As I stated previously, the border between a conspiracist and a creative is very, very thin.
This may seem blasphemous coming from someone like myself who writes on imagination and the like. But we have to accept there is no moral value to creativity – the liar creates as sure as the novelist does. I like to stay positive, but for this essay series, I’m not going to. Let’s get to it:
Conspiracists are engaged in creative acts for unhealthy reasons.
We have to confront this – people can use creativity pathologically, and conspiracists do. Indeed, there is precedence for human creativity having unhealthy manifestations. Indulge me in some quick asides.
Lost In Story
I always was fascinated by cases of people who constructed elaborate fantasy worlds. In my psychology and history readings, I would find stories of people living in detailed imagined realms. These cases intrigued me because some quite functional people lived in fantasies as elaborate as the worlds of Tolkein. They just took them as real.
We can dream whole worlds and live them in response to trauma or other hardships. That’s not much different than the conspiracy theorist, who uses more of reality – just a matter of degree.
As conspiracy theories raged across the internet, many of us heard the once-obscure term apophenia. This is the human tendency to find or perceive patterns that aren’t there, indeed a trait of conspiratorial thought. I oft saw the term thrown around as a pathology, but really, finding connections is what humans do.
We are pattern-seeking creatures. We use our imaginations to figure things out and make sense of the world. We’re almost certainly unaware of how much we do it and how wrong we are. The fact we have a term for it, and it’s popularized, tells us we know we have this tendency.
A Creative Misuse
Between the extreme cases and the human tendency to create connections lie the conspiracy theories. The Conspiracist spins elaborate fantasies, trapping themselves in a world that is partially real, yet not. They then act on this real world, oft with disastrous consequences.
This leads me to the question What is creatively unique about conspiracy theories? My conclusion is that there is an element of malice in them.
Conspiracy theories seek enemies, and they place blame. Their elaborate fantasies always have someone responsible, and that someone usually needs to be fought or punished. As we are all too aware, these targets are all too often vulnerable populations and individuals.
From witch-hunts to fascism, there’s always a target, and people are falling into elaborate justifications.
History also shows there are usually ringleaders. From politicians to preachers, podcasters to writers, there are plenty of people ready to exploit conspiratorial thought. They may use existing conspiracies, create their own, or exploit what their followers dream up.
Even if there is no one to exploit them, conspiracists may use each other. They trade conspiracy theories, build on each other, vying for attention or hoping to find truths. Anyone following internet conspiracies has seen how much creative ferment happens on anonymous message boards. In time, there is usually someone to exploit it.
We know the results. Attacks on the US capitol. Gas chambers. Would-be heroes murdering innocents they think are evil aliens.
Understanding conspiracy thinking as a pathological creative act helps us identify it. Next, let’s look at how we can use a tool I made to understand creativity to identify conspiracy theories.