A rose by another name

In most cases, no one likes to be told how to do their job. There’s something basic and insulting about being told ‘You’re doing it wrong’ that, even in cases where you are at fault, you are more likely to double down on the matter than you are to change your ways. Of course, sometimes (and is it only sometimes?) you’re not actually the one at fault, and so the criticism not only falls flat, but ends up being misdirected to the point of confusion.

So, let me tell you about Friday.

Writing about conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory theories has lead to a great many weird, sometimes wonderful, pieces of correspondence. Back when Richard Gage toured the country, telling pliant New Zealanders that the events of September 11th, 2001, were not what they had been told, I had the temerity to criticise Mr. Gage. This lead to several weeks of angry emails from people who seemed to be of the firm belief that I was attacking them personally, as well as bringing into doubt the entire academic world.1 My attempts to engage in reasoned debate were met with disdain, and the general tenor of the debate was ‘Shut up, you philosophic wanker.’

My point is, it’s a hard life being a conspiracy theory theorist, especially when people email you for the express purpose of telling you to stop doing your job (properly or improperly).

So, Friday. That night saw me at the house of some friends, rewatching Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the fourth time.2 Halfway through the attack on the pseudo-Death Star, I got an email from a former correspondent, someone with whom I had had some… awkward communiques a few years earlier. At the time said correspondent was doing a PhD on 9/11 under a rather well-respected, UK-based theorist on conspiracy theories3, and my correspondent had garnered my interest in starting up a research group about conspiracy theories on Facebook. However, said interest faltered and died after the correspondent began a long and prolonged Twitter rant about how feminism was destroying the UK. Not just that; feminism, it turned out, was part of a plot to destroy both women and masculinity in general. Despite trying to engage in a reasonable debate as to why this probably wasn’t true4, the debate very much became ALL CAP SHOUTING AT ME THAT I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND JUST HOW BAD THINGS WERE. At which point I decided ignorance of my new social media pal would be bliss, and so I quietly disentangled myself from his social media presence.

News of my former correspondent would, from time to time, reach me. For example, something happened to the extent that they were no longer doing their PhD under that prestigious researcher; they had entered into some ‘interesting’ email correspondence with Paul Stott; and matters of that kind. However, whatever had lead them to me had seemingly passed, and they were off having ‘fun’ and ‘frolics’ with other researchers. I was content with this turn of events.

Until Friday. Until that seemingly doomed run against Starkiller Base.

I’d like to claim the very moment I realised what was happening was the moment Chewie saw his friend Han get stabbed to death by Kylo Ren. That would be oddly poetic. Yet that would be a lie. All I can say is that my former correspondent’s first communication with me in four years basically went something like this:

You have zero expertise when it comes to 9/11. So please, shut up and stop spreading your ignorance about 9/11. 9/11 is too important to be left to ignorant people like you.

Indeed, he insisted on the following:

You need to place a disclaimer in front of every podcast you upload: “I know nothing about 9/11 or any of the actual evidence or history of any of the events I am discussing in this podcast. I can only philosophically claim “some conspiracy theories are valid” and I have a PhD to prove it”

That would be a quite bizarre disclaimer, especially since 9/11 doesn’t come up all that often on the podcast. Do I really need to mention 9/11 when talking about the various theories which claim the Moon Landing was hoaxed, or the warranted conspiracy theories about the assassination of Julius Caesar? When talking about the death of Yassar Arafat or Alexander Litvinenko, do I really need to mention my apparent ignorance of 9/11? If I say something about Obama’s Birth Certificate, do I need to them say ‘and in conclusion, I’m apparently quite ignorant about 9/11.’

The issue my correspondent had boiled down to the false impression that I use terms like ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’ pejoratively.

When you call someone a “conspiracy theorist” you insult them. A whole academic industry has been built on insulting “conspiracy theorists”. You have no idea how irrelevant you people are.

Yet any cursory reading of my work shows I don’t use the terms pejoratively. I go out of my way constantly to specify that I use perfectly general terms, with no pejorative implication, and that when it comes to events like 9/11, I think just about any theory about what happened – official or otherwise – is a conspiracy theory. Yet when I reiterated this basic fact about my work, I got the following very weird response.

