Monday, April 19, 2021

Fiction and the Allure of Conspiracy

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame
Things are not good here in Ontario. While COVID-19 vaccines are starting to reach a sizeable percentage of the population, they are racing against exploding numbers of cases, alongside (and because of) exploding anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and even anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
How can people still be lured in by COVID conspiracy theories even after an entire year of this, in which many of us have seen the devastating effects of the disease first-hand? I'll put forward the idea that some people are drawn to conspiracy theories for the same reason most of us are drawn to fiction. There is an allure to believing in stories, even if they are false.
A constructed story is emotionally reassuring. A good novel can let you escape into a world where there is mystery and evil, but each mystery is a few steps away from being solved by our heroes, and the bad guys get what they deserve. A good conspiracy theory is the same: a mysterious illness has spread across the world, but a guy in scrubs on YouTube has heroically arrived to reveal that it was fake all along. Little viral particles don't make good moustache-twirling bad guys, so blame the government instead. It's all so easy—such an emotionally satisfying escape from a real world full of ever-changing answers and a threat without a face.

The problem is that trying to escape reality doesn't make it go away. The virus doesn't check if you believe in it before putting you in the ICU, drowning in your own fluids while even people who have followed reality-based rules and advice all along are turned away from the collapsing healthcare system.
Can you tell I'm a bit angry? I see these conspiracy theories on social media, even among people I thought were friends. And what do I do about it? Because I understand why it's comforting to believe it's all fake, to want a free pass to cough all over a gathering of friends because it's all just a plot by the government, Bill Gates, and whoever else you never liked anyway. These people are clutching to fictional stories like babies clutching their comfort blankies. On one hand, fuck you! Grow up! But on the other hand, they're just going to whine harder if you try to take away their comforting lies, and afterward they'll probably clutch to them even tighter.

Ok fine, have fun you delusional owl, but get back to reality when it's time to "book" a vaccine appointment. 
The BBC has an article on how to talk to the victims of conspiracy theories, which recommends approaching them with empathy and having long conversations with them to gradually introduce them to the facts. Maybe it works sometimes. But I'm just tired. It's been over a year, and who has time to spend hours trying to deprogram delusional cultists on top of everything else? I think there's still room for empathy though, because we all like a good fictional story, so we can all understand how some people take it too far and escape into a dangerous reality-denying narrative.
I wish I could end this post with easy answers, but this isn't a story, and there aren't any. At least those of us who subscribe to reality do have some concrete steps to follow and normalize, though: stay home whenever you can, wear a mask when you can't, get vaccinated when possible. Stay healthy, everyone.

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