In an essay on categorizing conspiracy theories, author Paul McCaffrey writes, following a section describing the characterization of conspiracy theorists as wearing tinfoil hats:
…the good-versus-evil, truth-versus-deception dynamic may divide the world a little too neatly and not in a healthy way. There are the conspirators and those working against them, the good guys and the bad guys. They there are the people in the middle, the general public, who to the conspiracists may be, at best, unwitting dupes and pawns, and at worst, potential agents of the conspiracy. Characterizing one’s fellow citizens along these lines is not necessarily a good recipe for tolerance and respectful language.1
While I hold out tolerance and respectful language as a virtue and a goal on this web site, it hasn’t worked very well in practice. I don’t comment a lot elsewhere, but when I do such exchanges typically devolve into shouting matches and contests over who can be the most condescending. Here, I have felt it necessary to ban certain individuals just to keep the peace to prevent the same thing (and not always successfully).
The truth is that there are conspiracy theories. There are bad people (by my standards) who attempt to influence events secretly. The government doesn’t always tell the truth. Elections have been stolen. There are political dirty tricks. I became politically aware during the Vietnam War and the publication of The Pentagon Papers revealed widespread and longstanding deception on the part of the government not only to the public, but to Congress. Healthy skepticism about the consensus view is a good thing and so is questioning our assumptions from time to time.
That conciliating language doesn’t help me with the birthers. The problem with the birthers is that their skepticism is tied to a lack of critical thinking, bias, contextual violations, junk science and outright lies. Some of the birthers are hateful people, not because they are birthers, but because of who they are in general. These are people I would avoid in real life, and people I am equally pleased to avoid online. Other birthers cause me difficulty because they go against two principles I hold in high esteem: unbiased reasoning and truth telling. The very fact that birtherism asserts a demonstrably false conclusion means that it is against unbiased reasoning and truth telling. The fundamental disrespect I have for the way birthers think cannot help but spill out in the dialog.
While I would like to draw the distinction between those who are honestly mistaken, and those who are intentionally lying, I haven’t figured out any fool-proof way to tell which is which. So this leaves me with “ends” and “means.” Certainly the end of not having Obama in the White House is an honorable one. Several political parties tried to accomplish that this last election. Even trying to prove legally that US Presidents most have two citizen parents is something that folks are entitled to do, even though it’s against the consensus. What is not OK by me is the “means” employed in some of those pursuits, and I am going to catalog some of those means following:
- Pretending to be an expert.
- Taking citations out of context.
- Faking historical documents
- Forging official documents
- Using propaganda techniques to mislead people
- Logical fallacies
- Telling only one side of the story
- Failing to acknowledge contrary evidence
- Repeating rumors as true without checking them first
- Junk science
However laudable it may be to uncover real conspiracies and to expose official malfeasance, those means are not a road to truth. I see no reason to spare the wrath of comment on any of these things. As for people, nothing is served by venting wrath on them.
1Conspiracy Theories (The Reference Shelf), H. W. Wilson pub 2012, p. xi.