Why I hate the term “Conspiracy Theorist”

I am disappointed in Rachel Maddow and her guest tonight, Alice Hoagland, the mother of Mark Bingham, who was killed on Flight 93 on 9-11-2001, for using the term “conspiracy theorist” and for labeling people who hold to such theories as “kooks.”

I assume the 9-11 Truth activists they referred to in this dismissive manner know who the current president is, know what day it is and can probably hold down a job. However misguided, stubborn or misinformed Maddow and Hoagland consider these people to be, chances are they are no more or less mentally ill than any other sample of society.

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The term “conspiracy theorist” bothers me because the way in which people use it is dangerously circular: If you believe in a “conspiracy theory,” you are crazy. Therefore, any explanation of a world event other than the official story espoused by elected officials is to be dismissed because only conspiracy theorists believe in such nonsense, and they are crazy.

How much actual wrongdoing goes uninvestigated and unreported by those who fear being shunned by society by being labeled “conspiracy theorists?”

What bothers me almost as much as people who label government skeptics conspiracy theorists are those at the other end of the conspiracy spectrum; that is, people who are never going to believe the official story simply because it is the official story, who believe that The Governnment is a monolithic Superpower that is always lying to us and is motivated only by the desire to deceive and enslave us, steal our money, harvest our organs, and poison whatever remains of our dessicated husks.

The Government is just people. It’s us. People who work in government, including elected officials, are motivated by the same forces that propel all behavior: ambition, compassion, duty, pity, lust, competitiveness, territoriality, fear, laziness, generosity, honor, spitefulness, love, resignation, compulsiveness, perfectionism, and habit. People in government commit noble, selfless acts at work. They also engage in petty, sometimes unscrupulous behavior. Sometimes the same person behaves both appallingly and heroically during the course of a government career.

Some of the biggest sins committed in government are sins of omission, such as the failure to blow the whistle on incompetent, illegal and immoral behavior. What is the primary cause of such failure to act? Fear. Fear of being fired, ostracized, labeled a crank, a cook, a Conspiracy Theorist.

Here is a web site with several conspiracies that really took place, including the Gunpowder Plot, the Tuskegee Experiments and, my favorite, the CIA’s horrifying MK-ULTRA project.

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About Lisa M.

Lisa Moscatiello (host, webmaster and podcast producer). She is a touring singer on the folk music circuit and freelance publicist. She worked for many years at the Library of Congress. She holds a B.A. in history from Yale University and a M.A. in liberal arts from St. John's College in Annapolis.
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6 Responses to Why I hate the term “Conspiracy Theorist”

  1. BarbaraNo Gravatar says:

    I’m relieved to see there is some push back taking place regarding Rachel Maddow’s 4/24 interview with Alice Hoagland, and Rachel’s ill informed follow up comments. As a long time viewer of the RMS, I’m very unpleasantly surprised. She has lost all credibility with me. I’ll stick with Cenk and The Young Turks from now on!

  2. John HatchNo Gravatar says:

    While I agree with your sentiment, I think this is splitting hairs a bit. Yes, there’s unquestionably real conspiracies. But for good or ill, we seem to have designated a “conspiracy theorist” as one who promotes or believes baseless claims about a grand event. It’s also a way of designating those who, despite the particular theory being peddled, engage in the same rhetoric, thinking, and fallacies to promote a false point of view.

    There are legitimate criticisms of the government by those who do not accept the official story that are usually not labeled as conspiracy theories, including attacks on the Iraq War justification and Iran-Contra. These events may, arguably, even be conspiracies, but they are not theories involving grand cover-ups and shadow puppeteers, usually present in what we traditionally label as conspiracy theories, like the JFK assassination, the moon landing, 9/11 truthers, or even more recently birthers, Sandy Hook theorists, and now the Boston bombing.

    In short, I don’t see the use of the label in this way as something that will deter whistle blowers or skeptical government criticism. It’s just one of those labels that morphs over time to refer to a specific type of person or event.

