The X-Files episode “Kitten” does something that many episodes in the rebooted series have done, namely delved deeper into the backstory of major characters to explore how those experiences shaped them. In this case, the focus is on Walter Skinner. The episode begins with experiences Skinner had in Vietnam, seeing his friend and fellow soldier John “Kitten” James exposed to an experimental chemical, and witnessing how it changed him from being terrified and overwhelmed with fear to a savage killer who cut off and collected the ears of those he killed. I won’t recount the entire episode, but rather want to highlight the way that Skinner speaks about his earlier uncorrupted faith/belief in his government that led him to enlist in the Marines. His experience in Vietnam put a dent in that trust in the government. And, in response to a question about whether his support for Mulder and Scully’s investigation of the X-Files had harmed his career, he talks about how they came along and helped him find the courage to shine a light into the darkest corners of what the government is involved in. He wouldn’t change that even if he could.
The episode revolves around the idea that MK Naomi (a follow-up to top secret experimental projects like MK Ultra) involved secret tests on unwitting subjects in an effort to make the military more effective, but also enact totalitarian control over human populations. Given that we know that conspiracies happen, but also given that we know that not all or even most conspiracy theories are correct, how do we navigate this challenging situation, balancing the need to trust and the need to distrust – trust and distrust the government, our fellow human beings, and ourselves?
The key, I think, is to recognize our penchant for idolatrous faith – faith in that which is less than ultimate. Our tendency is to substitute one idol for another as our focus. We cannot trust the government any longer, so we trust Fox News and Breitbart – or Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info. We cannot trust science and medicine any longer, so we trust websites that encourage us to undergo “cleanses” and avoid “toxins” (if we are liberals) or to embrace young-earth creationism (if we are conservatives). The same approach to conspiracy thinking is at the heart of the flat earth movement, the anti-vaccination movement, and other forms of science denial, as is central to belief that the government is doing things involving alien technology or chemtrails (which feature prominently in the episode, especially its ending). At the heart of it all is the belief that people are capable of uncaring cruelty, extreme ambition for power, and the capacity to effectively cover it up almost perfectly. But even more central, reflected in that “almost,” is the belief that one is oneself of superior morals and insight and can see through the cover up and the attempt at manipulation.
Yet how effectively do these conspiracy theorists do what Skinner advises, and courageously shine a light not only into corners of government, but corners of the media and internet that they think are exposing cover-ups, and the dark corners of their own minds and hearts? When people who have no direct connection with government insist that they know the truth about what it is up to, that is not insight but arrogance, of precisely the sort that allegedly leads the dystopian scenarios that conspiracy theorists talk about.
I am not sure that there is any solution to the harm that conspiracy thinking does, other than to shine a light courageously not only in the direction of others as objects of our distrust, but also within – and to allow others to peer in and tell us honestly what they see there, which we may not see or may be unwilling to acknowledge.
I felt that the episode conveyed this point fairly well, when Davey James (the son of Skinner’s friend) is killed when he gets caught in his own trap. And of course, already in the episode he had become the very kind of killer that the government had supposedly turned his father into. His father had seen other human beings as monsters and become comfortable with killing them; Davey had donned a monster costume and was prepared to kill in a similar way.
The same kinds of things happen to conspiracy theorists, as they create (or at least contribute to the creation of) precisely the horrific world that they think they are opposing, sowing distrust and hatred that makes human beings more and not less prone to manipulation by powers that be, and more rather than less likely to become involved with forces that reflect malevolent and selfish intent.
For if you can trust no one, then (as the opening words of the episode stated) “a war is never over.”