If you’ve been following along here, you should know that I’ve already been doing a series on the rhetoric of conspiracy for the last few weeks. I previously talked about conspiracy theories here, here and here. This week I’ve seen sex trafficking experts having to work extra hard to refute unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric around that subject (check out, for example, this post I shared recently on the Assertive Spirituality FB page). This piece is a response to that while continuing the present series. My specific focus will be on how conspiracy rhetoric often bases its credibility in the grounds of hypervigilance rather than healthy vigilance (I’ll define those terms, I promise!). I’ll also talk about how to fight hypervigilance of various kinds to avoid encouraging the unhealthy trends behind conspiracy theory acceptance.
My Expertise, and Why Many Don’t Trust It
The sad thing is that those who believe unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric you probably won’t trust what I have to say on this subject. That’s because my academically-based expertise coming out of my PhD in Communication is in competition with what right-wing conspiracy theorists peddle. (Even if it wasn’t, the fact that I identify as “progressive” because of the evidence-based conclusions I draw from what I study along with my reading of the Bible would have put me over the edge for many of those identifying as conservatives these days, sadly!)
Who I’m Speaking To Instead
That’s why I’m speaking primarily here to you who already have a sense that conspiracy theories are unhealthy, but may not know exactly why or how they work. Today I’ll dive into some of our natural visceral fear/threat responses these rhetors are exploiting and how they play into the equation. At the end I’ll get to some ways for us to respond to these challenges, and how we can keep ourselves standing up against conspiracy rhetoric in as healthy a way as possible.
This is a long one again, but worth taking the time; thanks for hanging in there with me!
A Quick Contextual Summary
Here’s the thing: as I’ve explained in the past, many conspiracy rhetoricians, especially in the right-wing Patriot Movement from which the current QAnon movement emerged, tend to contradictorily insist that their audiences think for themselves while also insisting that only they have the keys to interpret the world. They also tend to fear institutions and healthy collective action that they see as undermining their ability to maintain their seemingly sovereign “divine rights of citizens.”
Most recently, this kind of rhetoric has emerged in theories elevating the topic of sex trafficking, but unhealthy views about sex trafficking that oppose the things those long on the ground working on these topics have to tell us. These theories are being used to oppose (1) police reform in an age of protests against police brutality and (2) mask-wearing in the age of a public health crisis.
Unpacking Right-Wing Hypervigilance
If you look closely at what fears this rhetoric is unhealthily exploiting and what it’s working to oppose—which is one of the main goals of this article—you can see how it’s being used in defense of unhealthy authoritarian impulses rather than on behalf of protecting children. I plan to unpack that today by explaining how unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric works to defend hypervigilant authoritarian collective action while pretending to decry the same thing.
In this current article I’ll get into the roots of these right-wing hypervigilant fears, where they comes from, and how it gets spread. I’ll also unpack at least a bit more about how and why right-wing conspiracy rhetoricians see other knowledge as a threat and insist on their answers being the only ones and also get into some ways that we can avoid falling into our own forms of hypervigilance in response, no matter where we identify politically.
Reaching Toward Healthier Responses
In the process, I will also explain why it’s key, in countering conspiracy theories, to refuse to get drawn into letting these conspiracy theories explain the world for us, drawing us into black and white fear-based hypervigilance.
I will also explain why theories based in wholesale denial of any need for vigilance in the Christian community and even the hyperrational attitudes that can come with scientific process can easily express a different kind of hypervigilance, becoming unhealthily complicit in the rise of authoritarian leadership.
Defining Hypervigilance vs. Vigilance
Before I go further, let me quickly define hypervigilance, though, and explain the difference between hypervigilance, which is fearing more than is reasonable, and reasonable fear, often known as vigilance.
An Important Theological Note for Christians
Quick note: I believe that when the Bible talks about not fearing and love casting out fear, it is talking about casting out hyperviligance, not vigilance. A quick read of Jesus and the prophets or most of the rest of the Bible should make it clear that many themes in the biblical narrative and rhetoric strongly believe in being vigilant about how power and possessions and fear impulses can corrupt people.
