Not sure about you lot, but it seems that in the past few months, my social network has lurched sideways several extra clicks into conspiracy land.
Folks that I had taken as stable bellwethers of their particular worldview have now taken to posting cryptically on social media, muttering darkly about what's "really" going on, ending old friendships, cementing new alliances. Getting ready.
I've been researching and writing about these ideological shifts for a while now (see this Recapture the Rapture excerpt on The Intertwingularity)...
But that doesn't spare you the shock of realizing your own friend groups are suddenly drifting apart, like a bunch of fractal Chilly Willys on their separate ice floes.
(If Chilly Willy had a sack of crystal meth and was tweaked out of his little mind).
To be fair, it seems that the booming borough of Austin where we live is shaping up to be an XXL Hotbed of Crazy. (It's also popping off down Under in Oz, in Kauai and Marin too).
The peculiar stew of old school "keep Austin weird" iconoclasm, paired with one of the highest concentrations of info marketers and New Age lifestyle coaches in the country, Burners, anti-vaxx UFC podcaster bros, God, Guns and Guts Evangelicals, a slug of crytpo currency Silicon Valley libertarians and Don't Mess with Texas homesteading tax resisters...
Well, that right there, friends and neighbors, is what we call a spicy gumbo.
And here's the thing––this kind of metastasizing meme-pool is creating all sorts of mutations rarely seen in the wild.
The UFC bros have been going to Burning Man, the Burners have been studying up on tax resistance and guns. The Jesus people are tracking the Book of Revelations, but the New Age folks are happy to bolt those End Times tales onto their Kali Yuga and Hopi prophecies. The Libertarians are building blockchain economies and spaceships.
Everyone's buying ranches for apocalypse communities.
And pretty much all of 'em are convinced that vaccines are the Mark of the Beast and a slippery slope towards surveillance chips and a New World Order totalitarian state that's all Bill Gates' and George Soros' fault.
For a while, I admit, I didn't give enough respect to the TinFoil hat crowd. I assumed that the only way you could possibly fall for such leaps of faith and gaps in evidence was to have checked your discernment at the door. The Dunning Kruger effect, the cynical idiocy of cable-news and the collapse of American education, etc...
But this latest round of defections from consensus reality (or "awakenings" depending on the color of the pills you've been popping), has forced me to rethink my rubric.
There's smart, successful, well informed folks jumping the fence. People I know, care about and respect. So it's not just a case of intelligence, or education, professional accomplishment, or access to quality information that's making the difference.
Because much in the same way that weed gets us high, not because that five fingered plant has some super secret sauce, but because it fits lock and key into the pre-existing endocannabinoid system in our brains (see excerpt from RTR here for a rad backstory on the science behind it), these mind-viruses are sneaking around our bullshit detectors and immune systems because they too, fit lock and key into our ego identity structures.
(That's a meta meme, about memes, for those of you keeping score at home).
We don't get snookered into believing these tall tales are true because we've actually done our research, weighed the evidence, gone back to primary sources, conducted a Bayesian probabilistic analysis and provisionally moved forward from there into a volatile and uncertain future...
What we do instead, is, dismayed and overwhelmed by the utter shitshow collapse of the current metacrisis, and yearning to hold onto anything that floats––we grab the ones that feel truthiest.
It's a dismal science––the pursuit of Truthiness. But we all know how it works.
I scan the news, check out what my friends are saying, what "thought leaders" are thinking (aka whoever I've seen lately on podcasts), and I sift through all the different, competing and conflicting narratives out there. Then I compare that against my own personal narrative.
Who am I in the story arc of my life? Who do I yearn to be?
And unless I am an exceptionally disciplined and honest thinker, I am going to put my money on the meta-narrative that most closely matches who I want to be in my personal narrative.
We might not be able to fix global warming, or the culture wars, or the pandemic, or the dislocation of our digital consumer lives by ourselves––it's all too big, too much.
But what we can do, is to select an overarching mythic story that reaffirms our part to play in the Grand Unfolding. And in a world of uncertainty that feels profoundly grounding, soothing, and empowering. It's all we've got.
Here's four main Ego Stories that seem to be especially prevalent these days in informing who gets suckered into which particular conspiracy:
Let's take 'em one at a time...
The Anti-Establishment Rebel:
The Rebel has always marched to a different drummer, has never accepted consensus opinion, and likes to fancy themselves too smart to ever get the wool pulled over their eyes.
Any narrative that pokes an eye in the face of authority, upends the status quo, and distinguishes them as the standard bearers of truth will feel like catnip (or heroin) in their veins. Especially the smart ones!
The Preening Narcissist:
The Narcissist has spent a considerable amount of their life perfecting their vessel.
Fitness, spirituality and social media often feature prominently in their world (as are the folks who hire professional photographers for their holiday cards or trips to Burning Man).
They are especially susceptible to any narrative that suggests that their health, vitality, or consciousness will, at a minimum, keep them immune to challenges that may knock others to their knees, and at a maximum, may mark them to be leaders on the other side of crisis.
The Loyal Foot Soldier:
The Foot Soldier yearns to have a leader to follow in a clearly defined battle between Light and Dark.
They want to know their role, and to feel that it affirms their sense of being a protector of Good in the world. Due to their binary thinking, they may under scrutinize their Fearless Leader, and over demonize their Fearful Foe.
The Guilty Liberal:
The Guilty Liberal has sought stability and moral confirmation by adhering to the ongoing and rapidly changing orthodox consensus.
Recently, that has included the "flatten the curve" lockdowns, to the "Wuhan Lab Leak theory is racist" to Silence is Violence, to (cloth) masks and (mRNA) vaccines are completely safe and effective, to breakthrough cases are non-existent, to alternative therapies are MAGA quackery (see: "Horse dewormer").
Are these the only archetypes in play right now? Almost certainly not. Are all of them wrong? Almost certainly not, either. Too soon to tell for most.
Almost no one fits neatly into any of these boxes. Some might, but a bunch more are 60/40 or 80/20 splits, straddling lines and shifting with changes in context and conditions. We're complex people and this world of ours is getting curiouser and curiouser everyday.
But until we identify what parts of our identity we're looking to soothe, validate or empower with the stories we tell... we're going to mistake Truthiness for Truth.
So do a gut check for yourself first––which of those four ego identities feels most resonant for you? How has it informed which unusual or evidence-challenged theory you've been most tempted by?
How bout for other folks in your life? Can you see a match between a friend's core persona and which rabbit hole has sucked them in?
As Anais Nin said, echoing Neitzche who might have been quoting the Talmud, "we do not see things as they are, but as we are."
Or for a more contemporary update, "we conspira-see as we be."
And in this time of the Intertwingularity, where all of our stories are intertwining, smashing and crashing into each other, we are seeing the world through the lenses of ourselves (and darkly too).
In the final analysis, it may end up mattering less which flag we flew or uniform we wore, and more, on whether we were coming from fear or love, playing for all of us, or only some of us.
That's a far simpler calculus that can cut through much of the mayhem we're all feeling right now––believe what you want to believe, just never lose the faith