Conspiracy, Trust, and other Faith Stories
A dharma talk by
Dr Chris Hoff
Here we are in Los Angeles as, unfortunately, the pandemic continues to rage on. New mask mandates, rising hospitalizations, and new variants are all in the mix now. I recently heard this new wave described as a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Which can raise all kinds of emotions, because it doesn’t have to go down this way. From the beginning of the pandemic there has been a crisis of COVID 19 misinformation. Conspiracy theories of all kinds have delayed and hampered vaccination efforts. Throughout the pandemic there has been a distrust of science, institutions, and traditional news sources. This is all especially frustrating because I lost my father-in-law to COVID. He was one of the unbelievers, or conspiracy theorists, having his opinion shaped by Fox news and the like on a daily basis. I don’t know about you, but all of this has often left me with a sense of powerlessness, anger, sadness, or worse, a hopelessness about our human future together.
I do not think that I am exaggerating when I say that conspiracies of all kinds are a threat to our wellbeing, our relationships, and the planet we inhabit. And that the current ways we are dealing with them are not working. So my talk this morning is an effort to give the perspective of a therapist on how we might think about and begin to counter the culture of conspiracy. And as a Dharma teacher, I hope to also share a few spiritual tools that might help in this effort.
So, conspiracy theories. Let me start by taking the position that conspiracy theory is still theory, and that maybe it’s not great theory, but it’s still theory. And to situate my thinking on this topic Let me share with you a quote from contemporary French philosopher, Bruno Latour, who in his seminal paper titled Why Critique Has Run out of Steam? Touched on what we are facing currently. In this work Latour makes the comparison or points out the similarities between conspiracists and the popular teachable version of social critique you see everywhere today. A sort of critique, I use often.
He argues that quote, “In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say, because of course, we all know that they live in the thralls of complete illusion of their real motives. Then after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases, it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark, acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy-” and I’m going to put myself in that category, “We in the academy like to use more elevated causes like society discourse, knowledge/power, field of forces, empires, capitalism, while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation.”
In other words, when we say that there is racism, sexism, and white supremacy. The conspiracist accuses us of harboring our own conspiracy theories. They claim these things are made up. They do not exist. They use the tools of social critique to undo things of real importance like climate science or systemic racism, because like us, they’re claiming that the unforeseen forces at play aren’t there. Ultimately, we find ourselves stuck in the back and forth, going nowhere, while people die.
So Latour’s and my argument is that attempting to use our standard critical tools like deconstruction and reason against conspiracy theory is doomed to failure. This is one point I’m trying to make. When you’re trying to unravel conspiracy theory using a particular critical framework, that same framework can be used against your conceptualizations for the larger social construction of problems. I think this is where we find ourselves today, locked in this binary of us versus them. Our ideas versus theirs.
Let’s take a look at how conspiracy theories may take a hold of people. There’s many ideas around this, but I prefer a couple of conceptualizations. First, we live in complex times. Increasingly, people are being asked to respond to ever more challenging, complex and competitive conditions. These challenges can be quite overwhelming. This is where it would be helpful to know about epistemic trust or epistemic vigilance.
What is epistemic trust? It is an individual’s willingness to consider new knowledge as trustworthy and relevant and therefore worth integrating into our lives, and in contrast, epistemic mistrust is characterized by inflexible thinking patterns and a difficulty to learn from a social environment. Epistemic trust is historically and culturally embedded, and it ranges from micro social to macro social forms, so a wide range of social cultural conditions contributes or doesn’t contribute to who you find trustworthy as opposed to untrustworthy. Look at your own life, who do you find trustworthy? Who do you find untrustworthy? And how did that come to be? In the face of a complex world, which we definitely have right now, a world we all need help navigating. We look to folks, many we don’t even know or who don’t have any credible authority, for answers in how to make our way, what we can trust, and what we should be vigilant about. Of course, there’s a lot of in group dynamics at play here. Do they look like us, do they talk like us, and seemingly think like us? This is what makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories.
Another conceptualization I find interesting, is this new cocktail in our culture, of over statement of harm, Western individualism, a growing isolation in our society, and the hero’s journey metaphor. When this cocktail comes together, which it often does, believers feel themselves misunderstood and victimized, and that they are fighting the good fight that nobody recognizes. These sorts of narratives serve to paint the conspiracy theorist as a protagonist in a hero’s journey. This of course can be very intoxicating.
And finally, any good conspiracy theory works to drain any complexity from the scene, they tend to be very black and white, and it reduces people down to good or evil. When things are scary, it’s common to begin to really try to reduce complexity and make our world smaller, which can be problematic and make us more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and other problems, like depression and anxiety. Which research shows makes us more prone to conspiracy theory. Can you see the vicious cycle?
So, what can we do? Well, Adam Grant’s new book, Think Again, calls for the complexifying of issues, complexity as an antidote to the reductionist urge to single story people or events. Research also shows that what actually wins people over is deep listening, asking questions and appealing to values. So, although we are living in a time that values certainty, knowing and speed. Our hope lies in embracing uncertainty, not knowing, and a slowing down of the urge to have the answer, or really, to being right.
