Living with a Conspiracy Theorist.
It sounds like the set up to some wacky new sitcom, doesn’t it? A calm, clean scientist has to share a flat with a paranoid, slobbish conspiracy theorist. Together they learn that maybe they’re not so different (I hate the fact I’m starting to win myself over with this pitch). But this is my reality and one for many people. Surveys and studies have shown that involvement and interest in conspiracy theory groups (especially centered around Covid) has grown exponentially. Gone are the days of tin-hats and obscure illegal radio transmissions. Now conspiracy theories have production value, sex appeal, and global range.
The subject is one that has been researched by psychologists and journalists for years, yet rarely there’s any anecdotal mention of what it’s like to live with conspiracy theorists; the mental taxation it takes to either refute or ignore every outlandish claim or fear. For obvious reasons I can’t directly say who the person is (they’re already paranoid about the government, they don’t need to know Medium is spying on them too), but in this article I’ll give you a glimpse of what it’s like to live with them, how it affects other people around them, and how it easily spins out of control.
In the interest of privacy, let’s call them David.
IT STARTS SMALL.
I first noticed this tendency for conspiratorial thinking during a conversation years ago, talking about the rise in house prices, difficulty renting, and generally wallowing in fatalism. It was around here that these words were said;
“…And then they just give houses away to the foreigners all coming over.”
Had I known what was going on in the moment, I would have pushed back harder than I did. I simply side-eyed to another person in the conversation and said I politely disagreed.
What I know now was this was a subtle test, to see how I would react. You may be more familiar with the term “dog whistle”; a secret code or understatement meant to go over most people’s heads but act as a nod to the people who know what the words used (or unused) mean. While not explicitly a dog-whistle (though I will get back to this later), it was still David’s way on trying to see if I was like-minded or if I would call them out. While it was clear I wasn’t on board with the conspiracy, regretfully I allowed civility to temper my outrage and not call them out for making a baseless claim. While yes, many asylum seekers do receive shelter, in many cases the standards are subpar, bordering on scandalous, but to insinuate that they somehow contribute to the concentration of property ownership in fewer hands and the inflation of rents is not only insultingly simplistic but harmfully misleading for those who actually want to improve things.
CONSPIRACIES LOVE THE MENTAL ILL.
David is mentally ill. He’s admitted it himself. Others have confirmed this. David is a manic depressive with bipolar disorder and a tendency to drastically go on and off their anti-depressant medication while also “breaking through” sleeping pills, giving them a semi-hallucinatory state at night. I’ve come across them in this state and it can vary between mumbling insults under their breath aimed at me or other people (while naked) to uncomfortably sexual remarks (again, aimed at me or others (and again, while naked)). He’s prone to mood swings, wild accusations, paranoia, and is easily startled. For obvious reasons I won’t get into too much detail, but David also suffers from PTSD and domestic abuse in his past. While I am not a licensed psychologist, from what little mental health experience I have and research I’ve done myself, I suspect David would test positive for a Narcissistic Personality Disorder as he tends to be quite controlling of his children.
What has this to do with conspiracies? Everything. While in no where am I saying those with mental illnesses or struggle with mental health automatically subscribe to conspiracies, conspiracies do aim (effectively) for those who struggle with these conditions. It’s not hard to see how talks of “the Great Replacement” appeal to severe paranoia, or how “They” easily turns into (((They))) for those who hear voices, or how trauma and abuse victims can naturally fear an all powerful Deep State that, in their eyes, resemble their former abusers. David fits all these. Just the other day he uttered;
“We’ll all be living a socialist communist state by the end of this!”
Can someone please explain to me how Blueshirt Fine Gael and Right-Populist Fianna Fail are in any way communists?
IT BECAME EMOTIONAL.
I believe in a simple idea. If you are feeling a certain way, if you feel sad, or anxious, or bad, you are correct in so much as that is what you feel. The problem arises when we try to assign rationale to those feelings. If you say you are sad, you are correct, you are sad. But if you say you are sad because I made you sad, or I made you feel guilt, that’s not necessarily correct. Our emotions are reflections of ourselves in conflict or cooperation with the world, not the world by itself. You are not sad your team lost, you’re sad because you wanted your team to win and that was denied to you. You are not frustrated because the teacher is mean, you’re frustrated because your expectation didn’t meet reality.