Because of this, I don’t believe “love casts out fear” means a denial of vigilance, or rational fear and concern grounded in evidence. In fact, I believe it involves being willing to build genuine trust where we are able to, responding as assertively as possible when that is not possible, and so on.
Embracing Healthy Vigilance
The fact that some fear is actually healthy vigilance is hugely important to keep in mind as we go through this discussion. That’s because it’s easy to say, oh, conspiracy theories are fear-based, so all fear must be hypervigilant. That is ironically not at all a rational response, but itself a threat-based fear response, one that sees strong emotion in response to threat itself as a threat.
In reality, if we are to keep our heads on straight in response to hypervigilant conspiracy theories, it’s most helpful to recognize that some of the things conspiracists fear are valid concerns—and the stress responses themselves are not the problems.
Importantly, validating those reasonable fears that lead people to embrace unhealthy conspiracy theories doesn’t have to mean embracing the conspiracy theories themselves OR the hypervigilant policies and rhetoric they espouse and shore up.
Let’s Not Pretend to Be Invulnerable
I should also note that hypervigilance is a stress and trauma response that everyone is vulnerable to—but not everyone reacts to it the same way.
Often as a society we fear trauma because we fear hypervigilant responses and see them as unstable. And let’s be honest—those of us who have fully embraced Western rationality and science are also vulnerable to hypervigilance in the name of “rationality.” That kind of hypervigilance about emotion is no more stable than other forms.
In short, we all have hypervigilant responses to the world at times, but not all of us take them out on others. Let’s try to promote that latter response!
Discerning Is Sometimes Hard!
And let’s be honest—COVID precautions based in scientific findings look very much like authoritarian hypervigilance if you don’t trust science or if you’re too overwhelmed to understand their basis. And this is where I point out that hypervigilance based in evidence and on behalf of the common good, doing the best we can with what we do know, is very different from authoritarian hypervigilance. Such distinctions are crucial, but of course if you’re hypervigilant about expertise and collective action the distinction will be very unclear!
Why Distinguishing Hypervigilance from Vigilance Matters
These are important caveats, because abusers, authoritarians, and other unhealthy individuals use this information about our fear of emotion to dismiss the natural vigilance of those they wish to demonize.
Let me say that again: our systemically embedded Western patriarchal fears of emotion are grist for propping up authoritarians and abusers even while our love of data and evidence can help fight them.
In other words, fighting conspiracy rhetoric and authoritarianism isn’t so easy as embracing science and rejecting rhetoric and politics. It’s not nearly that cut and dried, and we make it so at our peril.
How to Thread the Needle
If we wish to counter those who will exploit our toxically masculine society’s fear of emotion as a devil term by casting it as hypervigilance, it’s very important to recognize this distinction and refuse to give in to either hypervigilance or hyper-rationality.
In doing so, we recognize that our fear responses often have good information to offer us, but are not always themselves fully trustworthy in everything they have to say.
In short, we need to do some detective work to sort through who and what to trust and what not to trust, both in ourselves and externally.
Conspiracy Theorists as Unreliable Narrators
The primary problem is that the conspiracists themselves are unreliable narrators about the problems they’re casting themselves as solving. They are often either hypervigilant themselves, or slick conmen, or some combination of the two.
Back to QAnon and Sex Trafficking as an Example
You can easily see this fact when it comes to QAnon and his/her/their wildly inaccurate and harmful theories about sex trafficking that are leading to the currently popular #SavetheChildren hashtag. (Sounds like a good thing, right??? Sorry, unfortunately no.)
If what QAnon—who, by the way, is anonymous, so we don’t have a way to vet them as a human, and first popped up on 4chan, an alt-right social media area—has to say about sex trafficking is accurate, we are being led to be hypervigilant about strangers snatching our children off the streets at any second.
Twisting a Very Real Issue that Requires Vigilance into Hypervigilance
This is a particularly evil contention, if you ask me, because sex trafficking and sexual abuse of all kinds are real and horrible problems. The problem with QAnon’s presentation, from what I know both of narrative and media theory and of actual on-the-ground experts on sex trafficking and sexual abuse is this: the large bulk of sex trafficking cases are not about strangers picking people off the streets.
