Saturday, September 26, 2015

All conspiracy theories great and small

In this post I'm going to talk about something I don't usually discuss--namely, conspiracy theories including the set of theories surrounding what is known as the "manosphere." If you, dear Reader, don't know what the latter is about, please, please feel free to skip this post. Really. You are probably better off not knowing. If, on the other hand, some un-dear reader reads this who is sympathetic to that vile, creepy, insane approach to the world, I'm not setting out to convince you, so you are also invited to skip this post. (And I have full moderation turned on and usually delete comments from manospherians, because I think they have been mind-poisoned, and I refuse to be drawn into their world even far enough to debate them.)

It may therefore be asked why I'm publishing this at all. Good question. Partly because I wrote it up in private correspondence for someone who asked what in the world leads people to be drawn into those ideas, and then it occurred to me that it was in essence a blog post. But partly also because I do think that in general we conservatives have our own dangers of being led into the darker recesses of the blogosphere, and I want to continue to issue a warning. I've issued such warnings before. Such darker recesses also include anti-semitism, Holocaust denial, and 9/11 conspiracy theories. (A couple of these attract a strange mix of extremists on the Right and on the Left, which is an odd sociological phenomenon in itself.) David French issues an important similar warning here.

The other thing I want to bring up, which you can read by itself if you scroll to the last few paragraphs, is the fact that we occasionally become like that which we try to answer. Hence, one finds missionaries "going native," to use a politically incorrect phrase. I once heard of some missionaries to Muslims who ended up keeping Ramadan and whose women started wearing hijab. There is no doubt in my mind that the Muslims thought they were converting the missionaries rather than vice versa. In Internet discussion, something similar happens when one becomes fascinated with trying to reach a particular interest group and starts casting one's arguments in terms that will be congenial to that interest group. When the target group in question hold really, really messed-up ideas, this effect is highly problematic, which is why it can be a bad idea to try to change the minds of kooks. Insensibly, one starts to accept (or at least appear to accept) ideas that are, say, a 5 out of ten on the craziness scale because one is trying to talk people out of ideas that are at 10. That's not a good thing. So some readers may be interested in that rhetorical problem and want to discuss it even if they are uninterested in the particular example. Jesus mythicism would be another area where the problem could come up.

So, with all that introduction, here is an edited version of the mini-essay I wrote originally for some friends.

People are attracted to the manosphere because of roughly the same types of causes that attract some people to hard-line feminism or to wild conspiracy theories such as anti-semitism. That is to say, people see real problems and injustices in the world, and this purports to be a Theory of Everything that explains and unifies all that they see, giving them the True Explanation behind it all.

Human beings are hard-wired to prefer theories that explain a lot over theories that explain piecemeal. In science, and especially in physics, this can be a good thing, driving mankind to seek explanations that do well both at what the old explanations did but that go farther still. It's right to desire explanations that cope with a wide variety of evidence. Conspiracy theories are the pathological manifestation of this hard-wiring in humans. They bring that drive for simplicity in theory-making to the complexities of human society. The conspiracy theorist then succumbs to the temptation to flatten out the complexities of the real world and of the evidence to fit the theory. The conspiracy theorist is chasing the high of feeling that he has explained it all and has achieved true enlightenment.

Ironically, the very claims made for the Red Pill ought to raise warning flags. But on the contrary. Those inclined in that direction don't seem to say, "This sounds like it tries to explain too much, too simply; therefore, it's probably a lot of baloney." Instead, they are exhilarated by the promises.

Confirmation bias then locks in the new convert. Just as the convinced, man-hating feminist "sees" only beaten wives, and "sees" only men who "deserve what they get," the manospherian "sees" only mistreated men and women who "brought it on themselves" when a man dumps them, uses p*rn, cheats, etc. These biased ways of interpreting the evidence are reinforced by hanging around people who have the same blind spots. And of course the bias is reinforced by the fact that there are real instances of what one is seeing. There are real beaten wives. There are real frivolously dumped husbands.

Social feedback is a huge factor, which is why the Internet has been the breeding ground for explosions in conspiracy theories, from the manosphere to Jesus mythicism. Once a person hangs out at these sites, he insensibly starts to talk like the people he is "with" electronically, to respond to their statements in ways intended to convince or sit well with them, and to accept their shibboleths. If everybody around you is saying, "Women rather than men are the cause of widespread frivolous divorce in America," then it comes to seem like it's probably true. One doesn't bother to ask on what this generalization is based. (See here and following.)

I've seen this social feedback at a [particular blog], where [a blogger] is sometimes trying to woo the so-called "Christian" manosphere rather than (the healthier attitude) not caring tuppence what such creepily messed-up people think. This attempt to reach out to them has, in my opinion, influenced the blogger. He has repeatedly stated, for example, that women usually get to decide whether men marry them or not, which is a very dubious thesis.

