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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The Week in Conspiracy, 25/8/2017

The latest Week in Conspiracy is out! Read it here – https://paper.li/d_g_robertson/1502115472#/

Media of UFOs, Conspiracy Theories and the New AgeBut wait! Before you go, let me tell you that my book came out in paperback this week! If you have been waiting because the hardback was too expensive, now you can get it for about £25. Get it here, or your local Amazon (not forgetting to use the Religious Studies Project affiliate link so we get some money back off The Man).

Pizzagate and the Luciferian Agenda

On 7th April, I presented a paper at the CenSAMM conference, Violence and Millenarian Movements, at the Panacea Trust in Bedford. My paper was entitled Pizzagate and the Luciferian Agenda, and you can watch the whole thing below. Here’s the abstract:

In November and December 2016, online accusations of a paedophile ring operating out of a Washington pizza restaurant led to the arrest of Edgar Welch (28) after threatening staff and firing several shots in an apparent attempt to liberate “child sex slaves”. This panic, known as pizzagate, began when leaked emails from Hillary Clinton’s aide, Mike Podesta, were suggested to contain coded language by a number of users on web forums, who began to elaborate upon the narrative until it was widely taken as evidence of a nationwide satanic paedophile ring involving numerous politicians and other power brokers. It is rare is for a conspiracy theory such as this to escalate into violence so quickly, but two things are of particular interest here. First, this ties into the satanic ritual abuse scare of the early 1990s – a phenomenon intimately tied to a Manichaean understanding of the world promoted by certain evangelical millenarian Christians. These ideas have been nurtured and promoted by high-profile independent broadcasters such as Alex Jones, for whom they are part of a sweeping millennial narrative in which a global (and sometimes cosmic) cabal of Luciferians seek to decimate the world’s population and enslave the remains.

I recorded three interviews which will appear on the Religious Studies Project in future, and a full report will appear in the BASR Bulletin next month.

[Updated 28/04/2017 – higher quality video added.]

The Week in Conspiracism, 30/05/2016

Bit of a backlog this week… And, yes I know that David Icke appeared on the Today Show with Andrew Neil – I’ll do a separate post about that soon…

For those interested in the American Right – http://www.vice.com/en_ca/video/inside-the-michigan-militia

So Conspiracist Dating is now a thing. I wish I’d known about this when I wrote my paper on conspiracist economics – http://www.avclub.com/article/hot-paranoid-singles-your-area-are-looking-you-awa-236587

There’s a positive review of Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds over at the Magonia blog. It examines the psychology of conspiracy theories, and looks like being both evenhanded and readable:

He argue that what separates them from real, established conspiracies is the lack of resolution; they are ongoing mysteries. More to the point perhaps is that what they have in common is the perception that the apparent world is an illusion, a false face. Behind the quotidian events of the world there is a “hidden hand”, a secret meaning and purpose. This is clearly a secularisation of the religious beliefs that either God or the Devil is behind the randomness of the world.

And finally, Alternet catches up with classic sociology from the early 1960s – http://www.alternet.org/belief/awkward-read-christian-doomsday-cults-excuse-why-world-didnt-end-they-predicted

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.