Thursday, September 10, 2020


The public radio program Marketplace has a regular podcast called Make Me Smart. On Tuesdays, they do a "deep dive" into a given topic, and bring an expert on to discuss it. This past Tuesday, they spoke to University of Washington professor Jevin West about the QAnon conspiracy theory. I find conspiracies fascinating for what they tell us about people. But it turns out, the reactions are also pretty telling. At a couple of points in the discussion, they really hit on something; Beyond people "looking for simple explanations to all of this craziness that's going on in the world," (because of some the explanations are anything but simple) conspiracy thinking is a way of making sense of the world that allows people to assign motive and intent to the actions that they see others taking all around them. Political institutions and social trust breaking down are causing persistent crises is many people's lives, and some number of them have turned to conspiracies as a form of self-medication for a pathological world. And so I was kind of surprised when the discussion turned to solutions ("How do we stop this thing?" to quote the podcast), and there was no mention of addressing that pathology. The disconnect was pretty clearly stated, but at no point was the idea of addressing the dislocation and disenfranchisement considered.

I get that it's difficult when the remedy that people are flocking to seems dangerous, especially to people who aren't taking it. And that's perhaps why so little progress is being made, because it's easy to become caught up in policing people's reactions to their fears and anxieties. But if we want people to stop self-medicating for their feelings of disenfranchisement, powerlessness, uncertainty and social mistrust, the alternatives either have to do a better job of helping people feel better and/or actually ease the underlying causes of their anxiety. Simply attempting to shut down the sources that people have turned their trust to is not going to restore their trust in the institutions that they've come to understand have started lying to them. One of the problems that "the mainstream media" has in dealing with this phenomenon is that its members often speak of it as being an institution that is entitled to being trusted, rather than one that must always work to earn the public's faith.

It's sort of like being sick and taking a naturopathic remedy, which makes me feel better, but there are some side effects. And then I meet someone who tells me that the remedy is bunk, and I should be taking 50 milligrams of Dystopamine HCL twice a day. When I ask "Oh, does that work?" they say, "No, but it's FDA approved." They're attempting to counter unsafe, but effective, with safe, but ineffective.

The degree to which people sympathize with the plight of the self-medicating depends, I think, on whether they see the diagnosis as genuine, a misdiagnosis, hypochondriasis or deliberate malingering. Because it's not only followers of the QAnon theory that can be said to self-medicate with a persecutory worldview, and they aren't the only ones whose reactions to the stresses of their lives make other people feel unsafe. At some point, dealing with the stress is going to have to be the solution.

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