There was a time back in the 20th century when people on all sides of an issue could agree on the facts, just not what they meant or what should be done about them.
These days everyone seems to have their own facts as well as their own opinions. It’s impossible to argue with someone who believes things that just are not true.
“Denial,” as a pun often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
The trouble with the epidemic of denial in this country, a dystopia enamored of conspiracy theories, is that there is no disproving a negative. No appeal to reason and no amount of evidence, for example, is going to convince a crack-brained conspiracist that mass shootings are not staged by crisis actors, that Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, and Sutherland Springs actually happened.
I mention the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, because the most hateful example of conspiratorial denial I have ever heard of involves a couple who showed up at the First Baptist Church there and harassed the pastor, challenging him to prove that his dead daughter had ever even existed. I assume that, whatever one’s political persuasion, decent people can agree that this crackpot conspiracy theory is absurd and that confronting a bereaved parent with such nonsense is unforgivable.
Telling a man that his dead child never existed is an extreme example, but the same principle of unreasoned denial underlies climate change denial, holocaust denial, moon landing denial, the birther cult and the belief that 9/11 was a false-flag attack staged by the CIA. Nutso cuckoo, but some people will believe anything despite all evidence to the contrary.
If Donald Trump, the king of the birthers, had been there when Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, he’d likely still be questioning whether Obama was an American. He and his birther buds were so deeply racist that they could not believe an African-American president named Barack Hussein Obama could be anything other than an anti-American Muslim extremist.
Likewise the specter of “dozens, dozens of black people who came in and voted on Election Day,” then-Maine GOP chairman Charlie Webster’s 2012 contribution to the national Republican voter fraud hysteria. The same people who claimed to have seen busloads of black people being chauffeured around Maine to vote probably also believe Muslims were dancing on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11. The only voter fraud the Republican Party ever uncovered was Donald Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.
Paranoia and fear of the unknown account for a lot of the crazy things people believe. Alien invasions and flying saucers are an obvious example. Then there are the people who believe there is a Deep State of military, intelligence and government officials who secretly control America, those who believe the United Nation’s 1992 Agenda 21 plan for sustainability is a one-world plot to deny property rights, and those who believe the government has a plan to disarm gun owners.
But I also suspect the appeal of denying reality and embracing conspiracy is that it enables otherwise unremarkable people to feel special, as though they were in possession of a hidden truth that has eluded the rest of us.
There is a smug self-righteousness that is explained by the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the psychological state in which people of low ability have illusions of superiority. In other words, they are too ignorant to understand they don’t know what they are talking about. Deniers all deny they are in denial even when it is clear to the rest of the world that they are wrong.
What most deniers and conspiracists have in common is a right-wing political orientation. In “The New Republic” last year, Colin Dickey, author of a forthcoming 2019 book on conspiracy theories called “The Unidentified,” observed that, “The left has generally presented itself as the sober, rational half of our political discourse, eschewing paranoid fables and histrionic bloviaters in favor of reputable, fact-checked reporting.”
The left-wing conspiracy theories Dickey identifies relate to the Trilateral Commission, JFK’s assassination and AIDS as a government plot to destroy the black community. The only left-wing conspiracy theory I can think of is the idea that there is a vast right-wing conspiracy to brainwash the American people.
Of course, that crackpot theory turned out to be perfectly true.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.