    • BarbaraNo Gravatar says:

      I have not seen on the ae911truth.com website (or any of their publications/videos) any accusation that the government was behind 911. This is a common misconception and one that is used to discredit those who believe, based upon fact not theory, that the planes did not bring down the buildings. “Truthers” are not making accusations regarding who was behind 911, they (we) are merely convinced by an abundance of evidence that the official explanation is wrong and should not stand.

  3. Lorin KleinmanNo Gravatar says:

    I suspect that Maddow and her guest used “kooky” as a synonym for eccentric, rather than mentally ill; in the various online definitions , “strange” and related terms predominate over crazy. On the other hand, two species of 9-11 truther theories that I’ve heard of are: the government flew the planes into the towers, in a massive conspiracy involving no leaks; or the original passengers were killed or hidden on an island, with the calls from the planes being made by actors, in an even more massive conspiracy with no leaks. (Some of the families of the victims were informed by these truthers that they had not actually been speaking to anyone they knew: the call was made by an actor convincingly impersonating their family member from a call center.) It is hard to argue that people holding these views inhabit quite the same reality that the majority of the population does; or that it is a reality with much relation to facts. (David Icke, a prominent truther , seems further to believe that we are all governed by reptilian overlords: this is in fact a kooky theory.)

    “Conspiracy theorist” in current parlance tends to be used not for government skeptics but for holders of particularly evidence-resistant views; and for most truthers, this idea is part of the kind of larger monolithic government view that you reject. And while government misdoing can, for various reasons, go unreported (though not generally for long: things do tend to leak), I don’t believe that fear of being labeled a conspiracy theorist is a particularly common reason. Fired, ostracized: sure. “I can’t expose this plot because they’ll lump me in with the 9-11 truthers”: not so much.

    PS: These theories didn’t, of course, come from nowhere. You can trace a line from the conspiracy theories of the 19th Century, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion–which did so much to fuel and develop the vitriolic anti-semitism sweeping Europe–to the bankers/Rothschilds/Bilderberg/UN/ etc. one-world government theories now current. This is not to say that everyone–or even most people–holding these theories are anti-Semites; but it is to say that in them, I can see the great-grandchild of the theory that helped wipe out the Austrian branch of my family. These ideas are not without consequences.

  4. Nica NoelleNo Gravatar says:

    I agree that “conspiracy theorist” applies to those who espouse elaborate, far-fatched scenarios for which there is no evidence, in order to offer an alternative and more sinister “real motive” for a big, important event. And (sorry!) like religious zealots, those people do sometimes seem to be a bit kooky.

    When someone is discussing government cover-ups for which there is some legitimate evidence and documentation, that’s a different story. Most people can and do make the distinction.

  5. Scot DenhalterNo Gravatar says:

    I am going to disagree with my friend, John.

    I have a problem with the phrase, “conspiracy theorist,” an adjective-noun combination that is irresponsibly tossed around today. But it’s the noun that is the problem.

    We all know that conspiracies are real. That’s what people do to get what they want when fair or legal means are either unavailable or less productive.

    But a theorist is someone who weaves a theoretical model to explain the observable and measureable evidence available about a particular event—chemical, biological, historical, neurological, etc. And herein lies my problem with the phrase. It encourages the degradation of the concept of theory and theoretical speculation. (Our culture has for different reasons, denigrated the terms, “rhetoric,” and “argument,” so that their original meanings have been lost to the common usage. Today those two terms a almost exclusively used as pejoratives.)

    To be sure there are those who believe the Bush administration was behind the 9/11, but these people are not theorists. They are not interpreting observable, measureable data to form a theoretical model of an historical event. They are focused on anomalous bits and pieces while ignoring all the rest of the data available. The suspicion exists before any evidence is examined, and only the inexplicable facts, the outliers that contribute to the false positive, are allowed consideration.

    Lets find another noun to attach the adjective too.

    Conspiracy confabulator?

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