Apr 25, 2022

The Intoxicating Pleasure of Conspiratorial Thinking

April 25, 2022

What a remorseful January 6 insurrectionist taught me about why we believe.

“THE SEEKING IS a never-ending circle until one is satisfied,” Justin reflected, runically, in an email to me. “For me, that satisfaction was never really present until the theories of QAnon started emerging.”

Yes, QAnon—the undead cosmology that still haunts the internet. Justin, a Brooklyn entrepreneur who once worked for TED, is best known for having been so jazzed about the QAnon-Trump conceit that he joined the Stop the Steal protest in Washington, DC, on January 6 last year. He now says he wouldn’t have gone if he’d known it was going to turn violent.

I had seen a news story about a penitent QAnon adherent called simply “Justin,” and I wanted to hear more; I thought I could find him. (After I did, he asked me to use only his first name.) In our exchanges, he sounded fully deradicalized—candid, earnest, thoughtful about his own choices. “I dissociated so much from my reality,” he told me about the years leading up to January 6. He had lost friends. “I acted in a condescending manner to a lot of people, and it was wrong of me to do that.”

He was repairing his friendships, helping build a new business, trying to put Stop the Steal behind him. “Anyone who invited or incited violence on Jan 6 I do not support,” he wrote. Did he still believe in the vast child-abuse network that defines QAnon’s muddled worldview? He said no. Then he added: “It’s my hope that such does not exist.”

His hope. I left it at that, though, later on, righteousness caught in my throat like a thorn. Why wouldn’t Justin fully reject QAnon? How could I prove to him it’s horseshit? I briefly imagined enlightening him with sniper-fired bullet points and rhetorical virtuosity. But the aggression in my fantasy disturbed me. I’m not the policewoman of all rationality, and people’s creeds are their own. Maybe this is what missionary zeal feels like. I must tear out these pagan lies, root and branch.

In general I believe what Freud did: that it doesn’t matter, for purposes of human connection, whether another person’s private apprehensions comport with reality or not. If something’s true for a person, and she’s not harming anyone, a good friend suspends disbelief. This seems self-evident for religious faith (“I believe in one God”) or private credos (“we manifest our destinies”). But then there are false empirical claims, like “5G kills” or “a secret cabal of cannibals runs the world.” Can people who live in fantasy worlds at such steep odds with reality be good friends and citizens themselves? At the very least, maintaining such worldviews means vigilance about rejecting facts—and the perceptions of other, clearer minds. This estranges others. People who believe lies certainly could, like Justin, act in a condescending manner to a lot of people. If things escalate, they might even invite or incite violence.

John Mack, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2004, was an eminent Harvard psychiatrist who wrestled manfully in the ’90s and aughts with the question of what to do about other people’s false beliefs.

Starting in 1990, he set out to study people who said they had been abducted by aliens. He first hypothesized that they were mentally ill, but determined to record their worldviews without bias. To the supreme embarrassment of some of his Harvard colleagues, Mack didn’t just establish trust with the would-be abductees. By 1994, he had come to share their outlandish beliefs, for which there was no empirical proof.

Mack’s credentials lent credence to the stories of his research subjects, just as certain credentialed MDs these days throw in with anti-vaxxers and give them unearned authority. In the late ’90s I managed to catch Mack on his road show in New Hampshire. He patiently took the audience through the experiences of his research subjects whose accounts of abduction he found credible. The stories, he said, were consistent; the tellers were uninfluenced by a therapist’s suggestions, and sane. To Mack, that was proof enough: Aliens were routinely snatching people up into flying saucers, and humanity needed to face facts. (The next speaker at the road show was a man who preached that aliens had made crop circles in the Scottish Highlands.)

In The Believer, a 2021 biography of Mack by Ralph Blumenthal, Mack admits he had never witnessed alien abductions or gathered material evidence. Instead, he says, the idea of the abductions eased his grief about losing his mother when he was an infant. Mack once told a therapist: “The abduction story is a welcoming story because it means that—Ooooo, I’m getting goose pimples as I think of this—I’m not alone. There is life in the universe!”

To Mack, the stories were also factual. How could they not be? The aliens in the stories always looked the same: gray, short, with slits for mouths and no noses or ears. They drew blood and other bodily fluids from their hostages.

The abductees, too, fit a type: “unusually sensitive, spiritual individuals who chafe against social constraints and are flexible in accepting diverse or unusual experiences,” as Robert S. Boynton described them in an article about Mack for Esquire in 1994. “Abduction runs in families; you are more likely to be taken if your parents or siblings have been.”

I was still dwelling on Justin. Like Mack, he got goose bumps from fictions that strike most people as disturbing. This feeling was evidently intensified when he believed the stories were literally true; he couldn’t see them as science fiction and get the same high. As Justin told me of his period of most excitement about QAnon, “In 2020 … I felt that the truth was giving me a new lens on the world, and this made me feel very good … The euphoric feeling was a deep spiritual awareness of pure love and joy … I was unabashed, free-spirited, loving, communicative, and wanting to help—whatever that meant.”

An unusually sensitive, spiritual individual, Justin in another era might have entertained alien-abduction fantasies. Notably he had also suggested that his supernatural ideas—or his own susceptibility to disinformation—might run in his family. “I started as a young boy seeking meaning to life’s deeper questions. I would write poetry to try and get my thoughts on paper, but … much of the impetus came from my father and what he bestowed upon me … It’s in my blood, so to speak.”

When a person grounds their serenity and joy in a false claim about reality, you do little but cause pain if you try to root it out.

All these weird tales—about blood-sucking elites and blood-sucking extraterrestrials—serve psychological purposes, and they’re highly stylized along the lines that make pulp fiction pleasing. But none of them have anything to do with evidence. What Mack and Justin, and others who hold outrageously false ideas, mean by “true” may be better understood as “pleasurable.” Perhaps this is why such beliefs are so difficult to dislodge. You don’t debate with people about the merits of their kinks. Instead, you hope that we all maintain some ironic distance from our cherished stories, especially the pulpy and frightening ones, while recognizing that they don’t have to be empirically factual to be emotionally meaningful. When a person forgoes this irony, and grounds their serenity and joy in a false claim about reality, you do little but cause pain if you try to root it out.

Justin, unlike Mack, ultimately saw that the high provided by his strange beliefs wasn’t serving him. “The downside of this was, I was in such a state of euphoria that I decided to leave my job with no recourse, not pay my rent, etc.,” he wrote. “I paid less attention to ‘adulting.’” For a person in his twenties to stop adulting for a passion of any kind—art, love, a political movement—seems not atypical; to right one’s course comparatively quickly is impressive.

I had a last question for Justin, whose self-possession I had come to admire.

“Do you believe now that the 2020 election was stolen by Joe Biden?” I hit send.

A one-word answer came back: “Yes.”


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