Checking my spam folder today, I saw an email from a conservative watchdog group. The email opened like this:
Dear Fellow Conservative,
Do you ever just wonder: what on earth is going on with the liberals in the Democrat party?
Do they just have no clue what they’re doing to America? Or are they are so spiteful of the American way of life that they are actively working to destroy it?
Note the bold font on the last sentence, meant to draw the reader’s eye and suggest the author’s own beliefs. The writer of the email wants you to believe that the reason your political opponents are so wrong isn’t that they’re mistaken, it’s that they’re evil. In just a few words, the issue has shifted from the wrongness of liberalism’s ideas to the wicked, hostile intentions of its adherents.
But why? What evidence is there to suggest that liberals are “spiteful” of people like me? Well, evidence is largely beside the point; the email is meant to confirm suspiciousness in me that’s already there long before it arrives. And we have to concede this to the sender: This is indeed how so much of our political discourse in America goes right now. The space between “wrong” and “evil” has shrunk so badly that it’s almost obligatory now to preface criticism of someone with, “I don’t think they’re a bad person.” In a culture where people’s first assumption was that disagreements happen because of competing ideas, not because minions want to ruin everything, no such preface would be necessary. It’s necessary in our culture because “This person is wrong about issue X” is almost always interpreted as a commentary on their character. If someone gets issue X wrong, it’s because they know they’re wrong and just want to hurt others.
This is, I think, a very important element in conspiracy theory thinking. Once you’re sold on the idea that honest wrongness is impossible, everything your opponents say becomes, in your eyes, evidence of their treason. Consider the usual progression of straw-man fallacies. Person A says to person B, “I think your real goal is to do Y to America.” Person B replies, “No, that’s not my goal at all,” to which person A says, “Well of course you’d deny it if it really was!” Bias confirmation kicks in, and there’s almost no way to convince person A otherwise, because everything they see is either what they predicted or evidence that person B is hiding something. That’s conspiracy theory thinking. And there’s no clean way off that psychological merry-go-round.