How people go bonkers.

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Jan 25, 2022, 2:33:44 PMJan 25
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My Gentle, Intelligent Brother Is Now A Conspiracy Theorist And His
Beliefs Are Shocking "While other family members refuse to engage, I’m
triggered into a primordial rage by the videos he texts me 'because he
loves me and wants to help me wake up before it’s too late.'" Sue
Muncaster By Sue Muncaster, 01/21/2022 09:00am EST.

My brother is a modern conspiracy theorist.

He calls himself an “Evolutionary Linguist-Spiritual Warrior Fighting
for Human Free Will on Earth” on his TikTok account, which has 12,500
followers. He uses hashtags like #zombe #apocolypse #weare #freedom and
#1111. The latter, as far as I can tell from doing a little Googling, is
a symbol that often represents interconnectedness and synchronicity, and
that inspires individuals to attempt to manifest their intentions and
take action to turn their visions into reality. On the surface, this
sounds sedate, even inspiring — especially as we come out of COVID
isolation. None of us seem to want to “go back to normal” because normal
didn’t serve us.

Last April, my sister-in-law texted me to warn me that my brother was
heading, unannounced, to my doorstep in Idaho, where I care for our
elderly father. I knew he believed “everyone on the planet who received
the vaccine will be dead in a few years,” but I had no idea of the depth
of his fantastical beliefs.

Our evening together started with him mansplaining why cryptocurrencies
are our only hope and how he had the idea for Amazon before Jeff Bezos
did and how he would be the richest man in the world if not for some bad
breaks along the way. Although he wasn’t physically at the Capitol in
Washington, D.C., he referred to the Jan. 6 rioters as “we.”

Later that night, my brother announced, “The real reason I’m here is
I’ve come to warn you that over the next two weeks, a lot of shit is
going to come out about what’s been going on for the past 50 years, 100
years, 4,000 years. It is going to shock you to your core. All the
conspiracy theories ? everyone you ever heard from politics to Big Oil
to wars in Afghanistan to Biden not being president ? this pulls it all
together.” At this point, I excused myself to go to the restroom, turned
on the Voice Memos app on my iPhone, and tucked it in my back pocket in
case he divulged any plans for violence, which, thankfully, he did not.
The following is a transcribed summary of the main points he “knows with
certainty” that “the media won’t tell us about.”

“The banking system here in the U.S. has already collapsed,” he told me.
“They are just trying to figure out how to tell everyone. We, as a race
of human beings, for 4,000 years going back to the Sumerians, have been
used as food by the elites. It’s about to come to an end. They got rid
of the race that was using us as cattle. They drove them out of all
these tunnels ? there’s a tunnel from Washington, D.C., to LA that takes
half an hour on a bullet train. There’s a whole fucking society that
lives underground. In Australia, there’s [a tunnel] all the way around
the continent and it’s being used for human trafficking and organ
harvesting and basically using human beings like cattle. JFK found out
about it 50 years ago, and it’s taken 50 years to drive them out. And
it’s now over. The Catholic Church, the military industrial complex and
Wall Street have fucked us for the last 200 years.”

While I agree with the last sentence, for the past eight months, I’ve
tried to make sense of how my little brother ? who I think of as highly
intelligent, gentle and conscientious ? has come to embrace the rest of
what he told me and make it his life’s mission to spread it. It’s
incredibly challenging to continue interacting with him, and I’ve found
myself wondering if I even should.

“To write my brother's (and my neighbors' and country people’s) many
conspiracies off as unworthy of taking the time to study is a tempting
way out. But to not at least try to understand is likely a fatal
mistake.”

In the process of studying his ideas and trying to keep an open mind and
heart, I’ve questioned every one of my own beliefs. I’ve tried to
determine how big of a threat these conspiracy theories are and where we
— as friends, family, communities and society — should focus our efforts
on combating them. To write my brother’s (and my neighbors’ and country
people’s) many conspiracies off as unworthy of taking the time to study
is a tempting way out. But to not at least try to understand is likely a
fatal mistake.

As a Libra, I pride myself on finding balance. As a local politician,
I’m committed to listening to a variety of perspectives and seeking
common ground in pursuit of the best solutions. Dealing with my brother
has challenged the core principles of compassion, inaction and harmony I
hold dear as a student of Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism. While other
family members refuse to engage, I’m triggered into a primordial rage by
the videos he texts me “because he loves me and wants to help me wake up
before it’s too late.” Inevitably, these videos are taken off the
internet before I have time to watch them a second time. I often find
myself texting messages to him that I’d never text to another family
member, friend or neighbor. It’s not unlike lashing out at a toddler for
their mischief and, when you snap out of it, you are overcome with shame
and sadness for what you’ve said.

In trying to come to grips with the deep division within my family, and
indeed our nation, I recognize now that I turned to my intellect to
gather facts and scientific evidence to help me better understand this
situation. In doing so, I’ve lost my balance between intellect and my
core values of affection and kindness. My older sister, upon reading a
draft of this story, said I was acting like a “Viking warrior queen”
trying to “annihilate the enemy with words” and therefore exacerbating
division. She suggested I turn the mirror on myself and consider the
idea that I am the stupid one, the downtrodden, the toddler ? that we
are all toddlers learning to walk, run, dance, and who am I to be
critical?

