Conspiracy theories

ANTHONY BUTLER: It’s a conspiracy theory, but it might just be true

First published in BL PREMIUM

19 NOVEMBER 2020

It is tempting to laugh at the QAnon conspiracy theory. Millions of advocates of this fairy-tale, mostly in the US, believe that Satan-worshipping elites — including liberal Hollywood actors, paedophile Democratic Party politicians, and blood-sucking business tycoons — run a ruthless global child sex-trafficking ring.

It is likewise hard to stifle amusement at the surprisingly widely held notion that a flesh-eating extraterrestrial elite is trying to enslave the human race to access a ready supply of human blood. The most prominent member of this race of lizards is apparently Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

However, we really shouldn’t mock others. After all, SA is a world leader when it comes to conspiracy theories.

The enemies within — conspirators who allegedly threaten to tear us apart — have frequently been subjected to death by fire over the past three or four decades in our townships and villages. Sometimes they have been called witches or informers; other times they have just been foreigners.

Two postapartheid presidents, Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe, once believed that HIV/Aids was an invention of global capital, designed primarily to benefit multinational drug companies. (I haven’t noticed them admitting they were wrong.)

A deputy defence minister, Kebby Maphatsoe, memorably suggested in 2014 that public protector Thuli Madonsela was employed by the Central Intelligence Agency. This warrior chief’s revelation was built on an ANC principle much beloved of Jacob Zuma: any competent cadre must be a spy — how else can they be so much more capable than us?

Even today, a very large proportion of the active membership of the EFF and the ANC believe “white monopoly capital” lies behind all the key decisions of government.

Such projections of an elusive but powerful enemy are common among the purveyors of conspiracy theories everywhere.

It is not clear what can be done to deal with this problem. The human mind embraces theories that create connections between events that are unrelated, because this helps us to impose meaning or order on a bewildering world. One example is Marxism. Another slightly different case concerns the doctrines of the Enlightened Christian Gathering of Shepherd Bushiri.

We need to pay attention to our theories, to the sources of our beliefs, and to the robustness of the evidence that supports them. But it is a mistake to let the cry “conspiracy theorist” deter us from questioning conventional wisdom.

After all, the outlandish claim that President Richard Nixon’s administration broke into the Democratic National Party’s Washington offices in 1972, bugged political opponents, ordered unwarranted investigations of political activists, told federal officials to deflect investigations, and tried to cover up all of the above, was once dubbed a ridiculous conspiracy theory. Now it is called investigative journalism.

The “Me Too” and “Black Lives Matter” movements, whose claims were once labelled illusory, have exposed widespread conspiracies of silence and denial. Sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have shown that conspiracy theories about the abuse of power are far from always based on delusion.

What can we do? It would seem to be a good starting point to act in good faith, and not to circulate or perpetuate conspiracy theories that we most certainly do not believe to be true.

When it comes to other matters — selective prosecutions for corruption, the appointment of justices to presidential commissions of inquiry, the existence of God, or the activity of “rogue units” in government agencies — we should keep an open mind, and simply keep on interrogating the evidence. To adapt a justly famous saying about paranoia, just because it is a conspiracy theory, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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