On the contrary, they are about people unhealthily and gradually worming their ways into people’s trusts.
Much like the unhealthy conspiracy theorists themselves.
Surviving in the World in Ethical Ways Is More Complex Than That
The same is the case, by the way, with other cases of murder and violence that we tend to pin on “outsiders” in our society. The large majority of people who commit acts of violence are not strangers out there, but people presenting themselves as trustworthy.
The problem with this, of course, is that it means that healthy and ethical vigilance isn’t cut and dried any more than fighting conspiracy theorists is. On the contrary, healthy survival skills that are both effective and ethical require extra careful vetting of people, which can easily turn into hypervigilance if we’re not careful. After all, trust involves a mix of vulnerability and risk.
The truth is, because we’re all mortal, we all are vulnerable to death and pain. And because we are created to need other people, we are all in need of trusting others in various ways at some point—and we all have a need to be both vulnerable and trustworthy in order to be at our healthiest.
Back to the Question of Sex Trafficking and QAnon
Not everything’s difficult to discern, however. Take the question of sex trafficking. If you have to choose between what some unknown source says vs. that of those actually doing the work on the ground has to say, you probably need to deeply consider your life choices if you’re going with the unnamed and unvetted source.
That’s probably a sign that you’re trusting sources only because you have hypervigilance against experts and collective action—not for good reason. And in this case, there’s a very good chance that your hypervigilance is being exploited for political gain, and is ironically and disturbingly being used to build up unhealthy trust in existing systems.
How We Know #SaveTheChildren Isn’t About Love for Victims
See, the sex trafficking issue never came up via QAnon before people started using it to complain about masks and the Defund the Police movement. And that’s a strong sign, together with the gaslighting of those who have been coming up with viable solutions for the existing real problem, that QAnon isn’t performing love for sex trafficking victims but the opposite.
And this leads me to the most crazymaking part about the hypervigilance of conspiracists—it naturally seeks to gaslight such logical deductions that ground careful, evidence-based vigilance from those who would call them on such things.
How Conspiracy Theorists Try to Use the Grain of Vigilance Behind Their Theories to Gaslight
After all, as I’ve said before, unhealthy strongmen and demagogues often elevate conspiracy rhetoric as a way to disconfirm all other sources of authority other than themselves.
The fact that these conspiracy theories are actually tied into natural vigilance gives these unhealthy leaders the very grounds to pretend that opponents are being hypervigilant when they catch the unhealthily manipulations that are part of this rhetoric.
In short, the conspiracists and the leaders that unhealthily espouse conspiracy theories both claim the truth of their conspiracy theories based in a logic of hypervigilance and pretend that they are the only ones with a healthy rational response to the situation.
The assumption is that those who disagree with conspiracy theories and see how they are unreliable are the hypervigilant ones attacking for no good reason.
Why We’re Supposed to Cast Our Lots with the Conspiracy Theorists
As we’ve discussed before, this takes the conspiracy theorist/leader and puts them on the side of things to be defended at all costs (god terms) which are disconnected from reality grounded in evidence.
Instead of evidence, you are supposed to trust the conspiracist, who is painted as having the real knowledge (over and above all those experts and any other real-world facts that would contradict the conclusions the conspiracist says).
Conspiracy Rhetoric and Fighting Opposition
And of course you are supposed to disbelieve and distrust—and in fact, fight at all costs, any facts that disagree with the conspiracy rhetor’s view. This becomes an incredibly useful way to exploit people’s vulnerabilities into fighting people who actually know what they’re talking about. In many cases, as with anti-mask rhetoric (which this blog has talked about here and here), acting against their best interests as well as their own moral compasses.
Right-Leaning Christians, Conspiracy Theories, and Cognitive Dissonance
The result of people trusting this kind of rhetoric, especially if they claim to be Christians, results in a lot of cognitive dissonance. In other words, these Christians have a lot conflicting emotions, beliefs, and attitudes that often get expressed through hypervigilant policies and talking points combined with a demand to be seen as rational and reasonable and ethical in their positions.
