I know I am not as sympathetic to those caught up in conspiratorial thinking as I logically could be. I know how the manipulation works, how media echo chambers function to reinforce the things you already believe or want to be true and insulate you against any difference of thought, and how radicalization works regardless of whether it sends you left or right, religious or secular.
Humans and groups are complex and there are no tidy narratives. I saw people attacking and beating police at the Capitol and I saw people ostensibly on the same side trying to protect those victims. I am sure there are people who never imagined that a protest would turn into a violent storming of the Capitol…but I am equally sure that there are people who knew exactly what they were doing and planned for it.
The evidence of this is mounting every day.
How they were meeting, coalescing, and coordinating on social media.
How specific some of their individual or group agendas were.
How more is already being planned.
Sympathy for the devil?
And so, no, I do not think of all of these people involved in the storming of the Capitols in exactly the same way…but I am struggling to parse the categories correctly. I think many of them are victims, but where does that victimhood end? In addition to willful bad actors, some were probably just caught up in a moment, the collective conscious of a mob. The vast majority of them have been lied to and isolated from alternative points of view for so long that many people do believe we are living through some kind of cataclysmic crisis.
If I believed some of those things, would I be willing to do something drastic about it? Yeah, if I’m honest with myself, I can see the appeal or at least the logic. Everyone likes to think that if put in the circumstances of history, that they would make the valiant and historically vindicated choice. Well, a lot of these people think that’s what’s happening and they are trying to make what they understand to be a valiant choice. There’s a strange sort of bravery in it.
The problem is…the underlying premise of their belief is deeply, tragically flawed. The people who converged might have nuances and differences, but underpinning all of them is a collective, fatal lie; that the election was invalid in some way.
What do we make of genuine attempts at heroism for a false cause? It’s the same logic of ISIS, the crusades, leftist eugenics of the late 19th, early 20th century, and more. Fervent commitment to a false cause is a human problem, it’s always been with us.
So, what do?
So while I want the people who did illegal and violent actions on January 6, 2020 to face the requisite legal repercussions for their actions, I still think the long term focus MUST be on the ecosystem that made this not just possible but probable. Garbage in, garbage out. We should hold people accountable for their individual actions, but we MUST hold responsible the people who should have been a check on the worst of this and didn’t. And yes, that includes the President, which is why I think impeaching him is the right thing to do. There needs to be deterrent for leaders and those in power from feeling able to leverage violence and extremism – whether through incitement, tacit approval, or passive acceptance – for their political benefit.
I don’t know what to do long-term, however, about the problem of living in alternate realities that are founded on these beliefs. QAnon believers still believe President Trump has a plan to take down a global pedophilia and hormone harvesting ring of Satan worshipers (yes…really…). NeoNazis are already spinning last week as a victory that validates their views and appeals to new recruits. Lots of various other groups believe that they are going to be marched into concentration camps, have their guns confiscated, that the government is about to enact martial law, and any other variance.
Each of these worldviews shares a trait: they have an almost religiously protective reaction to any attempts to persuade them otherwise. It reinforces their faith more than harms it. It’s why I wrote about giving up most of my attempts to argue with people who disagree with me with a view to convincing them – because I’ve lost confidence that it actually produces an effect.
But then, what will work? The only thing I can think of is rooting it out, which is also why I favor deplatforming and push back strongly when it’s called censorship. It isn’t.
We have to confront the ecosystems that create and sustain brittle and false worldviews. This is partly what activists mean when they want to dismantle white supremacy/racism/misogyny, or dispute terminology in a way that makes conservatives mad. It’s also what produces so much backlash against this activism – see paragraph above. If your worldview premises are challenged and they are somehow fundamental to your identity (religious, political, social, you name it), you might interpret a different opinion or movement as an attack. And you might respond accordingly–that’s exactly what’s happening.
We don’t have to be talking about “isms” for this logic to work. I could say the same same is true of the systems of education and media and politics in which we find ourselves, which have helped shape deep and entrenched identities. At a deep level, I’d say this gives insights into how left-leaning people like me position themselves and why. Because I don’t want to dismantle existing systems of power (white privilege, patriarchy, the worst iterations of wealth inequality, and so forth) because they are MEAN or UNFAIR–a criticism often lobbed which I think is juvenile and patronizing. I want them to end because I do not believe they are founded on legitimate truth claims.
We have to confront the lies at the core of these identities. Otherwise they will do what extremist and reactionary movements have always done – reconstitute themselves underground until they see another chance to break out again. History demonstrates this over and over.
The Big Lie
Ultimately I keep coming back to thinking about lynch mobs, that horribly American historical precedent. This is absolutely stemming from seeing a gallows erected on Capitol Hill. People are frantically debating whether it was meant to be symbolic or was intended to kill people…and I think that utterly misses the point.
It’s as useless an argument as whether we were supposed to take Trump “literally or seriously,” because ultimately…it doesn’t matter. The big lie enables and justifies either outcome. That’s why it’s so dangerous.
Looking at the history of lynchings in America, it is actually rare that every single person would have participated in the actual torture and murder of the victims, many would have been spectators or even treated it as some kind of ghoulish community event. But everyone in those crowds would have thought what was happening was “right,” “justified,” or even “righteous.” They would have believed that this action would have been taken because the victim, almost inevitably a person considered inferior or dangerous (whether Black, Jewish, German, Chinese, or any other group) “deserved it.”
You didn’t have to be the one slinging a rope over a tree limb to participate in the big lie of racism. They believed what they were doing was right, whether they watched from a picnic blanket or murdered with their bare hands. These might not be considered equivalently evil acts when viewed in isolation through a purely objective lens – but you can’t do that. Both are categorically underpinned and linked by the same false and evil premise and you cannot detach one from the other.
To do so is to capitulate to the lie. And ultimately, that’s what they want.