’ve lived your entire life petty and small-minded. That’s okay, because today you change.

For all of the new-agey ‘being present’ discussion that goes on today, one would think we live among a multitude of philosophers. But we don’t, as anyone with a questioning mind who has ever bothered to go down that rabbit hole knows it to be an exercise in mental masturbation. I have considered at length the possible metrics for measuring life on a meta-scale and at the time of this writing can divine only two: purpose and meaning.

Purpose is the easy one. Our purpose in being on this giant ball of rock and dirt is, quite simply, to make more of ourselves. That’s it. Our purpose is to stay alive long enough to reproduce, and ideally long enough to raise our progeny to self-sufficiency. In truth, this latter part is just icing on the cake. So the next time you hear someone talk about their job, or their career, or their hobby in terms of what they were “put on Earth to do”, you tell them: this guy on the internet said you’re wrong, and then smugly educate them on the simplicity of life’s purpose.

But what if, for whatever reason, you don’t reproduce? Well then, your purpose, as it were, is to provide for and protect those within your tribe who have reproduced. Simple. And this is where meaning comes in. The ol’ “what’s the meaning of life” question is more complex, but still stupidly simple. Again, there is no inherent meaning to life. If there’s to be any meaning for one’s life, one must make it themselves. It is possible that your purpose is your meaning. See those who live for their chillens—a noble pursuit if ever there was one. But typically meaning comes from somewhere else, but at any rate, those who seek meaning will never find it. Because it’s not a fucking Pokémon. Meaning isn’t something you find, it’s something you make.

I had a philosophy professor recall an interaction in which he was loathe to hear one of his acquaintances distill down the lot of western philosophy to so much navel gazing. At the time, my tender impressionability had me in the court of my professor who demanded his acquaintance (and by extension, us students) “show philosophy some respect.” Well, obviously I’m not that into it anymore. The truth was in the middle.

Now I don’t advocate a wholesale condemnation of the entirety of western philosophy to the effete wastelands, but I will advocate the taking of most of philosophy with a discerning grain of salt, as there are very strict limits to the utility and personal-growth value of anything theoretical especially when juxtaposed (rightfully) against its corresponding applied study. We’re just not far enough removed from the Jungel for the theoretical to matter that much. Again, that’s not to write off the theoretical—it got us to the moon, gave us modern medicine, and immanentized representative democracy (for all its flaws)—but where the rubber meets the road, only the applied matters. This is truly where we ought to focus our energies.

But I digress. TLDR: Purpose: reproduce; Meaning: None, unless you make it.

Editor’s note: That this diatribe (not unlike many others found here and in my head) is, in its very nature, theoretical, is an irony not lost on me. This is where I go to spin my wheels. Thanks for stopping by.

The Naiveté of Universal Suffrage

Candidates running on openly socialist platforms are actually getting votes these days. It seems communism has again reared its ugly head. I’m beginning to think it’s one of those things that crops up semi-centurially. We’ve all been warned that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it, and yet we can’t help ourselves. It’s a big in the human code. For those of us who can recall (or read) history, we understand the implications of such ideas. Fortunately, ‘red fever’ isn’t much more than a perennial nuisance and merely needs extirpated as a matter of course.

That being said, I often get to thinking about the pitfalls of (near) universal suffrage. This consummately Democratic principle is a beautiful thought, but like socialism, is not sustainable in practice. Every civilization in recorded human history that has utilized an electorate has discriminated in one manner or another between those who should be allowed to vote and those who should not. Not even in ancient Greece, the nation upon which our very Democracy is founded, did not have universal suffrage. We are no different. For instance, we discriminate based on age. Those under the age of eighteen may not vote. It’s in the constitution. We also don’t allow prisoners to vote, and most people don’t argue the efficacy of such criminality-based discrimination. Thus, the debate is not over whether discrimination is acceptable (clearly it is), the debate is over what kind of discrimination is acceptable.

It’s  certainly a tough question, and for the longest time I’ve struggled to isolate what would be the most efficient way to separate those with an eye for the future and those who see only two feet in front of their noses. There needs to be some determinant of responsible voting.

What is responsible voting? It’s the opposite of self-interested voting. It’s all too easy to vote for the candidate who vows to give you whatever it is you want whenever it is you want it. Unfortunately, what is immediately beneficial to you is almost never what is beneficial to the nation (and thus, to you) in the long term. If you’re in prison serving a life sentence, and one candidate is tough on crime (which is undeniably good for the nation in the long term), and the other candidate says “I’ll let ya out!”, why would you vote for anyone else?

I watched a video recently from what appeared to be the late 70s or early 80s. A reporter was asking young Americans (high school age, early college?) what they thought about the politics of the time, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of maturity in their demeanor. Their responses may not have been the most profound, but the questions were at least taken seriously, and the young students actually put in some thought to their responses. They even managed to string together a number of sentences without the ‘like’s and ‘um’s characteristic of a newer generation. And they certainly weren’t distracted by their dadgum phone. These young adults seemed responsible.

A suffrage exam ought to be implemented to separate those who are capable and willing to vote responsibly from those who cannot or will not. This should include history questions about socialist nations and their unsavory ends. If a prospective voter cannot say, for example, what was the result of the Soviet Union in terms of human capital, then perhaps they should not have the right to vote. The suffrage exam should also evaluate candidates voter fitness based on ethics and instincts, not unlike the way most law enforcement cadets are evaluated.

There may have been a time in the past where an eighteen year old could reasonably be expected to possess the maturity necessary to help steer the ship of government away from the craggy shoals of communism and deficit spending, but it doesn’t seem that way today. In any case, it won’t matter because one inherent advantage to the suffrage test is that it does not discriminate based on age. In fact, it doesn’t discriminate on any basis save for the individual voter’s concern for the long-term health of their nation.

And there really is no excuse not to be a responsible voter; never before has access to education been so universal. Free online college courses, Ubiquitous Wi-Fi, “smart” phones in every pocket (notice those sassy quotes). All it really takes is either the God-given instinct for sussing out bullshit, or the self-made determination to separate the pearls of wisdom from the dross. So ask yourself, if a person has neither of these qualities, should they have the responsibility of voting? It’s a perfect system; a naturally filtering mechanism.