I suppose annihilation by words is better than the alternative, but to
her point, I’ve agonized over how to write about my experience without
violating the core Buddhist commitments to “do no harm” and “take care
of one another.” On one hand, I’m deeply worried and want to rescue him;
on the other hand, I want to laugh it off; and on a third (if I had
one), I want to slam the door in his face. When my brain and heart feel
scrambled like this, I want to throw up my hands and not write anything
out of fear that I’ll further fuel our national crisis over truth and
division.

But then I see a video of a health care worker in an overrun hospital
begging for people to get vaccinated. I rewatch the violence that took
place on Jan. 6. I celebrate Hanukkah with my brother-in-law, whose
father, at 7 years old, was one of 10,000 children on the
Kindertransport, a train from Germany to England, without his parents in
search of a safe refuge before the start of World War II. And if I’ve
learned anything in the past 20 years as a conscientious parent, it’s
that not addressing possible issues by hiding family secrets can be
traumatic and lead to the most dangerous consequences. It’s these
incontrovertible “truths” that compel me to stand up and speak out now
and attempt to use intelligence to cultivate wisdom while expanding my
compassion. As I look my pain in the eye, I hope to use it to create
change.

“On one hand, I’m deeply worried and want to rescue him; on the other
hand, I want to laugh it off; and on a third (if I had one), I want to
slam the door in his face. When my brain and heart feel scrambled like
this, I want to throw up my hands and not write anything out of fear
that I’ll further fuel our national crisis over truth and division.”

In a 2010 New York Times op-ed, Roger Cohen said of the “paltry harvest
of captive minds” that “such minds resort to conspiracy theory because
it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your
own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world.” This
quote has held up throughout my exploration, as has a basic concept
drawn from “The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership” by Jim Dethmer,
Diana Chapman and Kaley Warner Klemp, who believe humans have three core
needs ? approval, security and control ? and when a human being’s needs
for approval and security are inadequate, control is their last resort.

The concept of a “paltry harvest” points to leaders who spread
conspiracy theories to the “captive minds” of their followers. Frank
Yeomans, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Cornell
University, explained in a series of videos that the “malignant
narcissist” personality describes someone who takes pleasure in both
self-aggrandizement and the destruction of others. He argued that people
like Hitler and Jim Jones appeal to masses of people who feel powerless,
deprived and downtrodden. These leaders weaponize hope and faith and
vilify “the other” as the definable person or group to blame for their
problems. Hitler believed that the bigger the lie, the more people would
embrace it. Yeoman believes former President Donald Trump fits this
personality profile, terrifying half of us but emboldening the other
half.

Conspiracies lend themselves to nationalism and racism when a definable
person or group is targeted for blame. Philosopher Aldous Huxley once
said, “One of the great attractions of patriotism ? it fulfills our
worst wishes. In the person of our nation, we are able, vicariously, to
bully and cheat. Bully and cheat, what’s more, with a feeling that we
are profoundly virtuous."

The middlemen in the spread of conspiracy theories are the individuals,
politicians, corporations and media celebrities who benefit from their
proximity to the malignant narcissist by taking the most radical and
outrageous stances. They will excuse, justify and look past the
despicable actions of the malignant narcissist to retain their money,
power and status as well as the approval, security and control that
comes with all of that.

One example of this is the National Rifle Association. In an interview
about his new book, “Gunfight: My Battle Against the Industry that
Radicalized America,” former industry insider Ryan Busse spoke about the
rise in sales of automatic weapons. “After Columbine, [the NRA] stumbled
upon this idea that fear and conspiracy and hatred of the other could be
used to drive and win political races, as well as drive record sales of
unhealthy firearms,” he said. After Sept. 11, Busse said, “Everything
that happened was spun in some fearful, conspiratorial, racial, just
hate-filled way.” He likened that time to a political pressure cooker
where unhinged ideas were spread to keep Americans at a boiling point.
Busse said that before his enlightenment, he was “naive and thoughtless”
and compared himself “to a young kid who signed up for war without
knowing what war was really about.”

In psychology and cognitive science, the simplicity principle posits
that the mind tends to regress to simplicity when contemplating the
messy complexities of life. In order to make sense of what is happening
around us, we rely on survival tactics to help us feel in control of the
hand we’ve been dealt and of the world around us and our place in it. As
one tactic, our brains see patterns where none actually exist. What
might start as a story of good versus evil shared among friends ? that a
nefarious cabal is secretly plotting against humanity ? soon begins to
feel like top-secret knowledge arrived through critical thinking,
particularly when groups are suffering from loss, weakness or disunity.
A powerful actor behind the chaos can be much easier to accept than the
idea that we’re responsible for our own circumstances, that there are
many complex factors at work in any system or culture, or that shit just
happens.