How This Shows Up in Right-Leaning Moderates
This latter phenomenon is a lot of what I see among those from the moderate denomination I grew up in who now find themselves co-opted into a hypervigilance-based worldview. When you talk to such people you rarely hear pure conspiracy theories. They would quickly disclaim the ideas that people are implanting chips in the COVID vaccine or that BLM is part of the Illuminati.
And yet—they display a strong embrace of the demonization of collective action such right-wing conspiracy rhetoric espouses. They will disagree with the current head of the administration’s tweets and his behavior, for example, but refuse to vote for the opposition.
The Subtle Evil of This Seeming “Rational View”
This subtle effect of conspiracy rhetoric on right-leaning moderates is perhaps more evil than the effects on those who wholesale believe the theories full-scale. After all, these moderates are seeming to do what I’ve called us to do above—carefully sort through the valid and invalid parts of emotion to stick with only the vigilant parts rather than the hypervigilant parts.
And yet, by embracing the demonization of the opposition, these folks are almost as fully complicit with the hypervigilance of conspiracy rhetoric as those on the far-right.
Not completely, mind you. These conservative-leaning “moderates” probably wear a mask but vote against those who are promoting more widespread mask ordinances. Claim to be anti-racist but share misinformation about the Black Lives Matter organization being “Marxist.” Share the #SaveTheChildren hashtag but fail to listen to what actual sex trafficking organizations have to say on the matter.
The Root of the Cognitive Dissonance
This strong distinction between their own personal actions and their support of broader policies is actually itself a sign that they value conservative right-wing views that collective action is automatically scary. It is supremely ironic that in doing so, they vote for—and vocally support—collective action that actively fights the common good. As Christians, as I’ve pointed out in the past two articles, this situation amounts to hypocrisy.
I’ve talked in the past about how I grew up with this cognitive dissonance and have worked to emerge from it once I realized that’s what was happening. I take my own growth in this area is a sign that all is not lost, even if there is no silver bullet to take down the unhealthy elements of hypervigilance wrought by conspiracy theorists such as QAnon.
So What Ought We To Do in the Face of All of This?
- Carefully distinguish between vigilance and hypervigilance in ourselves and others. Embrace the vigilance; throw out the hypervigilance.
- Refuse to be drawn into the position of hyperrationality, which is itself a form of hypervigilance.
- Support efforts to discern and validate careful collective vigilance.
- Recognize that our fear impulses about things like sex trafficking are natural healthy impulses, and we confirm those in ourselves and others where we can while fighting unhealthy conclusions that don’t line up with real life experiences and data.
- Recognize the cognitive dissonance in many Christians drawn into supporting QAnon, and support the parts that we can while countering those we can’t.
- Look to evidence in the world and that gained by actual experts in fields like healthcare and sex trafficking, not for bulletproof answers or safety, but for a reasonable amount of information to help us see what of our fears are vigilant vs. hypervigilant.
- Keep speaking up assertively on behalf of policies and rhetoric alike based on vigilance, not hypervigilance, about the world—and healthily representing a mix of rationality and emotion.
- Decry the kind of rhetoric and policies that demonize expertise and evidence-based concerns about the world and their attendant solutions.
- Carefully vote for people who are actually working for the common good as much as you can (and these days in the US, let’s be honest—there’s one party that’s doing that wayyyy more than the other—and it’s not the party whose appeals are based in fear of healthy collective action).
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
Looking for more resources toward speaking up and dealing with the conflict that results?
Boy, do we have got a free “Assertive Spirituality Guide to Online Trolls” for you (it actually helps you with conflict both online and off). To get it, sign up for our email newsletter (either in the top bar or by checking the appropriate box when commenting on this article). Once you’ve confirmed your email address, we’ll send you the link to the guide in your final welcome email. You can unsubscribe at any time, but we hope you’ll stick around for our weekly email updates. This summer we’re hoping to offer more online courses and other support resources for those advocating for the common good, and if you stay subscribed, you’ll be the first to know about these types of things when they pop up.