Last week, my stepmom died of cancer. She had survived cancer treatments and surgeries in the past and had been in stable condition in recent years, but two weeks ago I received text messages and calls with vague, second- and third-hand explanations of things going badly: something metastasized, something ruptured, something about a blood-filter device. When the doctors said that she may be too weak for surgeries, the conversations began to shift toward hospice care, pain reduction, and quality of life.
As a result of all this, I’ve been speaking with my family more often, and the door is open for the two topics I typically try to avoid.
The first is religion. I was frustrated when my dad scheduled my stepmom’s celebration-of-life party for Halloween weekend. I celebrate Halloween (sometimes with elaborate costumes), but my family believes it’s “satanic” and not a “real” holiday, so when I asked if we might reconsider the date, my dad said that we don’t plan around Halloween. Normally I would push back or skip the family event like I skip Thanksgiving every year, but his wife just died, so I mostly just felt like an asshole for being frustrated to begin with. I hate talking about religion with my family, so I’ve learned to think three steps ahead and avoid topics that could move in that direction.
As for the second topic, many of you might’ve guessed politics, which is an obvious third-rail issue in many families. But in my experience, every conversation with my family about politics is actually about conspiracies. I wrote about my family’s conspiratorial thinking in the past:
Every few months, I get a certain kind of text message from my dad. It might be a meme he found on Facebook of a picture of Bill Gates with the caption, “Don’t take health advice from people who think the world is overpopulated.” It might be an article about the murders that Hillary Clinton commits to cover up her past. It might be a 30-minute YouTube documentary about the impending one-world government under the New World Order. Responding to his texts is a lose-lose: Either I dispute the conspiracy, and we argue, or I leave it be and implicitly condone it. My dad isn’t just mildly susceptible to conspiracies about election fraud, or why the media can’t be trusted. Conspiracies are his information, his entertainment, and his worldview.
Conspiratorial thinking is the subject of Shadowland, a new docuseries on Peacock based on a series of articles by The Atlantic. The six-part series, which premiered on Wednesday, follows the lives of several conspiracists, tracing their beliefs and the effect that conspiratorial thinking has had on their lives. It’s part explainer on some of the most common modern conspiracies (What is a “cabal,” anyway? What is “adrenochrome”?), and part profile of individuals who believe the 2020 election was stolen, vaccines kill, and pedophiles kidnap children to drink their blood, among other things. More broadly, Shadowland looks to understand how we might better protect ourselves from harmful conspiracies, how we might help those who already believe in them, and what happens if these beliefs continue to spread.
With my own family, I tend to react to conspiratorial arguments with anger. I think on some level I believe that my own resistance to scams, propaganda, and conspiracies means that they should be able to resist them too. These feelings are especially pronounced with my brother, who recognizes our dad as a conspiracy theorist but often finds himself getting swayed by false information. It drove me up a wall when he forwarded me the Plandemic “documentary” that was making the rounds through my family last year. “Well, we know that vaccines cause autism, right?” he asked, defending his skepticism of coronavirus vaccines. When these conversations happen, my response comes from a condescending, intellectual-bootstrapping sort of mindset. How could you be so stupid? I unlearned dad’s bullshit, I worked hard, and I made it out. Why can’t you?
One of the most interesting aspects of watching Shadowland was interrogating my own inconsistent reactions to its subjects. Watching journalists interview conspiracists, I thought of the ways many of us respond to someone who believes in a conspiracy that we know is harmful. I would narrow it down to three main reactions:
- Anger: The most common reaction is a frustration with someone for their failure to think more critically, or a belief that they do think more critically and are trying to manipulate others for their own gain. (How can people be this stupid? or They’re lying and they know it.)
- Sympathy: The second-most common reaction involves a concern for the underlying fear, loneliness, or manipulation that led someone to their conspiratorial belief system. (I hope they get the help they need.)
- Curiosity: The rarest reaction, this is not necessarily an interest in the conspiracy itself, but a curiosity about the conditions that can make someone believe what they do. (What are they looking for?)
Maybe the emotional distance makes me more generous, because I found myself feeling sympathetic for some of the people in the docuseries—but not all of them. I felt anger toward those who seemed to prey on the vulnerable for their own wealth and fame, but sympathy toward those who I thought were easily manipulated. And I felt curiosity about those conspiracists who seemed to sincerely believe they were helping those they hurt.
Shadowland approaches all of its subjects with curiosity, but the docuseries also highlights just how outlandish and dangerous wide-scale conspiratorial beliefs can be, and how woefully unprepared we are to combat harmful beliefs. In one conversation, The Atlantic’s Ellen Cushing interviews a family therapist about how conspiratorial thinking affects families.
“Unfortunately, with conspiratorial thinking, there are a lot of divorces, custody battles,” the therapist said. “It’s also wreaked havoc on relationships. People suddenly feel like they’re married to someone they don’t even recognize anymore. It’s created a lot of problems between parents and children also, because it’s often the parents who are getting involved, and the children feel that they’re losing their parents to it. That’s often the phrase that’s used … People don’t say ‘my loved one got involved in this.’ They say ‘I lost. I lost my mother to this. I lost my spouse.’”
In another conversation, The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance interviews an expert in conspiratorial thinking in hopes of finding examples from the past that might inform how to help people today. Suffice it to say, that conversation—and Shadowland as a whole—left me with more bad news than good. The worst conspiracies are self-sustaining in a way that makes them invulnerable to outside logic, and once someone believes in a conspiracy, they are unlikely to stop.
I found myself relating to one woman in particular, who lost a partner to conspiracy theories: “It’s easier to feel angry at her than it is to start thinking about how much I miss her,” she said.
If I accept that I am unlikely to help my dad, brother, or any other conspiracist in my life, the question becomes what to do at all. When should I rule it too late to try? What is the prognosis for recovery?
At some point, maybe all I can do is accept the loss.
Thanks to everyone who responded to my last Humans Being about Law & Order and its cultural effect. My favorite response came from Anthony, who told me that he worked on the TV show New York Undercover back in the ’90s and was based in the same building as the Law & Order writers. The full email is too long to include here, but I can give you the gist:
Since our audience was largely Black and Latino, the dichotomy of “cops good, criminals bad” wouldn’t work. Our viewers knew better. We could create episodes where the criminals were complex and sometimes glamorous and exciting to watch.
Anthony, I loved New York Undercover as a kid. I haven’t seen it since then and have no idea how well it has aged—I was 12 years old when the car bomb killed Torres at the end of Season 3—but I have fond memories.
This week’s book giveaway is a hardcover of Listen Like You Mean It: Reclaiming the Lost Art of Human Connection, by Ximena Vengoechea. It’s about building enduring relationships with others. Just send me an email telling me whether you tend to respond to conspiracists with anger, sympathy, or curiousity, and I’ll send the book to a random person who hits my inbox. And this one’s not for free, but if you want to read my memoir, Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture, I’d love that too. You can reach me at email@example.com, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.