The Polite Society – part 1

Karl Popper loved the idea of the Open Society. It grounds his arguments against what he calls the conspiracy theory of society, the notion that history can be explained by reference to a sequence of successful conspiracies. Because it is obviously false – according to Popper – that history is not a succession of conspiracies, belief in the conspiracy theory of society must be false and thus belief in conspiracy theories is irrational.

An open society is one in which governments are largely transparent in their operations, and bad behaviour on the part of members of those governments are easily found out by interested citizens. It seems to fall out of that characterisation that conspiracies should be rare in such societies, and so we get our case for a scepticism of conspiracy theories.

Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies” was published in the mid 1940s, and aspects of the open society (the idea, rather than the book itself) seem quaint and just a little naive. As history has shown us, the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s… Well, up till the current day, has been replete with conspiracies and cover-ups. Notably, in “The Open Society and Its Enemies” Popper twists himself into knots to try and describe the Shoah (The Holocaust) as not being the result of some conspiracy because it wasn’t ultimately successful despite the fact that whilst the Nazis might well have failed to exterminate the entire Jewish people, they still ran concentration camps with frightening efficiency for quite some time. Post the publication of “The Open Society and its Enemies” we have had other notable conspiracies like Watergate, the Gulf of Tonkin, 9/11, Dirty Politics and more besides; our supposedly open society is not quite as immune to conspiracies as Popper would have had us believe.

Now, it is unfair to sling Popper with this criticism; after all, he was not necessarily convinced that our society was an open as it could be. Instead, it was more open than it had been. Popper was comparing the world of the 1940s with that of the 30s and 20s, and the world post WWII was, indeed, a more open society than its forebears. However, the trajectory of openness that Popper thought the new world of the Forties promised was not quite the world of the 50s onwards; governments were both loath to reveal more of their inner workings and, of course, there was that Cold War thing. Nothing like having an enemy which is set on infiltrating your governments to make you paranoid about anyone finding out anything of what you are up to.

Which brings me to the Polite Society hypothesis. I have been thinking a lot over the last few years about how to respond to people who base their scepticism of conspiracy theories generally on some version of the open society argument. Some of this work appears in my book, where I look at the notions of Public Trust Skepticism (which I associate closely with both the works of Popper and Brian L. Keeley) and the Openness Objection (which I find in the works of Lee Basham). Some of it comes out of discussion with Basham about these things he calls “toxic truths” (information people refuse to investigate because such an investigation would be deleterious to them or their society), which I mention briefly in the book. A large part of it, however, simply comes out of trying to work out why the numerous scandals in the governing National Party have simply failed to materialise in falling poll numbers.

What is a Polite Society? Well, a polite society is one which thinks or even loudly claims to be an open society, but often overlooks what appears to be bad behaviour on the part of members of its influential institutions on the grounds of politeness.

Take, for example, rumours that a relative has been engaging in inappropriate behaviour with with a minor. You could ask questions of your other relatives to fact check this claim, but that would be impolite; it would cause bother. You don’t want to ask the relative in question because if it turns out the rumour is merely gossip, that would be embarrassing both to them and to you. So, you ignore the rumour because acting upon it would be impolite.

A situation like that, I take it, is the kind of thing Basham is concerned about when it comes to truths which are toxic. In the polite society, however, it would turn out that you are the kind of person who opines that if you heard a good rumour that someone was behaving in such an inappropriate way, you would definitely investigate it.

Imagine, then, that kind of polite behaviour coupled with expressed opinion to the contrary being expressed not just by a few individuals but as society as a whole. “Yes”, members of the polite society say, “we are definitely interested in holding MPs to account for the things that get uncovered!” Yet when it comes to investigative reporting about what MPs might get up to, they invent a whole bunch of excuses for being politely disinterested in such stories.

The problem, then, for a polite society is that members of the polite society are likely to claim they belong to an open society whilst not actually pursuing any active policy towards openness and transparency. Members of a polite society, then, express fealty to the standards of openness and transparency whilst acting otherwise.

Do we really live in a polite society? Do we live in such a society out of choice or because we are told to, or because it is expected of us? These are the questions which vex me; am I buying into some conspiracy theory about our society or is this a real diagnosis of a societal ill?1 More, next time.

