Last year my girlfriend and I underwent a private tragedy. We suffered a particularly difficult ectopic pregnancy — as if there are any easy ones. I have written about how much of a strain that put on our relationship and what a learnt about myself elsewhere.
This may shock you, but that is not a happy piece. In it, I write about how I created a distance between me and my partner in my need to move on. Either consciously or not, I distracted myself from our reality to create my own. Luckily, we figured out how to communicate to one another and I didn’t have to get measured up for a new tin hat.
Whilst I may have been acting stupid in a self destructive way, I was also acting stupid in a “hey have you seen this how stupid this guy is” way. I don’t mention this in that piece, but one of the things I distracted myself with was conspiracy theories.
I’ve always been interested conspiracies without believing in them. I subscribe to Alan Moore’s assessment of conspiracies and their theorists.
“ The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12-foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.”
I thought that conspiracies where for others who either can’t deal with the harshness of reality or were tricked by crappy newspapers with political ties. An old-school cynic like myself knew that a conspiracy theory is nothing but a convenient bandage made to cover up rather than heal the injuries of society. They were something to be debunked and laughed at.
Then my subconscious, crumbling and humbled by the weight of my situation said: “ fuck this reality, let’s find another”.
I didn’t immediately start scrawling my manifesto in cat blood on the wall nor did I abandon reason and science. I remained certain that the Earth is a sphere, positive that the Moon had been visited and 50/50 as to whether Prince Phillip was actually intergalactic lizard chap. I mean look at him, how sure can anyone be on that?
What did happen was a shift in my thinking; a shift that at the time I couldn’t detect or counteract. The world of conspiracies suddenly had a shiny quality. I moved from the position of here is why you shouldn’t believe this to wouldn’t it be nice to believe that.
The web of conspiracies became a sort of live-action fiction. It’s a massive multiplayer role-play game that was improvised around history. The rigidity of the real world became optional and the nexus of realities opened up to me. This could be better than any novel or TV show because I wouldn’t be trapped on the outside as an observer, I could become a character in whichever insane world I wanted to adopt.
The beauty is that I could pick and choose what I liked to adopt. Hollow earth theory, vril energy, occult Nazis, Hologram cities in the sky; I could easily adopt these theories without also having to think that Obama was born in Kenya or deny the Holocaust. It was a buffet of utter bollocks that I could take my pick from.
The reality I was most interested in constructing was that of a Victorian science fiction novel. There seemed to be the possibility for escape there as well as the crutch of scientific inquiry, albeit hugely misinformed scientific inquiry.
Somehow I managed to block out the part of my brain that was concerned with reason or logical inconsistencies. I’m not a world leader or influential geologist, I don’t contribute or arbitrate the well of shared common knowledge in any significant way, what I think doesn’t matter scientifically. I am scientifically unimportant. If I wanted to believe that the earth is hollow — it’s clearly not flat, I hadn’t lost my mind — who would it hurt?
I still understood that conspiracy theories can hurt people. The Protocols of The Elders of Zion is a complete fabrication that helped to fuel to holocaust whilst fabrications about David Hogg and other gun control activists undermine the conversions about practical gun reform but what I wanted was merely escapism. Granted it was mass escapism, from reality and the labours of reasoning and probably, as a side effect, most of my friends — but it was still escapism.
Alas, I never set off for an Antarctic trip to find a hidden civilisation. My relationship with my then girlfriend and now fiancé got better. I found time to read some novels I had on my to-read pile which were better written than the false realities I wanted to escape into and I distracted myself with work. My critical faculties returned and I was able to see just how unusual it is for something to think that it’s fine to believe something they know is false just because it’s more exciting and less painful than what is true.
I realised that I had had a selfish cognitive lapse like this in the past. Way back in around 2013, at the dawn of the great a-Woke-ning, I was correctly called out for some clumsy and insensitive comment. I don’t recall exactly what it was I said but I remember being irritated that I was being attacked by people with the same political and moral stances.
For about an hour, in the pub, I had convinced myself that it would just be easier and more rewarding to become right-wing. As I say I was in the pub, it was only for an hour and it quickly ended when a friend told me not to be so fucking stupid.
What I’ve learnt from these preposterous and slightly shameful display of mental gymnastics is that the truth is the outline of a shape our realities try to follow but we aren’t always able to stay in the lines. We can slip and fall adrift when we can’t see the truth or create a new line if that’s easier.
The problem is that sometimes, some people can never find the truth and decide that their reality is the truth. There can be enough external forces and coercive voices that a new reality is just easier to accept.
On the other hand, the great thing I’ve learned is that it’s so easy to be wrong. What we spot in others so quickly can be hard to see in ourselves. The same ability that allows us to go off the beaten track to find a better path is the same that can take us back if the weeds get too thick.
Understanding why others are convinced of a theory that is wrong is useful for a) being a smart-arse and b) seeing the factors that brought them to that conclusion. It can make you see someone a human and fallible rather than an idiotic enemy.
Being able to assess my reality has probably made me more liberal and less likely to say astoundingly stupid on things I know nothing about. It has made me more suspicious and analytical of the media I consume and wary of the type of thing I would believe at face value because it’s what I’d like to believe. I am more willing and more able to understand my own fallibility.
If I was able to adopt a fantasy world to distract myself, imagine what someone with power could do. I’m lead to believe that the media and politicians aren’t always honest, so if they are indulging these theories so we need to avoid indulging ourselves and hold them to account. We do that by not only analysing what they are telling us, but what we already believe.
I still have an appreciation for conspiracy theories. As a crowdsourced reality or historical fan-fiction with endless contributors, they are fascinating but as a optional reality? Not so much, it’s too important to be critical.
That said, I’m still not sure about Prince Phillip.