One thing about the present condition of American culture that cannot be denied is the escalating levels of hostility, nastiness, and even violence expressed in all sorts of public venues from restaurants to school boards. We have seen more violence in the political arena because the vitriol has steadily escalated over more than the last four years.
Some forms of hostility were less expected (by me anyway). One rather shocking example was a video clip I saw on the local news the other day: some lady physically attacking a restaurant employee out of indignant rage that the service was not up to her ‘standards’ as the job applicant shortage continued. Lack of empathy and an escalating sense of entitlement seem to be overwhelming public behavior just about anywhere.
Fear and Loathing in America
We all know that change can be stressful and many folks do not handle stress all that well. Change is always stressful, if not always in a bad way. Many years ago, Hans Selye wrote a book called The Stress of Life, which I have remembered for over four decades because of one point he made. Life is full of all kinds of stress and that is normal. But the stress that gets to us is that which results from what appear to be hopeless situations of conflicting communications from which we seem to have no way out. Some call that a “double bind.”
Flying an airplane to an exact instrument landing through clouds near the ground or riding your bicycle down a hill as fast as you can, both involve the stress of engaging the world in a way that requires concentration and skill to avoid catastrophe by precisely executing techniques we have trained for. In my experience, such forms of engaging the world involve good stress; they allow us to exercise personal control under critical conditions where risk may be high. We get psychic rewards for experiencing that kind of stress.
On the other hand, more and more Americans experience stress caused by perceived threats that appear largely beyond the individual’s control. That kind of stress breeds fear. Anger is the expression of fear turned onto what may seem to be the source of the stress-inducing threat. Turning anger inward produces depression, a highly dysfunctional state. Yet anger turned outward, especially when left unresolved, becomes hatred. One comes to hate the person or group believed (often wrongly) to be the cause of the fear and loathing s/he experiences. Prejudice and racism almost always play a part.
Enter Conspiracy Theories
When we encounter situations that produce “cognitive dissonance,” that is, when two or more beliefs or forms of information are in conflict with one another but we must deal with, the result is often stress, anxiety. We tend to search for some resolution to the mental conflict we experience. Too often the way we resolve the stress is to deny the information that is less associated with our general beliefs and those of our closest friends or associates. Psychologists call that process, which often involves denying otherwise confirmed facts, “confirmation bias.”
Under those conditions, some people are very susceptible to conspiracy theories—those otherwise absurd claims that some sinister people are out there causing all sorts of trouble and are to blame for whatever we fear. Here is a long list of conspiracy theories that emerged in a variety of stressful situations.
Conspiracy theories are part of a constellation of dysfunctional beliefs and motivations that because they result from fear, anger, and denial, are vulnerable to significant manipulation by charlatans, grifters, and demagogues. The Big Lie amplifies their anger and the Fake President promises that he alone can rescue them from the threat he tells them to fear. Such biased beliefs are very hard to counter, due to their emotional content. Facts and logical arguments usually fail to dislodge them.
How to Become a Deplorable
The problem with unfounded beliefs about conspiracies of mysterious secret groups, out to get us in various ways, is that because of the emotional power of confirmation bias, facts and reason are not persuasive. On top of that, when egged on by demagogues who claim to be acting to redress their grievances, politically framed conspiracy theories become the basis for growing hatred and violence. We saw the result of that process on January 6, 2021. The behavior at the U.S. Capitol by a violent insurrectionist mob of conspiracy theory believing victims of their own fear and loathing amplified by a cruel hateful Fake President, was indeed deplorable.
However, the ignorant insurrectionists who assaulted the Capital that day were far less deplorable than the anti-democratic Fake President and numerous Republican legislators. These ultra-deplorables so easily set aside the American Constitution in their vain attempt to cast aside honestly counted election results just to “win.” Their deplorable ambition and greed in denying the election results in a Big Lie backed by Big Money in order to put their personal political desires ahead of the good of the nation. American democracy is being put to the test by this autocratic attempt.