Next time: Some further rumination on the polite society hypothesis (and some objections to it) and a bit of #dirtypolitics.


  1. I’m not saying this diagnosis is unique to me; similar theories can be found in the work of other theorists concerned with public discourse.

How to deal with a conspiracist – some initial thoughts

Comrade Gio recently asked me “How do you deal with conspiracists?” It seems they have been getting up in his hood recently, causing no end of a spot of bother. Given that I deal with conspiracy theorists all the time, I know a little bit about the sub-species of conspiracy theorist, the conspiracist, and what they are like. I’ve also just finished writing a paper begging the academic community to stop conflating conspiracy theories generally with the sub-set of conspiracists, so I kind of feel like doing a bit of public outreach on this matter (if only so, in a few years, I can look back on this post and go “What was I thinking; that’s terrible advice!”).

Let’s start off with a bit of terminology. A conspiracy theory is simply any explanation of an event which cites a conspiracy as a salient cause. That’s a nice, general and non-pejorative definition. As such, the following definition of “conspiracy theorist” naturally falls out of it:

Conspiracy theorist: someone who believes a conspiracy theory.

Now, usually people go “Aha, but conspiracy theorists are weird, right?” at which point I reply “No, you are talking about conspiracists!”

Conspiracist: someone who believes a conspiracy theory without adequate reasons.

“Without adequate reasons” is doing an awful lot of work here, isn’t it? A conspiracist is someone who believes a conspiracy theory not because of good evidence and arguments but for some other reason.

Conspiracists (and the thesis of conspiracism) are frequently talked about in the academic literature, although most theorists conflate conspiracists with conspiracy theorists and conspiracism with conspiracy theorising; my recent paper (now under review) attempts to disentangle the terms and then argues that we should restrict talk of problematic belief in conspiracy theories to talk of conspiracism, in order to properly answer the question of whether belief in conspiracy theories is really irrational.

Now, here’s an interesting point; I’m agnostic as to whether there are many conspiracists in the world, because I have a fairly open and generous notion of “adequate reasons”. Oh, like many a philosopher I think there is some notion of rationality which is pretty prescriptive as to what counts as a good argument in the logical sense (valid argument form and sound premises, yadda yadda yadda), but when it comes to explaining why people have the beliefs they do, I think we often do people a disservice by dismissing their reasons on the grounds that they cannot put their arguments into standard form, et cetera, et cetera.

So, for example, I think that being suspicious of influential public institutions because of their past complicity in malfeasance and cover-ups is a good reason to engage in a little, light conspiracy theorising. After all, the fact of past complicity in conspiratorial activity has some bearing on the possibility of being engaged in a cover-up right now. I also think that living in a culture where your government is rarely transparent in its dealings, and is wildly rumoured to function mostly on graft would be grounds to be very suspicious of what it is up to, even in a case where there is little positive evidence of an actual conspiracy. These are reasons to be suspicious, and thus reasonable grounds to be a conspiracy theorist.

However, the lesson here is that whilst it can be reasonable to engage in conspiracy theorising on the basis that background information about your society makes suspicions that conspiracies exist natural to entertain, if you want to assert some specific conspiracy theory, then you really do need to be able to engage your audience with something more than “Sheeple, listen to me!” Just continuing to assert some conspiracy theory is true is not an argument, and it’s liable to get you labelled a conspiracist (at least in my terminology).

Take, for example, the 9/11 Truth Movement. Let’s say I’m an agnostic as to whether 9/11 was the result of the actions of Al-Qaeda or an Inside Job (I’m not, but let’s pretend). Many Truthers insist that people should entertain seriously the thesis that George W. Bush and his cronies were responsible for the terror attacks on September the 11th, 2001, despite the fact that there are also good reasons to believe the rival (and official) conspiracy theory that the attacks were the work of a group outside the USA. Said Truthers often get very annoyed that people do not accord their views with the right amount of respect, and you can understand why this is the case. The US has engaged in some dodgy dealings (Watergate), been involved in at least one false flag operation (the Gulf of Tonkin), and may be the product of a corrupt electoral system. There seems to be a lot of evidence that the US Government misleads the public all the time, so why believe that government’s particular version of events surrounding 9/11?