“It’s essential to recognize there may be some bit of truth in many
conspiracy theories, and it’s these flickers of reality that can keep
the flames alive.”

It’s essential to recognize there may be some bit of truth in many
conspiracy theories, and it’s these flickers of reality that can keep
the flames alive. I believe the seeds of many conspiracies related to
vaccine resistance can be traced back to the erroneous study by Andrew
Wakefield and his colleagues published in The Lancet in 1998, promoting
a nonexistent connection between autism and the measles, mumps and
rubella vaccine. Wakefield’s work was later retracted, and his medical
license was revoked. He’s become known as the “the doctor who fooled the
world” and and turbocharged the anti-vaccine movement. My brother
believes the rise in autism is the fault of the pharmaceutical industry,
and the fact that both the paper and Wakefield’s medical license were
later retracted is just “proof” to my brother that the pharmaceutical
industry was corrupt ? not the report itself.

In the episode “When You Need It To Be True” of the podcast “Hidden
Brain,” host Shankar Vedantam says the theory of cognitive dissonance
(attributable to psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957) explains “the
strange alchemy in our minds that makes it possible for us to live
happily in an upside-down world and believe that everyone else is
wrong.” In other words, human beings will go to extraordinary lengths in
search of internal psychological consistency to function mentally when
faced with opposing ideas.

In this episode, Verdantam tells two stories. One is about a group of
people from the 1950s called The Seekers who quit their jobs, distanced
themselves from their loved ones and drastically changed their
lifestyles, believing they were the chosen ones who would be saved from
worldwide destruction by UFOs. The second is a modern-day account of a
lonely divorcee duped by an online scammer who promised her the love and
acceptance she was craving, even though the deceit was obvious to her
friends. The moral of both stories is that oftentimes, we want something
to be true so badly that we make it true, even if it means turning our
lives inside out and destroying our families before accepting
information we don’t want to hear.

In trying unsuccessfully to find reliable statistics on how prevalent
and dangerous modern conspiracy theories are, I found this mind-boggling
figure from Statista that’s more frightening than comforting: In the
third quarter of 2021, 1.8 billion fake accounts were deleted from
Facebook, up from 1.3 billion fake accounts in the corresponding quarter
in 2020. It’s no big news that a person can find “proof” of virtually
anything on the internet to bolster what they believe, and the isolation
brought on by the pandemic over the last two years has given many people
ample time to dig deep and try to make sense of the world. While I watch
from afar in disbelief, hoping my brother will see the light, he seems
to just double down on hoping I’m the one who will eventually see the
light, even after every time his latest predicted zombie apocalypse
doesn’t come to pass.

So do we, as a society, spend our energy silencing the malignant
narcissists and the spread of disinformation/misinformation by the
middlemen? These days, this only seems to give them more power. Or do we
instead address the deep societal issues that provide fertile ground for
conspiracy theories? One can argue that security, approval and control
can really only come from within, but that’s a long leap when faced with
the uncertain chaos of modern life and epidemics of depression, anxiety,
substance use, political division, isolation, systemic inequalities and
incessant consumerism fed by the dead-end promises of an antiquated
American dream. If (according to a crass comment I came across)
conspiracy theories are for “losers,” can we aspire to a society where
there are fewer losers?

“[My brother] assured me he will be sharing this piece with his TikTok
followers as soon as it’s published because it 'really explains what
many of us cannot understand, which is how so many supersmart people can
seem to ignore what is going on.'”

Although we no longer operate on the same foundation of “facts,” my
brother and I did find a grain of common ground when he correctly stated
in a recent text that we both want the same thing: “to take the country
back from the ground up.” When I sent him a draft of this essay, he was
unwavering in his belief that free speech is our most treasured right
and graciously gave me his blessing. [My brother] assured me he will be
sharing this piece with his TikTok followers as soon as it’s published
because it “really explains what many of us cannot understand, which is
how so many supersmart people can seem to ignore what is going on.”

I know that every person’s perceptions are some blend of objective and
personal interpretations of reality. No matter how smart or well-read a
person is, none of us see the world as it really is. Every time I speak
to my brother (or anyone else I disagree with), I remind myself that our
views are shaped ? and contaminated ? by our egocentric perspectives. As
we emerge from the pandemic, continue to socialize online, and gather
with family and friends, virtually no one is exempt from having those
they love end up believing they’re being brainwashed by “the other.” So
I suppose my New Year’s resolution is to relentlessly examine my own
beliefs and make a continued commitment to being civil and curious and
having an open mind. Only with grace and a quest for understanding can
we nourish the most basic human needs for approval and security within
our families and communities.

Sue Muncaster is a freelance writer living in Teton Valley, Idaho.
Through her platform Teton Strong, she explores the intentional mental,
physical, social and spiritual practices and rich experiences that bring
us alive and are characteristic of a values-driven outdoor lifestyle.
Just last week she dipped her toes into local politics when she joined
the Victor city council as a councilmember. You can find her on Facebook
and Medium.

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