The loss of a child at the hands of another is the worst thing imaginable, but imagine being told that your murdered child never existed, that you are an actor, not a parent, and that you should die for pushing the “lie” of your kid’s life.
There are parents of school shooting victims who have gotten death threats for asserting that their kid, was, in fact, a beautiful person, who was tragically lost. These parents are real. Their children were real and they are not part of some elaborate conspiracy.
If you were in their shoes, would murder be on your mind? Would you want to kill whoever pushed such nonsense on you as you mourned your own child? That would be my gut reaction, blind rage. And the anger I feel for any parent having to endure such cruel absurdities after such a terrible loss just doesn’t go away. In fact, the Sandy Hook conspiracy is what first showed me that there’s something deeply sick to this Internet age. First graders were slaughtered in their classroom, and then there are people peddling the conspiracy that those kids didn’t even exist. Oh my God, that is just too much. Seriously, that’s been number one on my personal news outrage list for several years now. No parent should ever, ever have to deal with that!
But such dark-hearted conspiracies are yawned away now, even as grieving parents still deal with malicious actors who torment them — and a shockingly higher number who don’t call out the cruelty of such a conspiracy theory. Far-flung conspiracies are increasingly the norm, because they cower people out of debate. How do you debate insanity? You can’t. So, more and more, insanity wins, which is insane itself.
Too many are increasingly asserting their “right” to proclaim such unfounded, malignant narratives, as if I have the right to claim you, reader, are a child molester or wife abuser, or secret baby eater. I don’t know this is true, but hey, prove me wrong. Oh yeah, that’s right, you can’t prove me wrong. And I’m entitled to believe this about you. It’s my First Amendment right to scream this in public, right? Well, no. But where’s the accountability online?
It should be a baseline point for all of us, no matter our political views, that we don’t seek to hurt other people in such a way. I don’t care how opposed I am to you politically, I wouldn’t wish such nonsense spewed at you or your family. I wouldn’t spew that crap, not just for your sake, but for mine, too. What do I become if I do such a thing? Well nothing I want to see in a mirror.
I want to see debate on issues with an understanding that we want this country to be healthy and as happy as possible. I don’t want to be rendered a cannibal or child molester for having a different viewpoint on whatever discussion we’re having. I don’t want that done to you either. This sort of talk degrades all of us.
The fact that the previous paragraph seems necessary to say and impossible to achieve as a culture says something about our modern predicament, doesn’t it?
Yes, this will sound partisan. I don’t intend it that way. I mean it as observation: The current embrace of conspiracy culture within the Republican Party is tearing away at something fundamental in America. Our policy issues warrant real debate. The Democratic Party should be vigorously challenged on policy making, just as the Republicans should be. That’s the nature of healthy governance, a tug of war of ideas. It’s always a difficult battle.
What’s never OK is to dehumanize each other, wherever you stand politically. And so much of our television and Internet media market is now profiting off a 24/7 stream of enemy making, of telling you that all would be made better if these certain people could just get what’s coming to them. That’s the underlying message to so much that we readily consume. Use your market power just like your vote — turn away from all that!
Because of the perverse incentives rewarded in our information sharing market, we are primed for conspiracy theories about how “they” are master-mining yet another scheme to do us wrong. If you are locked into only reading or watching outlets that do little more than affirm your hatred for your enemy, then please recognize that you are not interested good faith journalism, which does exist, and which does try to give you the pros and cons of A-versus-B policy. Don’t lock yourself into the simplistic market of hate peddling, which is a kind of economic con game. It’s played because it sells. It hooks into our brains and makes us hate “them,” whoever “they” are, which is always overly simple and not representative of the complexity in other humans.
Every genocide in human history is rooted in exactly this process, a long game of reducing “them” to unworthy of living. I don’t want that for America, but I don’t think we’re immune to such tragedy. We have the elements brewing.
And conspiracy culture is such a key ingredient in historical atrocities. Think of the Salem witch trials. They used to seem so absurd to me. How could a people do this to one another? Well, I think people desire a clear enemy. This desire isn’t logical, but it’s emotionally very real. We want opposition crystalized into obvious form. When this takes root in a culture, it begins to simultaneously belittle people and project almost God-like power on them. A “witch” was subhuman in Salem, but also possessed supernatural dark powers. A Jew was subhuman in Germany, but also part of some vast Zionist conspiracy to take over the world.
The QAnon movement demonizes and dehumanizes opponents, while also bestowing vast powers on its enemies. The conspiracy-based movement is simultaneously horrifying and fascinating to me. It’s a very old thing, not a new one. It represents the latest thread in a consistent psychological occurrence in human history. It is a constantly morphing assessment of enemy and a collective license to believe anything, so long as it correctly pins the negative feelings on the right people.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon promoter, who has pushed the school shooting conspiracies as truth, is getting a lot of attention right now as a new Congresswoman. You don’t need me to tell you anything about her.
But I was actually shocked, which seems hard to feel these days, when Republicans named her to the education committee in the House. This appointment signaled that thoughtful governance — and meaningful educational policy — is not important to House Republican leadership at the moment. What seems important is signaling malice. Or, perhaps, they want to signal that QAnon is educational. Either way, it seems like a gross middle finger to all parents who lost children in school shootings and have had to endure the absurd conspiracies, such as Greene’s.
I don’t know the direction of this country or of the Republican Party in the months and years ahead. But I do know that conspiracy culture can’t control us, whether it takes root on the left or right. Either way is bad. Argue the issues at hand. There are plenty of them, with good points to be made from the left and the right. The idea that we render everyone who disagrees a devil to avoid arguing policy is such a bad-faith stance. And it will doom us all if we let it. But this is exactly what many are doing — reducing others to devils to eliminate all policy arguments before they even start. This is a truly dangerous slope. We need to pull ourselves out of it.
The first step is to stand up for people like those parents of slain kids. Be real for people who are really hurting. There are so many actual matters that need our attention. We don’t have time for cancerous worlds of fakery, insanity and hostile acts.
America needs better. But you can only control you. I hope you choose not to take the dark path, but the bright one, whatever your political persuasion. Don’t latch on to conspiracy culture. You’re needed in the real world. You matter in this reality.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.