As our hero is manhandled into the headquarters of the sinister organization he’s been investigating, he finally comes face-to-face with Mr. Big who is – wait for it – the trusted government official who was his friend and mentor. Conspiracy is the theme of a hundred movies and a modern archetype. We never tire of it and are even more enthralled when it leaps off the screen and dangles a tantalizing mystery before our real-life noses.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that we’re fascinated by the thought of an unseen at the controls. To believe in conspiracy theories is to reject the more frightening possibility that misfortune is down to uncontrolled factors like chance, randomness or incompetence. In other words, conspiracy theories offer the (usually false) assurance that somebody, somewhere is in charge.
To understand why our society is so fond of conspiracy theories, it helps to look at not just what arises, but when. The grand-daddy of our current crop would appear, at first, to be the assassination of John F. Kennedy. But a decade earlier, conspiratorial thinking was encouraged by the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950’s and seeds may have been sown even before that with the surprise attack on Peal Harbour. Pearl Harbour, Kennedy’s assassination and more recently the 911 attacks left people feeling shocked, vulnerable and wondering how such a thing could happen. Wondering how it could happen can lead to wonder how the eminent They (who govern us) could let it happen and there’s the rub.
When we start to question how “They” could “let” crises like these occur, we’re faced with a quandary. Do we give up the belief that our “They” is all powerful and accept that our movers and shakers can miss or mess up on something so important? Or do we preserve our confidence in their abilities by seeing them as devious rather than incompetent? There’s a third option, too. Maybe the ones who screwed up aren’t the real They, and there’s a different Them out there who’ve been in charge all along.
Explaining downfall through conspiracy rather than vulnerability is nothing new. A few centuries ago we didn’t need government conspirators; we had the Devil as our unseen hand. In stories, heroes who don’t always succeed are often brought down by betrayal to explain how someone so strong and wise could get into trouble. But conspiracy theories don’t just address the image of those we look up to, they also deal with how well situations themselves can be controlled. If an action is taken deliberately by specific individuals, the problem can be solved by removing the villains or changing their minds.
Conspiracy Theories can be a reaction against the loss of personal power, too. They are extremely inclusive, especially in today’s information age. Few of us can participate directly on the world or national stage. Conspiracy chasing might relieve some people’s disappointment at feeling impotent or anonymous because assembling and trading clues FEELS like being part of something important and meaningful.
Conspiracy Theories are not inevitable; they come in to fill a gap. Toppled heroes are replaced by villains. Scant information is completed with conjecture and loss of power in one place shifts it to somewhere else. Conspiracy theories are a rebellion against non-understanding and non-power for those who, like the famous X-File slogan, “ want to believe”.