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Reconciliation with Conspiracy Theorists

I’m sure it wasn’t meant this way when she wrote it, but Haraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto contains an interesting passage that seems worth drawing into my web:

The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point. Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters.

Having spent a great deal of time working in content moderation and the quote unquote “disinformation-industrial complex,” I’ve seen about a billion times well-meaning attempts to vilify or rehabilitate (or often both) conspiracy theorists. The examples are countless… A few random indicative headlines, just by way of illustration:

I don’t want to talk too much smack here, as I do believe such attempts are well-intentioned (if perhaps misguided). But I also happen to think we have ample evidence that these efforts just aren’t working. And in some cases, they may be making it worse by being so moralistic, dismissive and “superior” in their tone (accusing conspiracy believers of having “cognitive disorders” is also not really helping, btw).

It’s true that some of the advice offered in articles like this one from The Atlantic contain actually meaningful snippets, like this:

One must recognize that this is a person who already mistrusts what most authoritative sources say. One should ask calm questions, inviting the conspiracy theorist to explain and reflect on his beliefs, rather than advance evidence or quote the experts. The evidence and the experts, remember, are exactly what the conspiracy theorist has already rejected.

When someone has dismissed the obvious facts, repeating them will not persuade him to see sense. But when people are given time and space to explain themselves, they may start to spot the gaps in their own knowledge or arguments.

It sounds good on paper. It sounds “smart” when attributed to experts. The problem is: when has any of this ever actually worked – either individually, or at scale?

Instead what we have is more or less mainstream politicians calling for a “national divorce,” and people clamoring to line up in support of them.

What are we to do, then, as a society?

Fact checks? Hm… how’s that actually going? A Wired article from early 2023 quoted an expert saying that only about 130,000 (or perhaps a bit more) fact checks have even been published (as of 2021 – but still). That article suggests AI is going to somehow magically help us, an idea which I’ve often railed against: having automated systems with no oversight run by for-profit corporations determining what’s “true.” How could that possibly go wrong? (/s)

Who do fact checks even target anyway, the person who already doesn’t believe the thing in question, and is just going to paste a link to the article into a thread where people who do believe it will say its just further proof of the cover-up?

The simple fact is, as a society, we simply don’t have the time or resources – let alone the will – to go toe-to-toe with every single person who is into conspiracy theories and give them “time and space to explain themselves, [so that] they may start to spot the gaps in their own knowledge or arguments.” That’s just straight up not going to work anyway, nevermind when you account for the near constant pressures of algorithmic and social reinforcement that push people further and further down the spiral.

So what am I proposing, Mr. Smarty Pants?

I’m proposing something perhaps radical, and even dangerous to some ways of thinking; I am proposing that we give up on rehabilitation or “redirection,” and instead focus on reconciliation.

Reconciliation is hard because it requires us to put away the notion of who is right or wrong; it requires us to put aside judgement and dismissiveness; it requires us to put aside our emotional need to correct or change others. It requires us simply to recognize the other person as a person, and that’s it.

We don’t have to agree with everybody. We don’t have to like everybody. But we do have to live alongside everyone else. We really don’t have much of a choice. And since “we” will never convince “them,” I really don’t see what other choice we even have besides reconciliation?

The alternative is what, cutting out huge swaths of people from our lives because of something they hold in their minds as a belief? Writing them off forever? We don’t have that luxury – the world isn’t big enough for that any more. In my mind, it’s reconciliation or it’s nothing. And given our track record with large scale reconciliation, I recognize that, well… we’re probably going to choose “nothing,” and keep muddling our way through until the “shit house goes up in flames.” But at least, now, having written this, I will get to be an “I told you so” footnote in a minor history nobody will ever read.


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1 Comment

  1. Tim B.

    an interesting tangent that came up while writing this:

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