What's Tony Thinking

Setting the Conspiracy Captivated Free


Last week I wrote a piece titled “Healing Our Divisions” in which I cited to journalist David French and the question he said he is now asked more than any other.

A person I love is deeply committed to conspiracies. What can I do?”

French drew on the work of Jonathan Haidt to say that those concerned about a friend or relative who has gone down the rabbit hole, need to remember that political argument or “just the facts, m’am” may not work well. Emphasize and build the relationship.

Well, apparently “de-programming” those captivated by the reigning conspiracies is a growing cottage industry. NPR had a report on this yesterday which featured a remarkable interaction between a “de-programmer” and a woman in Texas who has embraced the conspiracy world. Yesterday’s report, the first of a series on this topic, runs 11 minutes. It is definitely worth a listen.

Diane Benscoter, a de-programmer, spoke with Michelle Queen who is committed to at least some of the Qanon conspiracy. Benscoter is great at her job, in part because she’s been there. In the 80’s she got sucked into the world of the Unification Church, a.k.a. “the Moonies.” Remember them?

Benscoter works masterfully in this call at doing two things. She builds a relationship with Ms. Queen. And she respects Queen’s dignity and need to maintain it if she is to emerge from this cult — both elements that line-up with French’s argument.

With the NPR reporter Benscoter also discussed the motivations of those who get caught up in such conspiracies. “It [the cult/ conspiracy world) establishes this camaraderie and this feeling of righteousness and this cause for your life, and that feels very invigorating and almost addictive. You feel like you are fighting the battle for goodness, and all of a sudden, you feel like you are the hero.”

Those motives aren’t bad. They are, or can be, good. But they get twisted and manipulated. But it’s worth noting, as Benscoter, does that underneath it all is the desire to belong, to be on the side of good, and to be a hero in the struggle between good and evil — in short to have meaning in one’s life. That deep hunger is a valid one, one we can all understand and share. Moreover, it is one that modernity in its relentless attempt to scrub the world of mystery and larger meaning, has often ignored.

So, I was fascinated by how Benscoter went about her work. And fascinated as well that a new era of “deprogramming” is a growing business these days.

In addition to this NPR series on the topic, the NYT columnist Ross Douthat weighed in, yesterday as well, on the conspiracy topic. He was prompted to do so by those urging the Biden administration to create a “Reality Czar,” and “Department of Reality.” I get the impulse, but agree with Douthat that a “Reality Czar” is a bad idea. Instead, he offers a “too kit” for assessing fringe ideas.

Prior to suggesting four “tools,” Douthat notes two important caveats. One, conspiracy theories have been with us a long time and always will be. Two, sometimes they contain some truth that the “consensus” view doesn’t want to hear or consider. Here’s Douthat.

” . . . education won’t be effective if it tells a too simplistic story, where all consensus claims are true and all conspiracy theories empty. In reality, a consensus can be wrong, and a conspiracy theory can sometimes point toward an overlooked or hidden truth . . . If you tell people not to listen to some prominent crank because that person doesn’t represent the establishment view or the consensus position, you’re setting yourself up to be written off as a dupe or deceiver whenever the consensus position fails or falls apart.”

While Qanon does not appear to offer even a smidgen of “overlooked or hidden truth,” Douthat’s point remains valid. And his “tool kit” is a good one, but probably more helpful to what French calls “the conspiracy curious,” than to the hard-core, “conspiracy-committed.” I’ll leave it to you to link to the full article if you’re interested in his “tools.”

What French, Benscoter and Douthat all have in common, however, is a humane attempt to understand this phenomenon and those caught up in it. As gratifying as it may be to ridicule, mock or denounce those captive to conspiracies, that is a counter-productive strategy.

It reminds me of berating those experiencing dementia with arguments like, “Mom, that’s just not reality. Dad isn’t coming to see you. He’s dead. You just have to accept that!” Maybe you, like me, have been there on that one. Dealing with those suffering dementia is not quite the same, but there’s some analogy and cross-over wisdom.

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