Every so often, something so awful and senseless happens that it’s hard to fully absorb it. An apartment building collapses as residents sleep within. A movie star’s prop gun fires a real bullet on a film set, killing a young mother. A concert crowd morphs into a melee that leaves people dead and injured.
After each such catastrophe, there looms a question: What’s the real story of what happened here? Amid a stream of facts and rumors via breaking news alerts, the loudest answers often come from two camps: Let’s call them the conspiracists and the reformists.
One rants about shadowy schemes, nefarious figures, unseen hands and global cabals. The other preaches the gospel of rationality, a doctrine holding that even if all is not yet known, all is eventually knowable, and that if sensible rules are followed, chaos can be prevented.
Take as an example Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival, where a crowd surge earlier this month left at least 10 people dead and injured hundreds. “It was like hell,” one attendee said. Some conspiracists were quick to assert another view: The concert wasn’t just “like” hell. It was, rather, an elaborate satanic ritual, perhaps designed to summon a portal to hell.
The signs were all there, they tweeted. There was the stage that looked like an inverted cross. There was the fact that the Church of Satan was founded on April 30, 1966 — 666 months and six days before the night of the concert, Nov. 5, 2021. And that date was also the 66th birthday of Kris Jenner, the mother of Kylie Jenner, Mr. Scott’s girlfriend. These outlandish ideas are not relegated to the fringes of the internet; some videos making such claims have millions of views. A single comment on one of these posts (“The music industry is demonic and collects souls”) garnered tens of thousands of likes on its own.
A conspiracist’s natural habitats are TikTok, Reddit, Facebook and YouTube, fertile ground for planting seeds of paranoia and fear through seconds-long clips and doctored photos. After the Astroworld tragedy, a prominent QAnon figure reportedly articulated the mantra of a conspiracist: “There is NO such thing as ‘coincidence.’ Ever.”
Enter the reformist, for whom a catastrophe comes down to predictable human error. According to the reformist, the cause of the crowd surge at Astroworld was a series of egregious mistakes: inadequate planning, a set of safety measures not properly put in place or a performer who should have stopped the show sooner.
Crisis could have been averted if only the proper procedures had been followed, the reformist argues on CNN or MSNBC, in an op-ed or Twitter thread. With sober policy prescriptions and technocratic resolve, the reformist suggests, we can bring to heel the chaos that is human existence. We need only follow the rules — and their smart advice.
The dichotomy between figures embodying either chaos or order goes back millenniums, and exists in cultures around the world. It is exemplified by the pairing of the ancient Greek gods Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry and mayhem, and Apollo, the god of the sun, temperance and rational thinking. Philosophers, Nietzsche most notably, have long commented on the relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian.
We humans need narratives to process what happens around us or in the world at large. As the popular historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has said: “The truly unique trait of Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities.”
Both the conspiracists and the reformists are engaged in this utterly human process. By connecting events and facts, and tying red strings between them on their metaphorical pin boards, the conspiracist and the reformist each develop a thesis about what happened. Stories help us live with each other and with ourselves, and in the wake of great and sudden suffering, we need something to keep us going.
It might be difficult to see how a story about a satanic blood sacrifice helps people live with themselves. But the conspiracist’s story offers a kind of clemency for the people involved, and perhaps for humankind at large. The image of concertgoers booing a woman who climbed a platform to try to stop the show at Astroworld is difficult to stomach. It can be easier to believe that the events that transpired were a satanic plot than to see them as a result of mundane human indifference.
The soothing quality of the reformist’s story is even easier to identify.Their program of measured improvement offers hope for progress and the promise of control. For that, the reformist attitude is to be admired. If it’s true that “the story in which you believe shapes the society that you create,” as Mr. Harari recently said in an interview, then reformists, with their efforts to eliminate systemic malfunctions, are working toward a better world, or at the very least, a more safe and just one.
The conspiracist and the reformist tend to double down on the narratives valued by their respective communities. The reformist lives in a world where expertise and problem-solving have cultural cachet. The conspiracist lives in world where spirituality and belief in higher powers can answer a lot of the big questions.
Of course the distinctions between the reformist and the conspiracist, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, are not absolute. Within any one person, the lines blur: Many of us can be reformists and conspiracists, prone to mysticism in some areas and beholden to reason in others. A tree may fall and nearly kill you, leading you to believe that this was a sign from the universe that you must live life to the fullest and appreciate each day — even as you email the city council about hiring more arborists.
There are problems with the stories that both conspiracists and reformists peddle. The conspiracist’s story, taken to its extreme, would have us believe that there is nothing we can do about accidents or problems because they are spawned by devils and cabals, malevolent forces beyond our control. The extreme version of the reformist’s story, by contrast, would have us believe that there’s nothing we can’t do about accidents or problems, that reason can secure us total control over our environment, and even over ourselves.
The truth is that catastrophes occupy the gray space between the darkness of the conspiracist’s narrative and the light of the reformist’s narrative. We are more in control than the conspiracists think; we are less in control than the reformists think.
American history offers many examples of conspiracists and reformists differing in their interpretation of events, from the Salem witch trials to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Or, take two other horrors of recent months: the fatal shooting on the set of the film “Rust,” and the Surfside condo building collapse. Both inspired conspiracy theories, and both inspired lectures and expert analyses of societal failures. Surely, more could have been done to prevent these tragedies — there were procedural and administrative failures in both instances — but we can only ever reduce the possibility of disaster, not eliminate it completely.
There’s a risk here, of course, of false equivalence. Though the conspiracist and the reformist have much in common, the consequences of their stories are obviously quite different. Conspiracy theories such as those advanced by QAnon adherents can breed apathy or extremism or undermine civil society, and they have led to violence and threats of violence.
Reformist narratives might be sanctimonious, but they tend to come from a desire to protect people and improve the world. Still, they can lead to excess caution, such as an unwillingness to discuss an eventual end to masking mandates at schools in some blue states, even when it’s not yet clear what effects two years of masking will have on children.
The true problem with the conspiracist and the reformist, however, is that by telling stories about a catastrophe’s meaning, they assent to the premise of the question, to the hubristic notion that the world should bend itself to human reasoning, that its nature and events and accidents will align with our storytelling. Each camp acts as if its stories are natural discoveries, rather than constructed narratives.
And what’s often lacking in both these camps is humility and empathy. Living in the gray area requires a healthy dose of both.
Empathy is what’s required, for example, to narrow the gulf on Covid: the conspiracist deniers and anti-vaxxers on one side, and the double-masked-and-triple-vaxxed reformists on the other, each railing against anyone whose choices they disagree with.
What would Covid messaging have looked like if humility had been built into the stories we told about masks and vaccines? If we had understood them to be highly effective preventive measures, rather than either silver bullets or ruses, would they have mutated into symbols, into sharp ideological lines dividing the nation?
Humility is a useful quality, too, when regarding the disaster of human-wrought climate change: It’s required to accept that a great deal of damage has already been done, and that our ability to mitigate future damage is already limited. Admitting so doesn’t mean abandoning the fight altogether.
What’s the harm, you might ask, of stories that make some sense of the senseless? Perhaps none. But they can rob us of the opportunity to sit with our feelings, to grieve our losses, to rage at the chaos of the universe, at our animal helplessness, at the random unfairness of life. Both conspiracists and reformists tell stories that explain the “why” before we’ve even processed the “what.”
Adrian J. Rivera (@lwaysadrian) is the 2021-2022 New York Times Opinion editing fellow.
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