Civility, Barbarity, Conspiracy: Critical Theory and Conspiracy Theories

In Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007), Timothy Fitzgerald argues that the modern category of religion emerged in the meeting between (Christian) colonial powers and the subjugated Other:

far from being a kind of thing or an objective and observable domain around which an industry of scholarship can flourish, religion is a modern invention which authorises and naturalises a form of Euro-American secular rationality. In turn, this supposed position of secular rationality constructs and authorises its ‘other’, religion and religions” (Fitzgerald 2008: 6)

Significantly, Fitzgerald points to the power relations that define one or another way of thinking about the world as “religious” or “non-religious”:

from our own postcolonial standpoint, it should be easier for us to question the idea that, whereas other, less-advanced peoples are permeated with ritualism and therefore with a ‘religious’ world view, we in Anglophone cultures do not ‘do’ ritual, except minimally in church. I ask, rhetorically but with serious theoretical intent, why should the legal procedures and taboos surrounding our courts and ideals of justice, our separation of the branches of government, our concept of private property, the practices of the stock exchange and the capital markets, the traditions of the civil services, be considered ‘nonreligious’, but the practices of divination, or the Islamic sharia, or the generic potlatch of various indigenous American peoples, or Buddhist meditation be assigned to the ‘religion’ basket? … Is the queen of England, who is supposedly head of a secular state, but who is also head of a national religion, to be treated as a religious or a secular functionary? (ibid, 38)

Conspiracy theories remain “stigmatised knowledge” in scholarship. This is illustrated perfectly by the observation that there is no scholar of conspiracism who is openly a subscriber of conspiracy theories as many religious studies scholars are of their religious backgrounds are, or queer studies of their sexuality, etc.

A critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would require us to examine why certain versions of rationality are set apart and denied further investigation by scholars, but not others. If we challenge some non-scientific worldviews, but not others, in whose interests are we acting? We must question why some epistemological positions get a ‘free pass’—like Christianity—but others do not—like conspiracy theories. In terms of sheer numbers, such popular views may have more support than the ‘real religions’; for example, a little over 1% of the US population are Muslim, whereas according to a 2013 Pew survey, 4% believe in Reptilians. Only one of these is considered worthy of serious consideration, however.

The category ‘conspiracy theory’ can be seen as part of this same discourse on civility and barbarity. It emerged at a time where consensus was the prime concern in political discourse, and the parties moved increasingly towards the centre, and each other. Perhaps the clearest example of this rhetoric at work is George Bush’s statement following 9-11; “Let us not tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories…” Why not? Why should we not want to hear from those who disagree? The reason is that conspiracy theories are that which we are not permitted to think—because We, by implication, are the civilised, rational ones. Yet other non-scientific ideas go unchallenged, even constitutionally defended, such as the notion that a deity incarnated part of itself in order to be killed and thereby remove “sin”, or that the constitution of a particular country is inviolable, or that all humans have a universal set of rights, etc.

When scholars look at conspiracy theories without a critical lens (here or here, for two examples just from this week), in many respects we are doing what Tylor, Muller, Frazer and the other armchair anthropologists did in the 19th century when they encountered the Other—romanticising themselves against colonial rationality. We strive to explain why they think differently from us. We seek to explain their ideas symbolically, or explain them away as a result of deprivation, lack of critical ability, lack of cognitive faculty, etc. Above all, we stress that they ‘believe’, while we ‘know’—beliefs being knowledge we don’t approve of. We describe the primitive minds of the periphery back to the sophisticated, discerning minds of the colonial centre. Perhaps all that has changed is that in the globalised world, the primitive periphery and the sophisticated centre co-exist in the same physical space.

As social scientists, should we continue to uncritically position white, Western, male rationality as intrinsically superior to other epistemologies? A truly critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would mean us moving away from studying the content of conspiracy theories and instead examine the context in which such claims are being made, and by whom. It would mean that rather than examine why some people hold unusual views, we would need to ask for whom are such views unusual or extreme. Why these views only, and not other such illogical or unfalsifiable views? If we cannot do that, then we are not disinterested scholars, but are taking a side in the modern discourse on civility and barbarity.

