December 23, 2010

Conspiracy Fears At Fever Pitch

Tanveer Ahmed
December 21, 2010
The Sydney Morning Herald

It was the ultimate post-modern attack, the crash of planes into one of New York's most recognisable landmarks, recorded in bursting colour by television on September 11, 2001.

The ideas underpinning the attacks could be explained by the tremendous force of conspiracy theory. In al-Qaeda's case, its belief that the trajectory of world affairs and modern history in general could, in part, be explained by the West's desire to dominate Muslims.

In the classification of conspiracy theories, the belief is not unlike that of Hitler and National Socialism, for it sought to explain economic and political problems in a specific group's perceived exploitation of another.

Advertisement: Story continues below The year is ending with WikiLeaks, the release of diplomatic cables which, for the most part, are rather bland and show US diplomats essentially doing their job. But perhaps the greater significance of the leaks will be to reinforce a view among many that the world's levers are pulled by a shadowy elite seeking to deceive or oppress the majority for their own ends.

To further bookend the arc of a decade through the lens of conspiracy, both WikiLeaks and the September 11 attacks are now being linked by some, albeit fringe, elements who see Julian Assange's arrest as part of a plot to ensure the truth about the World Trade Centre attacks is not exposed.

In the mid-1990s, the American sociologist Ted Goertzel surveyed thousands of residents across the United States to appraise their acceptance or rejection of popular conspiracy theories. Goertzel identified three traits that correlated with such beliefs.

They were the experience of anomia - the respondent stated that he or she felt alienated or disaffected by "the system", a tendency to distrust others and a feeling of insecurity regarding continued employment.

Goertzel concluded that conspiracy theories served to provide an enemy to blame for problems that otherwise appeared too abstract and impersonal. They also provided ready answers for the believer's unanswered questions and helped to resolve contradictions between known "facts" and an individual's belief system.

We live at a time where the factors that make people vulnerable to conspiracy theories are arguably at their peak. The notion of anomie could be measured by the massive uptake in psychological services and the growing proportion of people living alone. The decline in trust could be measured by our decades-long fall in joining civic groups, as outlined by the professor turned federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh in his book Disconnected. And modern work has shifted, perhaps permanently, to a more casual, liquid relationship between employer and employee, a trend exacerbated by the financial crisis.

This bodes poorly for the prospect of reason trumping emotion and fear in public debate. For all the pundits that decried the vacuity of debate surrounding our recent federal election, perhaps the politicians and their advisers were just acting sensibly. As the former premier Bob Carr told me recently, it is an enormous political risk these days for a political leader or party to really stand for something.

A closely related theory is that of cognitive dissonance, pioneered by a psychologist in the 1950s, who followed a housewife who was convinced the apocalypse was coming after she received messages from aliens. Leon Festinger followed the housewife and her many followers to see their reaction when the date of the apocalypse, December 21, arrived. On the night of December 20, they assembled in the housewife's home only to find there were no aliens.

While some of the group cried in disappointment, their trusty leader informed them that she just received a new telegram from outer space that the group's gathering and stubborn faith had flooded the world with such goodness that it prevented the apocalypse. The group became more emboldened in its beliefs thereafter.

In other words, the notion of dissonance is that we have a tendency to react to being proven wrong by becoming even more certain that we are right.

In our information age this problem is getting worse, for the internet can allow us to find "evidence" for almost any belief, promoting a Balkanisation of our society. This is already apparent in the fragmentation of media consumption.

There is no doubt WikiLeaks and Assange are worth celebrating. Their computing brilliance has resulted in some of the era's best journalism exposes. But the idea that there is some new transparency that is shifting the relationship between governments and the citizenry is far fetched. What is more likely is that a more fractured, tense engagement between opposing sides is now the new norm, promoted by rigid views on all sides reinforced by their equally blinkered media supporters. The psychological basis for this is a greater preponderance for conspiracy theory and its mental ally, cognitive dissonance. The information age is merely making the voice of reason more stifled and more relative.

If Tony Abbott believes he can be more polite and civilised next year in political debate, I wish him luck. History may not be on his side.