Conspiracy, and the Disease of Reflexive Cynicism

Posted on 3 September, 2012


Reflexive thinking seems to pervade the landscape.  The causes are unclear, but its existence is undeniable.  We jump to conclusions, we utilize stereotypes, and all other manner of mental shorthand in order to come to decisions about people, things, and potential courses of action.  With more information than what can be reasonably processed in the amount of time we have to make many decisions, we have to use mental processes to sort between what is noise and what is a signal, pointing us towards a correct path.

When mental shortcuts used to evaluate the motivations and intentions of others tend in one person to cause them to be taken advantage of due to what is perceived to be their innocence or inability/unwillingness to question much of the motivations of others, we call that person “naïve.”  We evaluate it to be a kind of intellectual immaturity to trust the benevolent intentions of others, or to overestimate our own ability to proceed along a path we’ve set upon.  And surely, too much innocence or naïveté can make us vulnerable to scams, shams, cons, lies, and deceptions of all sorts.  But it’s only one way that reflexive thinking can get us into trouble.

Another way our mental shortcuts can get us into trouble is when we start from a position of not just disbelief, but positive belief that we are being deceived in all or most cases.  There is much to be skeptical about in the world, but it’s a trend that goes beyond skepticism and into an almost religious and unquestioned belief in the hatefulness of the universe and the perfidy of other people.  This reflexive cynicism is just as likely to lead to false answers as blind or innocent naïveté, and it may have consequences more profound and distressing.

This may seem like a strange point for the author of this blog to be making, but don’t misunderstand.  Cynicism is an affliction I suffer from, but I don’t treat it as a coherent philosophy or epistemology.  Many people seem to mistake skeptical inquiry with cynicism, which gets people into all kinds of trouble when they endeavor to make sense of the world around them.  Yes, politicians lie.  Yes, everyone lies.  So it’s healthy to keep a little of that cynicism in your pocket to help you consider all of the potential options when presented with someone making any kind of claim.  What isn’t healthy is to use cynicism to dismiss facts out of hand.  This results in an untenable situation where any utterance which could be self-serving is assumed to be without any critical inquiry.

History is rife with mendacious prevaricators, living down to our worst assumptions about human nature.  However, assumptions can not replace actual inquiry.  And in a world as complex as ours, it behooves us to take the time to sit down and really question claims.  Thoughtlessly dismissing something through cynicism can be as harmful as naïvely accepting something without consideration.  It isn’t enough to just say politicians (or lawyers, or whoever else you please) lie.  That doesn’t tell you anything about what, of any given set of possible circumstances, is true.

And it may be with good reason that many do end up reflexively cynical.  In the US school system (with which I’m pretty familiar), we get lied to for twelve years on a whole range of subjects.  The lies are insidious, and for most of that time we haven’t yet honed an intellectual capacity for inquisitiveness necessary to suss the fact out of the convenient fiction.  When and if we do eventually develop that capacity, we find that we have been deceived (whether by fabrication or, more commonly, omission) as often as we’ve been informed.  I would consider it a form of intellectual abuse, an abuse that leaves psychological scars on its victims for the rest of their lives.  Unless they never developed the capacity for intellectual curiosity, or went to an extraordinary set of schools, it’s hard to imagine that someone would able to escape the negative consequences of that sort of education and the myriad ways that it gets manifested.  Reflexive cynicism is just one symptom of those unhealing wounds, and its consequences are real and terrible.

The lies we discover of our education are of a certain character.  Importantly, they occur within an institution meant to foster the pursuit of knowledge, and they are also the kinds of lies meant to help us identify with the state, the omissions meant to keep us from questioning our pride in ourselves as the state, and the combination of omissions and fabrications to give us respect for and belief in the noble ideals of ourselves as the state, and it leaders.  You can argue about whether those are good or healthy attitudes for people to have, but when attempts to instill those attitudes are built on deceptions, it’s easy (at least in hindsight) to see how the consequences must surely play out, and what we end up with is precisely what one would expect based on the character of those lies: A lack of intellectual curiosity, replaced by a cynicism that goes past skepticism into the pathological realm of extreme mental reflex, seeing the lie hiding in every statement of fact, paranoid aversion against any established belief or doctrine, ready to believe anything so long as it contradicts what establishments and authorities suggest.  In short, conspiracism, what you might call the PTSD of systemic deception.

In smaller doses, all of that is the recipe for rational skepticism.  Often, governments, CEOs, professional or trade groups, university administrations and other organizations and people have agendas they obfuscate.  But they also often have aims, for better or worse, which they act on publicly, with results for either which are observable and therefore knowable.  It takes effort and willingness on the part of the individual to pick from the information that is available and make a best judgment about what is true and what is false.  But when you’ve been intellectually harmed by those trusted to intellectually uplift you, that induces a kind of cognitive pathology.  Of course, from the inside, it looks like a perfectly rational reaction to a preponderance of evidence that institutions lie to suit their own ends.  But in reality, we have to piece the lie together from the obfuscation of fiction.  Without the intellectual curiosity that the educational system seems to endeavor to eradicate, we are left with the cynical conspiracist, as vulnerable to manipulation as the naïve.

The conspiracist, more than derision, contempt, or alienation, deserves pity.  They are victims of a system of edification that makes it abundantly clear that authority can’t be trusted, and fails to provide most with the intellectual tools necessary to find the truth for themselves.  Thus wounded and intellectually disabled, they operate on the reflexive mistrust of the abused, at best subject to being mislead by others who are similarly innocently misguided, or at worst being taken advantage of by charlatans and other cynical manipulators to the detriment of themselves or their families.

To be honest, it’s amazing that it isn’t more of a problem, although the crimes of the educational institutions of the US have left victims broken in other various ways as well.  It’s easy to heap derision on people in general and the fact-free way they live their lives, but that fails to recognize that these people are victims.  And without understanding and a real focus on the issue of healing the intellectual wounds which isn’t about humiliating the conspiracist or the naïve, it’s unlikely it’s an issue that will ever get resolved.  Who knows?  Maybe THEY like it just fine this way.

Confirmed Totally True Photo of President George Bush Shaking Hands With a Naked Child Suffering From Macrocephaly