Belonging, meaning, and safety

If political parties provided what conspiracy theories do, maybe our parties would be stronger and more useful to our civic life.

Humans need community to survive — belonging is safety, and meaning is direction. Without either, community withers, and we die. While modern society has put all kinds of pressures on community, the pandemic has all but eliminated our weak ties (hopefully temporarily) and left all of us feeling to a greater or lessor degree at sea, untethered, alone, uncertain of our place in the world. Not only do we rely more on those weak ties than we typically think, they are often our bridges to other communities. We are suddenly more isolated and more likely to be subject to narrow sorting than ever subjecting us to incredible isolating forces and making us more likely to see others as threats — on top of struggling through a moment when other people might actually potentially be dangerous for public health reasons.

Conspiracy theories provide people with explanations for a big and an overwhelmingly complex modern life especially for people for whom the shifting foundations of American society and exploding inequality of the American economy have disrupted a formerly stable worldview. And they appeal not only because they explain the world, but also because, like pseudoscience, they feel critical and rational even when they are not. People adrift, without clear explanations for the paths in front of them or for how we got to our misshapen present and for whom the tradeoff of meaning for accomplishment demanded by American capitalism isn’t working need a frame that does both: serves the logical explanation our minds crave and the feelings of belonging, meaning, and safety our hearts require. There’s a desperation to our search for meaning when it’s lacking or insufficient. That desperation combined with the creeping sense that the future promised by our American story has no place for them leads to a terrifying futureless that must be explained away.

Enter the conspiracy theory — to simplify and explain, to give identity and regrant uniqueness (belonging to community and a sense of being special, unique can both be true at the same time), and to make us feel safe again. Add in the sorting pressure and power of modern media systems, and we are, perhaps, in a moment of maximum appeal, need, power of these kinds of manipulations.

Belonging, meaning, safety — these are all the same things that humans usually get from community and what values-driven political parties should provide. We need a worldview that helps us make sense of the world, provides a vision of the future and opportunity for meaning, and a sense of belonging. We can point at QAnon followers and insurrectionists as dangerously foolish, malevolent, or simply mislead—undereducated and manipulated. We can just as easily point at conspiratorial Leftists falling beyond the edges of talk of inequality and monopoly into fictions of global elite cabals. What if, rather than starting from the position that people are at fault, we considered the possibility that their leaders, institutions, maybe even country had failed them somewhere along the way, that they were responding to a desperate deficit of something they need?

Perhaps there is a both a kinder, more honest, and more productive explanation: people have been excluded, told they don’t matter, in communities with failing social systems craving an explanation and somewhere to belong. What if we invested in every community and offered a story that gave everyone meaning? Conspiracy has always existed, and we aren’t likely to eradicate it from discourse now. But we focused on actually providing people the things conspiracy falsely promises (explanation, safety, opportunity) and the feelings and values they actually do (identity, belonging, meaning), perhaps it would be less necessary, and we would find more stable footing for our civc life.

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