As anyone could have predicted, my recent article about Trump being another Obama has been getting some backlash from both sides of America’s imaginary partisan divide, which is fine. What I found interesting though is which factions within those groups have found the idea most offensive.
The Trump supporters and Democrats who have been most upset by my argument that the current president is advancing the same policies and agendas as his predecessors are the ones who are most deeply invested in conspiracy theories. The notion that Trump is nothing special is inoffensive to people whose worldviews are more or less informed by the mundane facts in evidence, but to those who have been spending a lot of time down conspiratorial rabbit holes on either side of the partisan divide it shows up as an outrageous heresy.
For conspiracy-minded Democrats, I was suggesting that a presidency they happened to like was the same as that of a Kremlin-colluding traitor who is hell bent on turning America into a totalitarian fascist state to please his master Putin. For conspiracy-minded Trump supporters, I was saying that a presidency they happened to dislike is the same as that of a populist hero who, according to the periodic 4chan updates of an anonymous insider with Q-level security clearance, is fighting the deep state to provide freedom and democracy to the American people. For everyone else, the notion that another US president is acting a lot like his predecessors is far less outlandish.
The concept of reality tunnels was popularized by psychonauts Robert Anton Wilson and Timothy Leary in their attempt to describe the way human beings have a unique set of cognitive filters which necessarily determines the way that they will perceive and interpret their experience of the world. Belief systems and mental habits, along with the habits of perception and attention that those belief systems and mental habits give rise to, mean that we’ll all notice different things when we walk into a room, for example, and form different ideas about the things we perceive. In this way, we’re all perceiving reality through our own unique “tunnels”, giving us all a unique experience of the world.
The way conspiracy theorists talk about rabbit holes so much (QAnon’s viral hashtag was even #FollowTheWhiteRabbit for a while) has always reminded me of this concept. Indeed, when you espouse a conspiracy theory and take it on as a real representation of reality, you are in fact creating a new reality tunnel for yourself. By plunging into the narratives being promulgated by the likes of Louise Mensch and Rachel Maddow, for example, it’s possible to immerse yourself in a world full of connected dots and “what really happened” narratives to the point where you suddenly find yourself in a nation whose government has been infiltrated at the highest levels by a hostile autocrat whose only opposition is a plucky band of patriots in the US intelligence community. You will laugh hysterically at the fools who don’t see what you see, and accuse those who dispute it of being Kremlin agents.
This is because you have constructed a reality tunnel for yourself which espouses a large array of pre-constructed beliefs and assumptions, and causes you to shut your eyes to information which contradicts them. By taking on an entire belief system as true and real, you have given your field of perception tunnel vision. This is an unwholesome way to relate to a conspiracy theory.
The healthy way to hold a conspiracy theory is in an open palm, the way the cute little white rabbit is being held in the feature image of this article. If you grab it tightly and imbue it with the power of belief, you’re stuck with it, and it’s stuck with you. Good contradictory information can’t get in, and bad validating information can’t get out. Your reality tunnel contracts around those tightly-held beliefs, and the poor little bunny is being suffocated. Open those fingers and simply allow the conspiracy theory to be a collection of ideas which may or may not be true, and you’ve got a cool way of looking at things that you can pick up and cuddle when you want to without limiting your ability to take in and process information.
Hold it loose, but not so loose that it can be slapped out of your hand by someone who rushes in saying “Durr, that’s a conspiracy theory!” That’s all you really need; the personal confidence to be able to say “Nah, I’ll be hanging on to this one thanks, though I remain open to new information and robust arguments. If you find any, do let me know.” All you need is confidence in your own ability to process information for yourself and assign probabilities to what you reckon is going on without imbuing any of it with the power of belief.
I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next gal, but I hold them in an open palm. If someone wants to believe in Russiagate or QAnon I totally respect that, just don’t come in trying to indoctrinate me into any belief system about them or I’ll find you as annoying as an intrusive Jehovah’s Witness.
An important part of becoming sufficiently clear-eyed to fight the machine is refining your ability to interpret information and events skillfully. You want to develop your mental agility so that you are able to let go of old, unhelpful ideas and allow new ones in to navigate through this strange propaganda-soaked world like an ape using branches to move from tree to tree across the jungle canopy. As your ability to process information and events skillfully improves, so will your ability to respond to them.
In a world that is saturated in establishment propaganda, you have only two choices: learn to see through it, or plug in and believe it. The latter is easy, the former is hard. But we can help each other along the path to getting better at it every day.
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