It would be in a way a comfort–and also a terror–to think, “Well, that’s those people, it’s the way they think, we cannot stop them and there is no way to engage them.”
It’s true, there is no way to engage them–that is what this article shows about Lenny Pozner’s efforts to confront conspiracy theorists who deny that his child died at Sandy Hook. And there is no way to stop them through some force or power that we can muster.
What I think could do is start to recognize our connections to conspiratorial readings as well as our alienation from them. I know some of my close colleagues are less enamored than I am with some recent scholarly writing about the dangers of the “hermeneutics of suspicion”, and I take some of their points seriously.
But I do think that we have for almost fifty years been walking ourselves into a series of practices of reading the textual and cultural worlds around us as a series of visible clues to invisible processes. In some measure because that is the truth of those cultural worlds, in multiple ways. Texts have meanings that they do not yield up to an initial reading. They affect us in ways that are deferred, delayed, or mysterious. So we are right to pursue interpretations that look for how what is visible both produces invisible outcomes and is a sign of invisible circulations in the world.
It is also the truth that we are not witness to many of the moments that control our lives, and some of those are found in “the room where it happens”: in the private chambers of political and social power. But many more are nowhere to be found, produced out of the operations of complex systems that no one controls, in the arcs that fire between sociocultural synapses. We want desperately to see into both kinds of invisibility, and so we pore over the visible as a map to them.
We know that things persist which our society says we no longer profess. Racism, sexism, bias of many kinds, are visible, but you can’t trace them easily back to the visible text of political structure or even to deliberate professions of ideology, to intentional statements made willfully by individuals about how they will dispense the powers at their command. Steve Bannon is not Bull Connor, even if they have inside of them the same awful invisible edifice.
What this leads to–leads *us* to, as well as alt-right conspiracy theorists–is an assertion from the visible of the inevitability of the invisible, of a description of invisible specificity. I have listened to colleagues tell me with a straight face what happened in the room that I was in and they were not in, and have told them that what they’ve said is not even a permissible interpretation, it’s just wrong. To no avail: the people in question just kept telling the story of non-events as fact. I have listened at full faculty meeting to one faculty member offer a description of what happened in a process of decision-making which she was not part of, only to be contradicted by five other faculty members who were part of it, and to the describer insisting that what she said was true while also insisting that she wasn’t saying that what her colleagues had said was untrue. What she said had happened while they were not in that room–but there was no room that they had not been in.
I think we could all compile examples, and we’re tempted to just say: that’s just that person being silly. Or it’s just minor. Or it’s an aberrant result of psychological imbalance.
This is letting ourselves off too lightly. It’s deep in our bones: we have battered ourselves against the shell that hides the invisible, we have produced an escalating tower of knowledge that stretches ever further into the sky without ever finding the heaven of truth, and we’re tired. We know still that there are rooms and entire worlds where it happens and we’re tired of being happened to. So we search for a crack, a clue, a fragment, a trail. We detect, we investigate. We deduce, believing in Holmesian fashion that the remaining impossibilities must be the truth. We describe things that never happened in the belief that they must have, and we attribute things that happened in immanence, in the air that surrounds us and chokes us, to specific agents and specific locations, to the devils we can name.
We, we, we. And them. Not all invisibilities are alike, and the work of inventing some of them is, as Pozner puts it beautifully in working through his own trauma, smothering everything human. It is the same paradox of witchcraft-finding in southern Africa: the quest to locate and confront evil becomes the evil it sets out to fight. But we are not homo evidentius, fighting an alien subspecies of homo conspiratorius. This is another strain of an illness that we also suffer from.
“But we are not homo evidentius, fighting an alien subspecies of homo conspiratorius.”
In my working life I designed computer software and hardware systems for large enterprises. I worked as a part of team, but most of the time I was the team leader. In order to design a new system for an enterprise we had to understand what it did and how it did it, so we had a data collection step. We interviewed employees, asked the managers of the enterprises to tell us what they wanted the new system to accomplish. Everyone in the enterprise quickly understood that some people would be adversely affected by the new system. Some of them began to resist the design effort by giving us false information about the operational procedures and policies of the enterprise. It was a real problem. We had to quickly determine who could be trusted.
I develop, over time, two lists of behaviors. One was for those people whom we could trust and the other was for those whom could not be trusted. As I refined the list I learned that very often I could be correct to assume that a person who exhibited some behavior would be expected to exhibit a range of similar behaviors. I pretty much settled the lists in 1969, and I have used it ever since. It works, for me at least. I developed names for the people who fell into one category or the other. There are tyranni, who naturally work against the common good, and democrati, naturally work for it. Over time I observed that these lists worked in other places, even on Internet blogs, but even better on national political leaders.
But I observed that the two kinds of personalities, the two varieties of our species, have a predictable, and repeatable, relationship. I call it the Cycle of History.
• Tyranni naturally, aggressively push forward to take power.
• Democrati naturally, timidly step back to let them pass.
• Tyranni naturally use that power to indulge their selfish urges.
• Innocents (tyranni and democrati alike) suffer and die unnecessarily.
• A great commotion occurs—from elections to wars.
• Tyranni-outs seize power from tyranni-ins.
• Democrati, who make up the majority of our population, continue to suffer, but under new tyranno-rulers.
• And the cycle renews.
Scary, ain’t it?