Conspiracies are purely emotional. But unlike emotional intelligence or self-awareness, conspiracies allow you to connect your emotions to external causes and absolve yourself of personal introspection.
Poor and unemployed? It’s those damn foreigners. Told you’re racist and stupid? Oh, those pesky PC police! People telling you you’re not making sense and need help? They’re in on it, and they’re after you. Rather than look inward and reflect upon your own insecurities and feelings, conspiracies encourage you to look outward and put the blame on others.
David, talking to his daughter, when she argued he was smothering her, responded;
“I’m trying to keep you safe! I don’t want to lose you! You’re all I have!”
It’s hard not to empathise with someone scared. But it’s made a little easier when they’re starting to scare you.
THERE’S NO REASONING WITH THEM.
A useful piece of advice is to never argue with someone who’d only argue in bad faith. I have had discussions with friends of different political beliefs, and while we do disagree, it’s always been fair to say that we concede to fair points or go into these discussions knowing that the other person is being fair and will listen to our side.
David isn’t like this. No matter how many of his points we refute, no matter how illogical we show them to be, he just keeps firing fallacy after fallacy.
First it’s the conspiracies, one after another. Control. Microchips. Tracking. Genocide. Bill Gates. Mark of the beast.
“Why! Why do I need this tracking app! I think it’s just so they can control us!”
Then comes the attacks on our characters. You this! You that! You always! You never! David, randomly, remarked that he never met my family, despite all the time I’ve lived with him, ending with;
“What are they hiding!”
(Side: I have only seen my family three times this year due to Covid and will not see them again until next year, so this was a difficult remark to stay quiet on).
Then comes the appeal to emotion. Tears, shouts, anger, fear.
“I’m trying to protect everyone! Why is no one listening to my side!”
And then, once that’s all been exhausted, we’re back to the theories.
It’s all an act, and a fairly common one at that for conspiracy theorists. The idea is to try to overwhelm people with information and to constantly move the goal posts. First they look for validation, then discredit and gaslight you, then guilt you and absolve themselves, only to then try validation again.
The point isn’t to have a discussion for them, it’s to wear you down so if you don’t accept their conspiracies you at least back off. As I’ve said before, the conspiracies offer a sense of order to their world, meaning it’s only natural for the theorist in question to do anything it takes to protect their conspiracies, whether that is through propagation, hostility, or feigned submission.
WE ARE WORRIED.
We, the people who live with David, are concerned for him. We have tried to get him medical and mental help; he has responded aggressively. We have tried to calm him down and explain why he has nothing to worry about; he has responded dismissively. We have even tried not indulging him and ignoring his remarks; he has responded progressively and more pronounced, determined to get a reaction.
This is the side of conspiracy theories rarely seen; the affect it has on those forced to live alongside it. Whether it’s the victims of the Sandy Hook Massacre accused of being Crisis Actors, Pizzerias stormed by armed psychopaths believing there’s a pedophile ring hidden in the basement, or the grieving families of 9/11 told they were in on a plot to profit from a false flag attack, the story is the same. These are normal people who had their lives destroyed and turned upside-down by tragic events, only to be taunted further by people who have lost their grip on reality.
I do not pretend to not be a critical or cynical, especially towards those in authority. But I owe it not only to others but also to myself to ensure that my arguments and beliefs are backed by facts and sound reasoning. As much as I dislike someone like Leo Varadkar or Boris Johnson, I cannot simply say they are part of an evil plot to rule the world. They, deep down, maybe… somewhere… are just normal people. Incompetent, but people. As much as I abhor the ills of greed and profiteers, I do not believe Apple or Nestle want to control us. They just want to make money. Perhaps that’s worse, but I digress.
After the misinformation, after the Facebook groups, after the violence, it’s clear the victims of Conspiracy Theories are not the sheeple, it’s the people being called sheeple by people they have no choice but to live with.
“I don’t need help!”