I’ve read Jack Bratich’s book. I understand what is meant by “conspiracy theory”. Don’t patronise me.

Now, I know and like Jack (and his work), but we come from different disciplines, and have somewhat different takes on definitional issues because of that difference in background. So, admitting to knowing Jack’s work and definitions doesn’t entail knowing mine. Being aware of a literature doesnt tell you whether everyone in that field shares the same basic definitions. In both the PhD and the book I go to great lengths to point out just where I differ from my contemporaries about these things called ‘conspiracy theories.’ Yet pressing that point just lead on to claims like this:

My point is: 9/11 is the defining event of the 21st century and there is zero academic research, no funding and no academic conferences about 9/11. Instead we have millions spent on “theories of conspiracy theories” research and conferences – which tell us nothing about 9/11. I went to a conference last year at King College in London with Fenster, Knight, Bratich etc and it was a total disaster. Nobody had anything to say. Your research has nothing meaningful to say about 9/11. It could almost be a conspiracy?

THAT’S MY POINT.

Which sounds suspiciously like I’m in on some kind of conspiracy to suppress the truth about 9/11. Indeed, my correspondent went on to claim:

As I said, it could almost be a conspiracy – not to research 9/11 and not to question the official story?

Instead … lets fund research into “Theories of Conspiracy Theorie” and turn “conspiracy theorists” into a moral panic … that way the state will not have to fund academic research into 9/11.

THAT’S MY POINT

I should like to point out at this stage that academic work has not exactly been the luxury yacht buying-spree the brochures made it out to be.

Leaving sarcasm to one side, however, I can sort of see where my correspondent was coming from. Now, the following does not apply to all, or even most conspiracy theorists (although I guess it does apply to anyone who is fixated on a topic, regardless of whether it turns out to be a conspiracy theory): some people think their pet subject is the most important subject ever, and people who don’t appreciate that fact are dunderheads. My correspondent quite obviously thinks 9/11 is the most important event of the century thus far. Maybe it is (at least in the West), although even then, is that something you would want to tell indigenous rights activists in, say, Australia or Aotearoa? However, just because someone else doesn’t share your fixation doesn’t make their work the result of some sinister set of background forces.

The debate went on and on, with me saying ‘Look, I talk about a lot of examples, and the various theories of 9/11 are just some of the many I use to illustrate epistemic issues that surround belief in these things called “conspiracy theories”‘, but that only led to this:

OK. I got it. You have got nothing to say about 9/11 – the defining event of the 21st Century. That makes you a good little academic and I’m sure you will have a successful academic career.

Thus ended a frustrating line of correspondence.

Despite what certain critics of mine might like to think, my particular work on the philosophy of conspiracy theories does not pay me in gold ingots, nor has it kept me comfortable. My take on conspiracy theory theories is still considered to be at the ‘wacky’, ‘probably a conspiracy theorist in denial’ end of the spectrum. Whilst I’m garnering publications, invites, and the like, I’m still involved in an uphill battle to change hearts and minds. It’s a curious battle, because whenever I give public talks I mostly find my audiences agreeing with me, but, well, academics sometimes have some weird priors lurking as the unexamined bases for their beliefs. So, to be accused of having views and opinions which are not my own… Well, there’s a term for that. But I guess I’m used to that. What I’m not used to is being told that 9/11 either is, or should be, my business, as opposed to what is my business, which is talk of conspiracy theories generally.

There is a lot wrong with the academic system. Better, well-established intellectuals than myself have pointed out the issues in peer review, research funding, hiring, and topic selection in the Academy. However, one virtue of the system is researchers research what research they think deserves researching. Should I have an even more nuanced view on 9/11 than I do? Sure, I certainly could; my knowledge about 9/11 isn’t as vast as it could be, but that’s because my work requires me to have broad knowledge about a lot of conspiracy theories, rather than narrow but deep knowledge about a few. That’s a choice I made in doing the kind of work I do.

Although, a better choice would not be to interact with trolls.

