Why I reflect on conspiratorial thinking

I’ve written quite a bit here about conspiracy theories and the sort of thinking that leads to and reinforces them. It might seem like I’m just patting myself on the back, admiring myself in the mirror. “Look at me. Yay me! Thank you so much, O Lord, that I’m not like that ridiculous, pathetic little tax collector over there.”

I don’t want to defend myself too strenuously. I’ve had to fight actively against the temptation to be prideful since childhood, and I have no doubt that there may be an element of that still haunting my musings about the thought processes at work behind conspiracy theories. But I can confidently say that at the very least, that’s not my whole motivation. Certainly, that’s not the most important or valuable element of it.

My mindset is something much closer to, “There but by the grace of God go I.” I see myself reflected back at me in all the friends I see conspiratorial thinking in. The sorts of people who think like this are more similar to me than are most of the people who oppose them. I recognize many of the ways I have thought and talked, even in relatively recent years, in their positions and arguments.

Sometimes, observing a vicious person can be as much of an inspiration to self-improvement as observing a virtuous person. Seeing your own vices reflected back to you in a slightly more advanced form, or in a situation that emphasizes their destructive consequences, can be a real wake-up call.

As I’ve been reflecting on the problems revealed in the thinking of a conspiratorial view of the world, I’ve necessarily been re-examining the ways I myself think. It’s a natural thing to do; as we articulate the problems with another person’s thought process, we can’t help scouring our own convictions to see if we’re leaving ourselves open to being called a hypocrite, or if we’re taking away the argumentative foundation for some cherished belief of our own.

This exercise, over the past couple years, has been genuinely useful to myself. I get to see how people with similar views to my own, who are certainly not complete fools, manage to fool themselves into believing obvious absurdities while convincing themselves they’re the wisest people in the room. It really has changed the way I think about and justify my own conclusions, which improves me, not just in the present, but even more in view of the future, when I could use similar fallacies and mistakes to let myself be carried into self-destructive falsehoods, as has happened for me in small ways in the past.

I wonder if these mistaken tendencies often start off innocently enough. We take an argument that we know is flawed, and we embrace it in a spirit of good humour. “This will make my ideological opponents soil themselves in anger. Isn’t this funny?” And it becomes an argument we can laugh about with our friends and deploy against our enemies, and it doesn’t convince any opponents but that doesn’t matter since I wasn’t having any success convincing those folks anyway. And then very slowly, over the course of months and years, that little joke grows up to be a monster. Better to uproot such things now, before they have a chance to grow up and hurt us and our loved ones, wherever we might reside on the ideological continuum.

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