So how might we complexify? Well, understanding that people are multi-storied is a start. My father-in-law was many more things then a Trumper hooked onFox news. He was a father who raised wonderful daughters who have lived rich lives. He was a risk taker and always up for new experiences. And he was one of my biggest fans. Often saying that whatever I touched, turned to gold. Conspiracy theory like any good problem story has the ability to totalize an experience of the world. And if we are not careful, totalize those captured by their spell. This knowledge of my father-in-law, as frustrating as he could be, has allowed me to not fall victim to the idea of people as a single story. Most of the time.
How do we do deep listening? Implicit in any conspiracy theory are values, fears, beliefs, many things rendered important, if we are listening. We live in a world now that prizes certainty. To not have the answer, or a take, in a Twitter and Instagram world is unthinkable. We live in a time were arguably we can say there are more people talking than listening. Just examine your own social media feed. Just observe the current political discourse. It is my understanding that buried in the crisis we face is another crisis, a crisis of curiosity.
I recently read something by Arthur Frank, the author of the wounded storyteller, where he said: The primal task of any therapist is to convince the client that the therapist is prepared to be a new and different sort of listener. [That] the initial problem of therapy is whether and how the therapist can convince the client that he or she is in the presence of a new species of listener, and that relationship enables the client to become a new narrator.
I love that. A new species of listener. That is what I believe our world needs now, and what a spiritual practice can support. A new way of listening, a new way of being with people, something that just maybe, can restore trust.
In his writing, Buddhist Teacher Gil Fronsdal illustrates the power of careful listening by sharing a famous story from the Ramayana, an epic poem in the Hindu tradition. The story tells of Rama walking in the forest with some companions. When Rama starts hearing the faint whisper of a voice, he asks his companions if they can hear it. They say, “No.” Rama begins to walk towards the whisper. As he gets closer, he recognizes it is his name that is being spoken, “Rama…Rama.” As the voice becomes louder, his friends still say they can’t hear it. Finally, Rama comes to a large boulder from which the sound comes. He then places his two hands gently on the boulder. At this point the rock breaks open and inside is a person who has been stuck in the rock through a magic spell. By listening to the whisper, he was able to discover what was locked up and then release it.
Recently a fellow therapist asked me for some help in dealing with conspiracy theories that were coming up in the work with her clients. One conspiracy in particular she was having trouble with is called the agenda 21 conspiracy theory, which I hadn’t really heard of until she mentioned it to me. This conspiracy claims that the pandemic is part of the UN secret plan to depopulate the world. In an effort to help her I wrote down some quick questions with the intention to get at what was inside this rock (Rama’s rock). Because of the nature of this conspiracy, COVID as a plan to depopulate the world. I got curious about the values embedded in taking up that particular theory. Because I believe that embedded in any problem story are values and meanings that have been subjugated by the story, or theory. So, some questions I offered up included; It seems to me you have concern for people and their safety? And because this story is a UN type conspiracy theory, I might ask, are other cultures important to you? Hopefully, if we start to go down this line of inquiry, other questions might include, how did you come to appreciate other cultures? What was an early influence in this concern for others? I offered several other questions along the same line in an effort to get a better understanding. And I want to be clear here that this understanding is not in an effort of agreement but rather it simply is a means of generating curiosity about difference. With the understanding that respectful attempts to understand might foster new forms of what Sheila McNamee calls radical presence, coordinated activity and coordinated focused on tolerance of difference.
So, asking questions that make visible what others might be valuing, in attempt to find commonalities. Hard work for sure. But we are doing is not working. To quote Zen teacher John Tarrant; To hear the world is to love the world, is to lose yourself, is to keep company with people in the world.”
Nobody listens anymore. I believe when we listen deeply and practice curiosity with an open heart, we become bodhisattvas. Easing the suffering in the world perhaps just a little. Or maybe a lot.
I have argued that our hope lies in embracing uncertainty, not knowing, and a letting go of some of the tools of critique that have previously worked so well. That’s a big ask I know.
I want to close by sharing a bit about liminal space. For some time now we have all experienced imposed liminal space. We have been thrust into a restructuring of our lives that we didn’t ask for, or plan for. The world has, at a rapid pace, become increasingly more chaotic, and scary. Well, at least for me. This has made us all vulnerable to anyone with a good story and a sense of certainty. Who do we trust? Where do we put our faith?
Liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. These thresholds of waiting and not knowing our ‘next’ are everywhere in life and they are inevitable. Each ushers in a new chapter of life and holds varying degrees of disruption.
I think it’s clear now that the old ways of doing things are not working. We are rapidly losing our ability to be relational. The unknown new is out there to be discovered. If our liminal spaces are approached intentionally and within community, rather than staying paralyzed, running away or going at it alone, we can boldly approach it and confidently move forward into our futures. If we make friends with uncertainty, and abandon certainty, we are less at risk of being captured by conspiracy stories. What the world needs now is listeners and askers of good questions. The best advice is a good question.
If my Zen practice has taught me anything, it’s that we are all connected, or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we inter-are. You, me, and the conspiracy theorist.