The Societal Value of Conspiracy Theorists

On the Sunday Politics recently, Andrew Neil called the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones an idiot, and made a circular motion pointing his finger at his own head to suggest Jones was crazy. You can see the 5 minute exchange using the BBC’s video clip (right, or at the BBC website).

To many viewers, it may have seemed a natural response for Neil to dismiss Jones as a crazy person.  However, from the perspective of Jung’s analytical psychology, that would be to respond to an error with another error – because Neil allowed himself to get drawn into Jones’ black and white thinking.  Also, there is something of potential value in Jones’ intensity of belief and breadth of support – because it suggests there is something else occurring at a much deeper, cultural level.

Black and white thinking

In the philosophy that underpins analytical psychology, things are never as definite as they might seem – e.g. Jung described truth as “mythological” (Jung 1957, p. 348).  That is, everything we believe is partly true, because all our perceptions are shaped by our subjective, unconscious assumptions.  (This can even apply to basic mathematical logic; for example, 3+3=6, but if you are working in base 4 then 3+3=12.)

Putting this in more practical/simplified terms, all truth is a shade of grey.  The danger with the conspiracy theory debate is that it takes place at the extreme ends of the scale – it becomes dominated by “black and white thinking”.  This is a modern phrase, which wasn’t used by Jung, but is an apt description of one of the problems he saw in society that leads to religious and other forms of conflict.

Sunday Politics exchange

During the Sunday Politics discussion, Andrew Neil initially tried to debate the middle/grey areas.  For example, he tried to engage David Aaronovitch in a discussion about any potential dangers posed by the Bilderberg Group.  However, Alex Jones kept interjecting, incorporating Aaronovitch’s points into his self-sealing argument – i.e. interpreting all facts as evidence of a conspiracy.  For Jones, who believes he is 100% right, there were only two choices – black or white – and anyone who equivocates about his assertions (such as Neil or Aaronovitch) is put into the ‘wrong’ camp.

However, towards the end of the discussion, as Neil became more frustrated, he also fell into the same trap.  He reached a point when he had had enough of Jones – he started laughing at him and dismissed Jones as a crazy idiot.  Also, Neil was deflected away from his agenda (the significance of the Bilderberg Group) and ended up focusing on the credibility/sanity of Jones instead.

A deeper significance?

From the perspective of Jung’s analytical psychology, these type of intense exchanges can be viewed as forms of compensation. That is, they are symptoms of deeper cultural problems which are not easy to recognise (Jung 1958. p.388).  To understand their significance, we have to look at them symbolically (as representative of an unconscious, cultural phenomenon) rather than literally (i.e. whether the Bilderberg Group is a conspiracy). To put it another way, there is a percentage of truth in what Jones says – so what is that part-truth?  It is not possible to provide a definitive answer to that question, but one can speculate about possible cultural compensations, based on the Sunday Politics exchange.

For example, Jones’ argument changed Neil’s focus – from the Bilderberg Group to a question of whether Jones was sane or misguided.  If this is a symbolic representation of a cultural compensation, it might suggest that our cultural focus needs to change.  And the direction of that change might be hinted at by Jones’ argument that elected political leaders are puppets of secret organisations.  Symbolically, this might reflect a culture that ascribes too much power to political leaders and democratic processes – they don’t have as much power as we think.  The greater sources of power are the social structures that underpin globalised organisations.  This is not suggesting (as Jones does) that there are a few people who pull the strings of government – but rather that no-one is pulling the strings where it matters.  The power structures in the world are not controlled – not even by democracy – and conspiracy theories are signs that our culture is out of control and heading towards unpredictable outcomes.

Conclusion

Pyschologists tend to explain conspiracy theories in terms of personal traits and/or the desire for power over ideas.  However, when Jung was considering a similar phenomenon (flying saucers) he dismissed explanations based on individual power as too superficial (Jung 1958, p.344).  He preferred to view them as cultural strivings towards wholeness, or society trying to heal itself.  However, both principles may be at play here – conspiracy theories may be a cultural symptom of our failure to recognise a relentless haemorrhaging of power from democracy into global and technological structures.

Although my speculative interpretation may or may not be correct, I am nevertheless arguing that we should not simply dismiss conspiracy theorists, such as Alex Jones, as being idiots or crazy.  Such theories may be an important cultural symbol of something – and our attention should be on working out what that ‘something’ is.

References
Jung, C.G. (1957), The Houston Films, in C.G. Jung Speaking
Jung, C.G. (1958), Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth, in CW10 (Civilization in Transition)

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