I’m going to share with you the question I get more than virtually any other. It comes from sons and daughters, husbands and wives, uncles and aunts. It’s a simple question with a hard, complicated, and often completely unsatisfactory answer. Here it is:
A person I love is deeply committed to conspiracies. What can I do?
Sometimes the question is followed by another. What resources can I share with them to prove that vaccines are safe? Or that COVID is real? Or that the election was lawful? I’ve had a tendency to respond to the question with a question. Is your loved one merely conspiracy-curious, or are they conspiracy committed?
If conspiracy-curious—they’re coming to you with genuine questions about misinformation—my advice has been simple: Engage enthusiastically. In other words, don’t be alarmed by bizarre questions. Instead, view them as an opportunity to have honest and genuine conversations. I love it when someone asks me, for example, if late night “ballot dumps” turned the election for Biden. The question communicates an open mind.
I’m more alarmed, however, if someone tells me the election was stolen. The declaration communicates not just a commitment to a false reality, it also carries with it an implied commitment to a particular community.
I fear that my early responses to questions about the conspiracy-committed have been too passive—too inadequate for the magnitude of the challenge. I’ve advised patience. Give the political moment a chance to calm. Give COVID a chance to pass. Let people come back to church, to attend the way they used to attend—in close contact with people they love.
Recreate the human connections we’ve all missed, and then let’s see if the challenge remains so urgent. Then let’s see if so many millions of Christians continue to flirt with QAnon, believe Antifa attacked the Capitol on January 6, or believe that widespread election fraud cost Trump the 2020 election. These beliefs don’t just undermine our civil society, they often exact great costs in the wrathful hearts of their adherents.
But the more I see the conspiracies play out in real life, the more concerned I grow. When large numbers of people hold beliefs with religious intensity, those beliefs not only provide them with a sense of enduring purpose, they also help them form enduring bonds of friendship and fellowship. The conspiracy isn’t just a set of intellectual convictions, it’s also a source of community. It’s the world in which they live.
Let’s put it another way: The conspiracy becomes part of their elephant.
Ok, I know that makes no sense, but hang with me for a moment. Earlier this week a friend reminded me of Jonathan Haidt’s discussion of persuasion and moral humility. Haidt, as many readers know, is a New York University professor, a social psychologist, and author of The Happiness Hypothesis, The Righteous Mind, and the excellent Coddling of the…
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