Arguing With The Maniac or The Futility of Debunking Conspiracy Theories

Jim Jamitis // Posted at 5:00 pm on June 01, 2017

I suppose conspiracy theories have always been a part of politics but I don’t remember a time where they were as prevalent as today. The internet and the need to fill 24 hours seven days a week with news coverage that people want to watch certainly contributes to their popularity, but on an individual level what draws people in to these often weird or crazy theories about how the world works?

The left and the right are equally guilty of believing crazy stuff. During the Clinton administration there were theories about the death of Vince Foster, the pending Y2K bug had some speculating that Clinton would use that as an excuse to declare martial law and seize more power. Under Clinton and Obama there were some who were at least somewhat convinced that the Democrat would concoct some rationale for suspending elections and refusing to relinquish the White House.

And let’s not forget that Hillary Clinton famously proclaimed that tales of her husband’s infidelity and perjury were just part of a “vast right wing conspiracy.” The left incessantly riles its base with affirmations that this or that Republican policy is intended to starve children, dirty the air and water, or make the rich richer by stealing from the poor.

Today the Black Lives Matter movement is driven by the notion that there is a conspiracy among police to murder innocent black people. Sean Hannity is currently popularizing the theory that a DNC staffer was murdered for leaking information about the party. The clandestine revenge killing is presumably being kept hidden by the same people who hand out their password (which is literally ‘PASSWORD’) to unknown people via email.

The entire probe into Russia meddling with our election is a conspiracy theory concocted to delegitimize an election that didn’t go the Democrats’ way. Their defeated candidate even this week is blaming another vast right wing conspiracy for her loss. (This time it has gone international.) The man who defeated her began his march toward the White House by reigniting the birther conspiracy.

It’s actually difficult to find anyone seriously discussing policy instead of just dueling with conspiracy theories. What used to be the imaginings of fringe lunatics have now been turned into tactical political weapons.

In the early days of the web I was one of those people who debated politics with strangers on various message boards. It was a lot like Facebook and Twitter today except there were far fewer casual participants and more diehards. That was when I first interacted with people with morbidly warped ideas about how the world works.

Whether it was reading the newspaper as if it were a companion to biblical end times prophecies or trying to convince the “sheeple” of the machinations of the Bilderbergs and the Illuminati, I realized that there were people who were serious about this stuff. This is also when I realized that they all had a knack for twisting any evidence against their theory into absolute proof for it.

For many I still believe that it is a form of mental illness—a cocktail of paranoia and narcissism. The paranoia feeds the conspiracy fears while the belief that they are one of the select few who knows what’s really going on is a powerful ego boost.

For others it is the desire to find a silver bullet to bring down a political enemy with one shot rather than with a tedious debate over ideas. Birtherism was that for some people on the right. George W. Bush “stealing” the election in 2000 was that for people on the left. There’s definitely an element of that now with the Russia hysteria. The Democrats want to impeach Trump so badly that they’ll never stop looking for a reason. All of these were/are transparent attempts to upend the Monopoly board by those who are currently losing.

My instinct has always been to reject conspiracy theories outright, primarily because I believe conspiracy theories grossly overestimate the competence of the people and organizations involved. Sure, there are government agencies that can and do keep secrets but the network of conspirators proposed by conspiracy theorists always extends far beyond those closed groups.

What really solidified my thinking on conspiracy theories and theorists was reading G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. In chapter 3, under the heading “The Maniac,” Chesterton analyzes the workings of a mind prone to conspiracy theories. It seems counterintuitive but Chesterton writes that it isn’t a lack of reason that afflicts these minds but rather a lack of imagination, an inability to conceive of anything outside their theory.

The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

The futility of arguing with a conspiracy theorist lies in the logical consistency that they maintain by refusing to address larger questions or possibilities.

The madman’s explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory. Or, to speak more strictly, the insane explanation, if not conclusive, is at least unanswerable; this may be observed specially in the two or three commonest kinds of madness. If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours. Or if a man says that he is the rightful King of England, it is no complete answer to say that the existing authorities call him mad; for if he were King of England that might be the wisest thing for the existing authorities to do. Or if a man says that he is Jesus Christ, it is no answer to tell him that the world denies his divinity; for the world denied Christ’s.

Nevertheless he is wrong. But if we attempt to trace his error in exact terms, we shall not find it quite so easy as we had supposed. Perhaps the nearest we can get to expressing it is to say this: that his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle. A small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large. In the same way the insane explanation is quite as complete as the sane one, but it is not so large.

In my experience, Chesterton’s analysis holds up. Whether you’re talking to a birther, a 9/11 truther, or a run of the mill global warming alarmist, you’ll find that keeping the scope of the debate small and contained is how they—at least in their own mind—win an argument.

The lunatic’s theory explains a large number of things, but it does not explain them in a large way. I mean that if you or I were dealing with a mind that was growing morbid, we should be chiefly concerned not so much to give it arguments as to give it air, to convince it that there was something cleaner and cooler outside the suffocation of a single argument.

I’ve tried to take that approach when talking with conspiracy minded folks. It’s a taller order than it appears at first though. One man’s “suffocation” is another man’s cozy shelter against the chemtrails. As you run up against ideas like those described above, resist the urge to rebut arguments fact by fact. It probably won’t work. Try to convince people that the world is bigger than their argument. Sadly, that probably won’t work either, but it has a better chance and it’s less infuriating.