Civility, Barbarity, Conspiracy: Critical Theory and Conspiracy Theories

By David G. Robertson

In Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007), Timothy Fitzgerald argues that the modern category of religion emerged in the meeting between (Christian) colonial powers and the subjugated Other:

far from being a kind of thing or an objective and observable domain around which an industry of scholarship can flourish, religion is a modern invention which authorises and naturalises a form of Euro-American secular rationality. In turn, this supposed position of secular rationality constructs and authorises its ‘other’, religion and religions” (Fitzgerald 2008: 6)

Significantly, Fitzgerald points to the power relations that define one or another way of thinking about the world as “religious” or “non-religious”:

from our own postcolonial standpoint, it should be easier for us to question the idea that, whereas other, less-advanced peoples are permeated with ritualism and therefore with a ‘religious’ world view, we in Anglophone cultures do not ‘do’ ritual, except minimally in church. I ask, rhetorically but with serious theoretical intent, why should the legal procedures and taboos surrounding our courts and ideals of justice, our separation of the branches of government, our concept of private property, the practices of the stock exchange and the capital markets, the traditions of the civil services, be considered ‘nonreligious’, but the practices of divination, or the Islamic sharia, or the generic potlatch of various indigenous American peoples, or Buddhist meditation be assigned to the ‘religion’ basket? … Is the queen of England, who is supposedly head of a secular state, but who is also head of a national religion, to be treated as a religious or a secular functionary? (ibid, 38)

Conspiracy theories remain “stigmatised knowledge” in scholarship. This is illustrated perfectly by the observation that there is no scholar of conspiracism who is openly a subscriber of conspiracy theories as many religious studies scholars are of their religious backgrounds are, or queer studies of their sexuality, etc.

A critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would require us to examine why certain versions of rationality are set apart and denied further investigation by scholars, but not others. If we challenge some non-scientific worldviews, but not others, in whose interests are we acting? We must question why some epistemological positions get a ‘free pass’—like Christianity—but others do not—like conspiracy theories. In terms of sheer numbers, such popular views may have more support than the ‘real religions’; for example, a little over 1% of the US population are Muslim, whereas according to a 2013 Pew survey, 4% believe in Reptilians. Only one of these is considered worthy of serious consideration, however.

The category ‘conspiracy theory’ can be seen as part of this same discourse on civility and barbarity. It emerged at a time where consensus was the prime concern in political discourse, and the parties moved increasingly towards the centre, and each other. Perhaps the clearest example of this rhetoric at work is George Bush’s statement following 9-11; “Let us not tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories…” Why not? Why should we not want to hear from those who disagree? The reason is that conspiracy theories are that which we are not permitted to think—because We, by implication, are the civilised, rational ones. Yet other non-scientific ideas go unchallenged, even constitutionally defended, such as the notion that a deity incarnated part of itself in order to be killed and thereby remove “sin”, or that the constitution of a particular country is inviolable, or that all humans have a universal set of rights, etc.

When scholars look at conspiracy theories without a critical lens (here or here, for two examples just from this week), in many respects we are doing what Tylor, Muller, Frazer and the other armchair anthropologists did in the 19th century when they encountered the Other—romanticising themselves against colonial rationality. We strive to explain why they think differently from us. We seek to explain their ideas symbolically, or explain them away as a result of deprivation, lack of critical ability, lack of cognitive faculty, etc. Above all, we stress that they ‘believe’, while we ‘know’—beliefs being knowledge we don’t approve of. We describe the primitive minds of the periphery back to the sophisticated, discerning minds of the colonial centre. Perhaps all that has changed is that in the globalised world, the primitive periphery and the sophisticated centre co-exist in the same physical space.

As social scientists, should we continue to uncritically position white, Western, male rationality as intrinsically superior to other epistemologies? A truly critical turn in the study of conspiracy theories would mean us moving away from studying the content of conspiracy theories and instead examine the context in which such claims are being made, and by whom. It would mean that rather than examine why some people hold unusual views, we would need to ask for whom are such views unusual or extreme. Why these views only, and not other such illogical or unfalsifiable views? If we cannot do that, then we are not disinterested scholars, but are taking a side in the modern discourse on civility and barbarity.

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