Now, what I’ve given here is an argument for doubting the official, conspiracy theory of 9/11 – that it was the actions of Al-Qaeda. That is not, in itself, sufficient reason to come to believe the Inside Job hypothesis. For that you need to show it’s more likely than not that the destruction of the Twin Towers, et al., were the result of a conspiracy by the US Government. Some conspiracy theorists about 9/11 claim to do this work, citing expert opinion on civil engineering, the allegedly unlikely ability of barely trained pilots to crash 747s into huge buildings and the like. Many of these conspiracy theorists are, when you talk to them, reasonable people who you can have quite interesting debates with, particularly over how evidence is presented and then weighed to support one explanation or the other.

Then there are the conspiracists, the ones who just assert that the conspiracy must be the more likely and who – if you dare question that assertion – claim you are a sheeple, that you don’t understand Marxism properly1 or that you work for the powers in question.2 These views are not usually the result of actual paranoiac ideation (as distinct from Richard Hofstadter’s notion of the Paranoid Style, which claims such belief are similar to paranoia). Often they are based upon assumptions or suspicions which are not shared universally across a group. So, for example, many medical conspiracy theories are predicated on examples of past medical malfeasance, which explain why there has been an attendant loss of trust in medical institutions. However, often the conditional nature of that loss of trust is skipped over; no one seriously doubts medical professionals in the past often acted unethically and that some of the associated professions covered up their malfeasance. What people debate is the extent of the problem now. Many conspiracists insist we should take the history of malfeasance as prima facie evidence of continued malfeasance, and this is a problem, because the question of continued malfeasance is what is being debated. The conspiracist angle presumes the answer to the question; the analysis, effectively, is back-to-front.

My, but this post has gone on and on, and in a slightly different direction than I intended it to. So, in answer to the question which motivated this first pass analysis, how do you deal with conspiracists?

Well, one thing is to engage in a discussion not about the conspiracy theory in question but about the background assumptions which drive the claim of conspiracy or non-conspiracy. Take 9/11. No one disputes that the USA engages in some fairly dodgy activities, and no one concedes much ground if everyone admits that the Gulf of Tonkin incident is a legitimate example of a false flag. Rather, if you are a sceptic about the Truther position, centre the debate around how you weigh the evidence for the conspiracy. Admit that it’s always possible that the US government may have conspired to cause the events of 9/11, but how you think that is unlikely given the other available evidence. Respect your interlocutor and their intuitions without necessarily agreeing with them.

Of course, you can’t just say “I think it’s unlikely” and leave it at that. That’s really the same problem the conspiracist suffers from. You do have to put forward some detailed reasons as to why you think it’s unlikely, reasons which might come to bear on the assumptions of the conspiracist. Essentially you are debating probabilities, and thus explaining why you think some claim of conspiracy is unlikely in this case.

Which, of course, leads back to a perennial problem in these debates. It may turn out to be the case that you are not dealing with a conspiracist. You might find out during your conversation that your conspiracist interlocutor is actually a conspiracy theorist with fairly detailed arguments and good evidence for their particular theory. That does not necessarily mean you are going to have to concede; a conspiracy theorist may have adequate reasons to believe some conspiracy theory, but that just means the theory is plausible (but not necessarily the best explanation). It might mean you have to become agnostic about said conspiracy theory, though. Which should be no great harm. If it is, then maybe you have a little too much invested in opposing conspiracy theories, which is itself – as Peter Knight has argued in various places – an interesting form of conspiracism in itself.

A final point before this post decides to implode under its own mass of verbiage: you might think having to explain your priors (as a Bayesian might say) is a tad arduous. However, I don’t think we live in a society where it is reasonable to simply dismiss the existence of conspiracies off hand. In a future post I think I’m going to need to go through some ideas I’ve been mulling for a while now, specifically the idea that we live in what I call a “Polite Society”, one which maintains the idea we live in an Open Society without necessarily embodying said ideals. But that is for future Matthew to write; current Matthew is happy to close this particular discussion just as he hits 1720 words.


  1. Gio knows what I am talking about; it’s no dig at him.
  2. I kind of wish I did. I suspect I’d get paid more than I currently do.