Monday, May 20, 2019

Cassam on Conspiracy Theories

There is an excerpt from Quassim Cassam's book on conspiracy theories at at IAI. Like much of Cassam's work on this topic, I think it is both interesting and seriously flawed. A good way to see the problems with Cassam's argument is to look at one of the examples he uses to try to pin down what conspiracy theories are:

Suppose that a conspiracy theory is defined as a theory about a conspiracy. History books tell us, for example, that Guy Fawkes and his colleagues plotted to blow up the English Parliament in 1605. The plot was a conspiracy, and historical accounts of the plot are therefore conspiracy theories....

...Unlike well-documented historical theories about the Gunpowder Plot, Conspiracy Theories are highly speculative. They are based on conjecture rather than solid evidence, educated (or not so educated) guesswork. After all, if a conspiracy has been successful then it won’t have left behind clear-cut evidence of a conspiracy. This leads to the idea that the only way to uncover a conspiracy is by focusing odd clues or anomalies that give the game away.

The fundamental problem is that, while there was a genuine conspiracy to blow up Parliament, the genuine conspiracy was also a seed-crystal for what was undeniably a conspiracy theory, according to which a much larger population of Catholics were involved in a conspiracy to undermine the peace and laws of Britain, despite the fact that most of them had nothing to do with it. Thus we have a conspiracy theory built around an undeniable conspiracy. And Cassam in general tends not to graps that conspiracy theorists themselves do think that the evidence of the conspiracy they are talking about is clear-cut; they think the conspiracies are succeeding not because they are always successful in leaving behind no evidence but because they are successful at obfuscation. An English Protestant who thought that the Catholics were engaged in a conspiracy to subvert the kingdom could literally point to things that showed it -- particular plots, actions of Jesuits, and the like. The evidence was clear and obvious; it's just that Catholics were good at lying, and would be able to do it all in secret if not for divine providence and the work of vigilant people like himself. The odd clues and anomalies are not proof of the conspiracy itself; they are proof of the desperate cover-up as the conspiracy attempts to hide its failures. The conspiracy itself is taken to be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt; everyone would believe it if it weren't for all the obvious lies that people are believing instead. The conspiracy theorist focuses on odd clues or anomalies not because it is the foundation of his belief that there is a conspiracy but because the conspiracy theorist has to show other people that they are in fact only believing a cover story that can't possibly be true. How do you prove to somebody that something is a lie? You show them the inconsistencies. And once you've made people realize that they've been lied to, the conspiracy theorist thinks, the evidence will speak for itself.

Cassam is here, as most people are, confused by the name 'conspiracy theory'. This makes it sound like it's just about there being some sort of conspiracy. But we could just as easily call it 'cover-up theory'.

This is the reason why Cassam's later conclusion, "Conspiracy Theories are first and foremost forms of political propaganda", is in one sense on the right track and in another simply not useful, because the conspiracy theorist is someone who sees himself as countering political propaganda. Cassam, in his view, would be the propagandist -- after all, in a sense Cassam has effectively just admitted it, by saying that the reason he opposes conspiracy theories is that they put forward dangerous political views. Of course, Cassam doesn't think that he is propagandizing; but neither does the conspiracy theorist. Conspiracy theorists are not putting out propaganda; they are trying to oppose what they see as propaganda. It just so happens that what they see as propaganda, put out by an elite with political incentive to lie, Cassam sees as reasonable report, put out by experts with political incentive to seek the truth, and what he sees as propaganda, the conspiracy theorist sees as critical thinking that shows that the so-called experts are in fact active propagandists.

Conspiracy theory in the sense Cassam has in mind does not begin with an intent to propagandize; it begins with political discontent when it takes on the idea that the opposed political faction, whatever that may be, is fighting dirty and trying to hide that fact. Take, for instance, one of the popular conspiracy theories of the Enlightenment period, the theory of priestcraft: a bunch of priests have made alliance with a bunch of politicians to benight society throughout the ages, encouraging superstition and backing it with police power in order to make the people more pliable to both priest and politician. This is the kind of conspiracy theory that only arises in the context of an already-existing dispute about the role of religion in political life, from people who have come to think, for whatever reason, that their religious opponents are fundamentally liars concerned only with their own political position and their dupes who don't bother to think through the religious propaganda because they have a political reason not to do so.

It's true, of course, that conspiracy theorists can and do propagandize, like anyone else; but the mistake is not in recognizing this but thinking that the propagandizing is the core of the conspiracy theory. Cassam thinks that the basic function of a conspiracy theory is to advance a political agenda; but the basic function of a conspiracy theory is to stop the perceived advance of a political agenda. There is a fundamental sense in which all conspiracy theorists, regardless of whether they are right or left politically, are reactionaries. They exist to resist; they are in their own view the Resistance. The people in power are fighting with dirty tricks. The 'experts' have sold out. The proof of it is there to see, but the powerful are lying to try to hide it. And what you need to do is not persuade people of the conspiracy -- that's obvious to anyone who just thinks the matter through -- but to wake people up to the fact that they are being taken in by a lie. Now, of course, you can call their wake-up attempts propaganda if you like, but the point is that Cassam mislocates it: it is not to put forward an agenda but to resist one. To advance an agenda you just argue for it; but to resist one, you set out to debunk falsehoods, to uncover lies, to wake people up.

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