So even the second-level of association with conspiracy theorists tends to warp the one who associates. If I spent a lot of time trying to reach out to Jesus mythers or anti-semites or Holocaust deniers, using arguments that they would find persuasive, it would warp my own writing and perhaps even my own view of reality. 

This is an interesting and difficult point, because well-intentioned people often do feel that they need to know about and answer even the craziest theories and ideas, and in the blogosphere this can lead you literally anywhere. The point goes beyond the concern that one gives dignity to an idea by responding to it, though that is related. It goes beyond the concern that one has to walk a fine line between, "I am responding to x" and "X is an empirically and/or morally respectable idea," where one might wish to do the former but not imply the latter. The point here, beyond either of those, is that one may imply concretely false ideas about the topic at issue in the course of trying to reach out to people in a particular camp. In answering Jesus mythers, for example, one might want merely to say that even a liberal New Testament scholar like Bart Ehrman thinks they are crazy. That's a legitimate point. But when one gets into the nitty-gritty of the arguments, what if one ends up conceding some particular point that Ehrman makes, such as his repeated implication that the gospels are extremely unreliable as to the details of Jesus' life? Of course it is true to say that, even if the gospels are extremely unreliable about those details, they could still constitute strong evidence that Jesus existed. But one would want to be careful not to start actually believing or imply to one's audience that the gospels are unreliable or even that it doesn't matter globally whether they are reliable or unreliable. The more "out there" one's intended audience is, I suggest, the more of a danger there will be that one will concede too much ground in the course of trying to reach that audience.

Besides problems with arguments, there is simply the effect of spending time in the company of those who hold crazy ideas and regarding those people as friends or intellectual equals. If one does that, it becomes increasingly difficult to remember that their ideas are utterly crazy, that they have jumped the shark, that you should completely reject their warped perspective. One gets insensibly drawn in to at least some extent: "Well, so-and-so goes too far, but it really does seem like the Jews control our government." "Outright Jesus mythicism is too extreme, but all my atheist friends keep talking about the fictional developments in the character of Jesus in the gospels, so maybe there's something to that." "Some of these guys go too far, and I'm not into that immoral Game stuff, but I think women really do cause a lot more trouble in human relationships than men. I mean, look at all these anecdotes my friends at such-and-such a site are bringing up. Terrible stories!"

While there is no simple answer to this problem, no simple algorithm for deciding when to answer something and when to ignore it, I would say that one should beware of conspiracy theories, including the ones I have listed, to such an extent that one seriously considers not trying to get into the nitty-gritty of answering them. Beyond that, one should beware of them to such an extent that one should not deliberately develop a relationship with people at sites or in groups that promote such theories. If your favorite uncle turns out to be a rampaging misogynist, that's a different matter. He was already your favorite uncle, and you now have to negotiate that relationship. But don't deliberately cultivate close relationships with people or sites that promote misogyny (or 9/11 truther ideas, or Jesus mythicism, or...)

Bad company corrupts good manners, and we all have a stake in not corrupting good manners.


Anonymous said...

"Of course it is true to say that, even if the gospels are extremely unreliable about those details, they could still constitute strong evidence that Jesus existed."

Not sure that's right. The issue isn't whether a person named Jesus existed, because there could have been any number of preachers by that name who existed at that time. A Christian believes that the Jesus whose existence is relevant is the particular Jesus who is described in the New Testament and who has the qualities that a Christian attributes to him. If the New Testament is extremely unreliable, then how can it possilbly constitute strong evidence of the existence of the Jesus that Christians worship.


Lydia McGrew said...

That raises the interesting question of the theory of names in the philosophy of language. What definite descriptions must be connected with the name "Jesus" for us to say that "Jesus existed" and for us all to be talking about the same person?

Generally when discussing the claim that Jesus did not exist, a fairly liberal scholar like, say, Bart Ehrman would have a definite description attached to Jesus' name that would bear _sufficient_ similarities to the ordinary man's description that Christians would be willing to agree that Ehrman believes that Jesus existed even though he takes the gospels to be unreliable. I don't want to attribute the example description I'm about to give to Ehrman, because I don't know if it's precisely the one he uses, but _something_ like this: A Jewish religious teacher born around the time Jesus is usually thought to have been born, known as Jesus of Nazareth, who went about with various followers, angered the religious leaders of his day, and was eventually crucified around A.D. 30 by order of Pontius Pilate for alleged sedition against Rome. This same person's followers then began to claim that he rose again, that he was or represented the Jewish God, and that he had done miracles.

Note that someone who says this is talking about *in some sense* the same "Jesus" that we Christians are talking about because he takes his existence to be the kick-off point for the Christian religion through the beliefs of his followers after his crucifixion. Such a scholar, however, thinks that those beliefs were false. The alleged unreliability of the gospels means that the stories of the miracles are not any evidence that they took place but rather record stories that grew up about Jesus after his death among his followers.

This is rather the same sense in which someone who isn't a Muslim and doesn't believe that an angel really delivered special revelation to Mohammad can nonetheless be said to believe that Mohammad existed.