Last week my stepmother died of cancer. She had survived cancer treatments and surgeries in the past and had been in stable condition for the past few years, but two weeks ago I was receiving texts and calls with vague second- and third-hand explanations that things were going bad: something metastasized, something snapped, something about a blood filter device. When doctors said she might be too frail for surgery, conversations began to shift to hospice care, pain relief and quality of life.
As a result, I speak to my family more often, and the door is open to the two subjects I normally try to avoid.
The first is religion. I was frustrated when my dad scheduled my stepmom’s life celebration for Halloween weekend. I celebrate Halloween (sometimes with elaborate costumes), but my family believes it is “satanic” and not a “real” holiday. So when I asked if we could reconsider the date, my dad said we don’t plan around Halloween. Normally I would postpone or skip the family reunion, like I skip Thanksgiving every year, but his wife just passed away, so most of the time I just felt like an asshole for being frustrated at first. I hate talking about religion with my family, so I’ve learned to think three steps ahead and avoid topics that might go in that direction.
As for the second issue, many of you may have guessed politics, which is an obvious third rail issue in many families. But in my experience, every conversation I have with my family about politics is actually about conspiracies. I wrote about my family’s conspiratorial thinking in the past:
Every few months I get a certain type of text message from my dad. It could be a meme he found on Facebook with a picture of Bill Gates and the caption, “Don’t take health advice from people who think the world is overpopulated.” It could be an article about the murders that Hillary Clinton commits to cover up her past. It could be a 30 minute YouTube documentary about the upcoming one world government under the New World Order. Responding to his lyrics is lose-lose: either I deny the conspiracy and we argue, or I don’t and implicitly condone it. Not only is my father easily prone to conspiracies about voter fraud or why the media cannot be trusted. Conspiracies are his information, his entertainment and his worldview.
Conspiracy thinking is the issue shadowlanda new documentary about Peacock, based on a series of articles by The Atlantic. The six-part series, which premiered Wednesday, follows the lives of several conspiracy theorists, tracing their beliefs and the impact conspiracy thinking has had on their lives. It’s part explanation for some of the most common modern conspiracies (What is a “cabal” anyway? What is “adrenochrome”?) and part profile of people who believe the 2020 elections were stolen, vaccines are killing and pedophiles children drink their blood, among other things. In a broader sense shadowland seeks to understand how we can better protect ourselves from harmful conspiracies, how to help those who already believe in them, and what happens when those beliefs become more widespread.
With my own family, I tend to respond to conspiratorial arguments with anger. I think on some level I believe that my own resistance to fraud, propaganda and conspiracies means they should be able to resist them too. These feelings are particularly strong in my brother, who acknowledges our father as a conspiracy theorist but is often swayed by false information. It drove me up a wall when he forwarded it to me plandemic “Documentary” that made the rounds in my family last year. “Well, we know vaccines cause autism, right?” he asked, defending his skepticism about coronavirus vaccines. When these conversations happen, my reaction comes from a condescending, intellectual bootstrapping mentality. how could you be so stupid I forgot Dad’s bullshit, I worked hard and made it. Why can not you?
One of the most interesting aspects of watching shadowland questioned my own inconsistent reactions to his subjects. As I watched journalists interview conspirators, I thought about how many of us react to someone who believes in a conspiracy that we know is harmful. I would narrow it down to three main reactions:
- Fury: The most common reaction is frustration at someone for not thinking more critically, or believing that they do do think more critically and try to manipulate others for their own benefit. (How can people be so stupid? or They lie and they know it.)
- Sympathy: The second most common reaction is concern for the underlying fear, loneliness, or manipulation that led someone to their conspiratorial belief system. (I hope they get the help they need.)
- Curiosity: The rarest reaction, this isn’t necessarily an interest in the conspiracy itself, but rather a curiosity about the conditions that can lead someone to believe what they’re doing. (What are you looking for?)
Maybe the emotional detachment makes me more generous, because I’ve felt sympathy for some of the people in the documentaries – but not all. I felt anger towards those who seemed to exploit the weak for their own wealth and fame, but sympathy towards those I thought could be easily manipulated. And I was curious about these conspiracy theorists who genuinely seemed to believe they were helping those they were hurting.
shadowland approaches all of its subjects with curiosity, but the documentaries also highlight how outlandish and dangerous widespread conspiracy beliefs can be and how woefully unprepared we are to combat harmful beliefs. in a conversation The Atlantic‘s Ellen Cushing interviews a family therapist about how conspiratorial thinking affects families.
“Unfortunately, with conspiracy thinking, there’s a lot of divorce, custody battles,” the therapist said. “It also wreaked havoc on relationships. People suddenly feel like they’re married to someone they don’t even recognize anymore. It has also created many problems between parents and children because often it is the parents who interfere and the children feel like they are losing their parents because of it. That’s the expression that’s often used…People don’t say, ‘My loved one was involved.’ They say, “I lost. I lost my mother to it. I lost my spouse.'”
In another conversation The Atlantic‘s Adrienne LaFrance interviews an expert on conspiratorial thinking in hopes of finding examples from the past that might shed light on how to help people today. Suffice it to say, this conversation – and shadowland as a whole – left me with more bad news than good news. The worst conspiracies are self-perpetuating in a way that makes them invulnerable to external logic, and once someone believes in a conspiracy, they’re not likely to stop.
I’ve felt a particular connection with one woman who lost a partner to conspiracy theories: “It’s easier to be angry with her than it is to think about how much I miss her,” she said.
When I accept that I probably won’t help my father, brother, or any other conspirator in my life, what am I supposed to do at all? When should I decide it’s too late to try? What is the prognosis for recovery?
At some point I may only be able to accept the loss.
Thanks to everyone who replied to my last Humans Being law & order and its cultural impact. My favorite answer came from Anthony telling me he worked on the TV show Undercover in New York back in the 90’s and was based in the same building as that law & order Writer. The full email is too long to include here, but I can give you the gist:
Since our audience was mostly black and latino, the “good cops, bad criminals” dichotomy wouldn’t work. Our viewers knew better. We could create episodes where the criminals are complex and sometimes glamorous and exciting to watch.
Anthony, I loved Undercover in New York as a child. I haven’t seen it since and I have no idea how well it has aged — I was 12 when the car bomb killed Torres at the end of season 3 — but I have fond memories.
This week’s book giveaway is a hardcover by Hear What You Mean: Reclaiming the Lost Art of Human Connection, from Ximena Vengoechea. It’s about building lasting relationships with others. Just send me an email telling me if you’re more angry, sympathetic, or curious about conspiracy theorists, and I’ll mail the book to whoever gets in my inbox. And this isn’t free, but if you want to read my memoirs, Piccolo is Black: A Remembrance of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture, I think that’s great too. You can reach me at [email protected] or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.