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Thoughts on Children in New Religions (reblogged)

By David G. Robertson As Susan Palmer argued in her opening keynote at the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and Violence in Bedford last week, children are often the focus of particular attention within millenarian groups. As Mary Douglas argued, this is because the child is conceived of as the embodiment of the group’s ideals. The…

via Thoughts on Children in New Religions — Contemporary religion in historical perspective

The Week in Conspiracy, 30 August 2016

A review of Holy Hell, a documentary by Will Allen about his years in the Buddhafield, a Californian group led by hypnotherapist Michel. It seems like the tone is relatively even-handed, which means that this will be of interest to scholars like me, as well as the use of archival footage. I say “relatively even-handed” however as I have yet to see it, and there is certainly a slightly sensationalist tone to the trailer. Ideas of sexual misconduct are, of course, the standard accusation in the construction of malevolent Otherness, and has been since the Classical world, and financial misconduct is another. Nevertheless, they do happen, and there have been a number of recent documentaries (“Going Clear”, “The Family”) which trade on the “corrupt leader and his brainwashed stooges” model, which is worrying. As religious identities become more polarised, are we seeing a return to the media universally constructing new religions as dangerous cults?

Richard Bartholomew has an interesting piece of the growing presence of the more outlandish conspiracy theories in American evangelism, entitled “Jim Bakker and the David Ickeization of Christianity”:

Pentecostalism has a strong sense of the other-worldly, and its emphasis on spiritual forces sometimes means a readiness to accept claims about “occult” and Satanic conspiracies. Sometimes, pop-culture science-fiction elements may be incorporated, such as the idea that UFOs are visions of demons. However, the extravagance of the conspiracy theories now being promoted by Bakker are closer to the realms of David Icke’s imaginings than the exhortations of old-time religion or even the old conspiracy theories that were dusted off and made less overtly anti-semitic by Bakker’s old employer Pat Robertson in 1991.

James Carrion has new evidence suggesting a larger role in the UFO story for the Joint Security Control, a strategic deception unit formed during WW2 and answerable directly to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A revised charter allowing them to operate in peacetime, as well as wartime, come into operation in May 1947, immediately preceding the original wave of “flying saucer” sightings. A long, very detailed, but fascinating read for anyone interested in the historical development of the UFO narrative, and its origins. At http://historydeceived.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/human-deception-at-playduring-ufo-wave.html

The week in conspiracy

Via xkcd.com – Thanks Krittika

 

Donald Trump says he will attempt to release redacted information on 9-11 if elected – “Americans deserve answers and I would definitely request a new investigation so that this horrible tragedy never happens again”.

David Icke appears on the Richie Allen Show – a show that he funds – and gets a positive response. He talks mostly about his new book, The Phantom Self. Then, again, the next week, following Terry Wogan’s death. 

Meanwhile, the first episode of the new series of the X-Files uses Icke’s “problem-reaction-solution”, coming from the mouth of a character based on Alex Jones and Glenn Beck. Which is ironic as Glenn Beck is essentially a character based on Alex Jones.

The Week in Conspiracies

My New Year’s resolution is to get my blog back on track. So let’s do it! What’s been happening in the conspiracist world?

Well, for one,  published an unusually balanced piece in the Guardian, entitled The truth is rushing out there: why conspiracy theories spread faster than ever. It is strongly from the psychological angle – which is to say, conspiracy theories are a way of thinking, but at least it is not presented here as a necessarily aberrant way of thinking. Because if it is, then psychology and religion and many other ways of thinking that posit unprovable primum mobiles are aberrant too:

For Ryan… [a] world that pitted him against the forces of evil had all the appeal of a spy drama. But real life was less like a story – and in some ways more depressing. What does he think are the forces that really shape things? “Most of what is wrong in the world nowadays – well, I would put it down to incompetence and greed. A lack of compassion.”

A more typical report at Epiphenom, which argues that people make more appeals to conspiracy theories when they feel they have less control of their environment. Which almost certainly applies to much more than just CTs – millennialism, for one, and jingoism for another, and ‘religion’, whatever it is. The problem is, as with much psychological work on CTs, is that it assumes we know what a CT is. We might as well say “People are prepared to accept different evidence the more desperate they get.” Which is obviously true, but doesn’t tell us a great deal.

This blog post explores the connections between CTs and religious ideas. Not academic, but good to see this idea spreading beyond the academy.