Notes

  1. They may have been half right.
  2. Insert ‘force’ for ‘fourth’ joke here. But no, seriously, I’ve watched that film four times now and I still like it. Childhood nostalgia be damned.
  3. If I hadn’t been a philosopher writing on conspiracy theories, I suspect his book on the topic would have got me into American Studies.
  4. Well, as reasonable a debate can get on such a thesis.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

5 comments:

  1. Good lord, Matt. Sorry to hear that, though the whole thing is surely good for a big laugh–or ten. As for “9/11” being the defining event of the 21st century, I doubt it. I haven’t seen that event yet–if such things as “defining events of the century” exist–but I look forward to seeing it. I hope it will have something to do with life prolongation. But that’s just what getting older will do to you, it warps ones expectations.

    I agree, our job is not to take a stake in any particular conspiracy. As I put it in Stockholm, “I don’t go there, I just analyze things, I’m just an analyst.” People had a good laugh, and I was glad they did. It cleared the air. To this creed and breed I’ve stayed true (sounds like another good movie, Babe). This way we have the view to actually learn something. Are we up on the mountain top, or mapping the unspoken caverns of human society? Often the latter, and that’s a good thing. In a world full of conspiracy theorists, and rightfully and for the most part beneficially I would argue, I think they deserve in all their efforts and sometimes overwrought passion, a little TLC from philosophers like you. That’ll do.

    So that brings me to my question: Why is your comment text box a better word processor than MS word? Might this be…Alien Technology, sir? Well, good for you! I think I’ll come here to write my next paper. Say, do the aliens allow for footnotes?

    1. It was pretty funny, I have to say, but also infuriating at the same time. Then again, nothing beats someone getting in contact yesterday to say ‘Thought you might enjoy’ a link to their latest Shakespeare authorship controversy piece, only to end their email with ‘BTW, I look forward to the day everyone knows how useless people like you are. Do you have any capability to distinguish when a conspiratorial explanation is warranted and substantiated?’ Talk about not knowing your audience.

      In re footnotes, in the main body of the posts I use the following convention to create a footnote: (( followed by )) to close them. But now it occurs to me that might work in footnotes, so let’s see how that renders when I click ‘Reply’.

      1. So, no, no footnotes in the comments box, it seems. I’m a trifle disappointed. Still, should you decide you want to start writing stuff for the blog, I can set you up an account, and you can footnote to your heart’s delight!

  2. Thanks, Matt,

    I shall consider it. Footnotes and all.

    Well, you are being heard, by irate conspiracy theorists. Nice! But some folks want to hear more. Even better!

    Such impatient comments are quite complimentary. They suggest you have been building a potential “wolf pack”. These, especially in the form of protests and demands, are very good news. People don’t demand from those they think have nothing to offer.

    You have accomplished something rather extraordinary on the “inter webs”(as Pixy insightfully calls the internet). So these people want you to take a stand on particular conspiracy theories, because they think that stand is epistemically valuable. They’re right about that. Yes, they misunderstand the epistemic project. Don’t let that infuriate. Sense opportunity.

    Perhaps you should throw them a bone, one we could all learn from. You might be tempted to select this “bone” on your own, a brief, interesting and current “who done it?”, with an approving epistemic analysis as an epilogue. A play date, if you will, with the conspiracy theorists. For instance, where’s Bin Waldo Ladin, might be fun, but I suspect you can do even better than that.

    Here’s the idea: Why don’t you just ask them? Poll. Post the Q: What CT would they most like to see you and your team in action with, as advocates? Tally the results, make much ado about it, and then, play the game! Yes. It’s polling time.

    As a minion I’m in. Remember, you don’t have to commit yourself to anything, all you need to do is play the game. Whichever of the varied middle names might you like to use is up to you. Hume would love it. Charles, too. The poll alone would be a blast, even if it ends with that. Do this.

    (Command: Hydrangea.)

    Cheers,

    Lee

    1. It’s certainly a tempting proposition as a project, looking at a particular theory, teasing out the permutations, and then talking about the various arguments on offer. I suspect 9/11 and Shakespeare might be too big as starting points: 9/11 has a huge, and disparate literature; just covering the LIHOP theories alone would take a long time. The ‘Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?’ is similarly complex, and so much of it seems to rely on knowing minutiae of Elizabethan life that itself is probably quite a study. Best, one thinks, to start off with something relatively small and new, as a way of edging into it all. Then, then the polling can begin in earnest. Who knows, if we could find the right journal (with open access) we could even start a series of distinguished articles (and then a book)!

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