Conspiring to destroy or to create better futures
Sohail Inayatullah — 3 July 2020
This short essay explores conspiracy theories and futures studies. While the futures approach is committed to helping us see reality as paradigmatic, and use the future to enhance innovation and create a more sustainable world, conspiracy theorists challenge us, forcing us to ask what are the limits of what is allowable.
Can I join the secret cabal that runs the planet?
A Facebook "friend" of mine recently sent me a private message. She asked me to stop criticizing Donald Trump. She said the American president was doing wonderful things for humanity and I should, if not stop criticizing, at least stay neutral so a more inclusive world could be created.
In shock from her message, I took a deep breath. Well, many deep breaths, and asked her why she believed what she did.
She sent me a Youtube video. In the clip, the narrator suggests that most of us are distracted by Trump's racism and sexism. The (dreaded, fake/news) mainstream media focuses on his character flaws. But if we go deeper we see that he is a historical figure, the great disrupter; the one who can challenge the secret cabal that runs the world. Power resides with these elites, the likes of the WHO, Bill Gates, George Soros (Greenberg, 2020), and others. Only Trump can save us. This is more than an inter-elite battle. This is a grand unveiling. As one person said in the comments section: "Light is being shined in Dark places that many didn't know even existed. The Darkness is fighting for its life and losing fast." "Trump is the wrecking ball," adds another.
I messaged her back, asking how do I know she is not part of this secret cabal she claims has ultimate power? This was both my effort to move her toward an evidence-based perspective and to suggest that using the narrative of secret cabals leads to conceptual dead ends, leads to becoming trapped in consciousness.
The conversation ended.
The friend in question is a teacher at a progressive school in Germany. She teaches neohumanism or how to ensure our words and deeds are shared from the perspective of humanity and Gaia and not from less expansive views derived from the nation-state or tribal religious-isms. And yet, to me, it appeared that in her attempt to create a more expansive view she had become lost in a room of mirrors. Danger and secret elites were everywhere. Following the prophecies of Q, the pandemic was a "plan-demic" orchestrated by WHO, Gates, a cabal of pedophiles, and others who sought to bio-chip us and create a world government (LaFrance, 2020). Data suggests that significant numbers believe in variations of conspiracy theories (Haridy, 2020). At a recent public hearing in Florida, citizens regaled against the local council for considering a measure that would require facemasks. This was the work of the devil, they argued. Their freedoms were at risk. One suggested she refused to wear underwear for the same reason she refuses to wear a mask - so her body could breathe. Breath was ordained by God, and stifling God's commands would force her and others to make citizens arrests of the city commissioners. A recent meme goes further, suggesting that the facemask is a precursor to the hijab. The real plot is to Islamisize the US through COVID-19. This has been termed the "hate multiverse" - the use of the pandemic for blaming others (Nature, 2020).
But while the Florida issue if of global concern, the challenge to me by my Facebook friend was personal. She was asking me to change and shift allegiances. Indeed, she was asking me to wake up, and shed the veil of illusion
Instead, I contacted a supervisor of not her school, but an associated school in Romania. She, Didi Ananda Devapriya, said she was equally distressed. Not by the teacher who had contacted me, but by one of her local staff members. While smart, diligent and an exceptional teacher, she seemed to subscribe to the Flat Earth view that there is a vast, complex conspiracy to trick us all into thinking the earth is round when it is indeed flat. This inspired Ananda Devapriya to lead a workshop on logical fallacies and cognitive biases, and even brought her on her first flight to attend a training in the Netherlands. Although on the flight the curvature of the Earth was apparent, it is not clear that any of these experiences dissuaded her.
Argumentation and empirical evidence matter not. This is a battle between good and evil. They are convinced that among other claims that many of the world's leaders are in fact lizards as per the writing of David Icke (2012). "QAnon followers anticipate a violent apocalypse when the conspiracy will be dismantled and followers will be vindicated" (The Conversation, 2020).
Humour as de-legitimiazation
Concerned about the number of friends on my Facebook feed focused on de-legitimizing public health measures and progressive politics in general that I supported, I decided to try humour, remembering that mockery can de-legitimize. I posted this on my feed.
My friend Amal suggests that Youtube videos as argumentation do not count as real research. He appears exacerbated by the conspiratorial drivel. Here is my response to him.
You have little faith. You know the lizard people are here and have spread COVID - 19 through 5g so they can create a world government then use the quantum viral vortex to return home. To do that they need unvaccinated bodies as they best propel their bio-starships for the long way back. Some don't believe this, but there is a secret cabal in charge of assisting the lizards. I can't reveal at this stage who they are. But what do you think they will eat for the light year home journey? Ask Gates, as he is the cannibal-in-chief. Musk does the design and Bezos is raising the cash. Zuckerberg keeps us diverted. Modi is making sure only the pure are dinner. Trump is the key unknown factor. He is a lizard leader, but has forgotten his way. They are hoping Covid-19 helps him remember. Putin is his handler but as they cannot talk regularly Trump has resorted to bleach to keep his lizard nature from coming out. Look at his strange orange color. But why are they leaving now? Climate change, it appears, thus they have agents telling us climate science is a conspiracy so we do not focus on their departure plans. I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. In any case, this is material the mainstream media won't let you know. I worry now for my safety. But I trust you Amal. If you are still uncertain, check out the YouTube series by "Dr. Iam Nutter." The medical establishment keeps on silencing him but luckily his videos are still up. For now.
I had thought this comment would suffice. However, I received two comments thanking me for this revelation and for willing to speak truth to power, even at my own risk. I suddenly, in their view, had joined the resistance, and, indeed, had novel insights to help prove once and or all that COVID-19 was a global scam. I was now awakened. Light shone through me.
no outlandish perspective is off limits
Implications of worldviews
What has become clear to me is that no outlandish perspective is off limits. A third Facebook friend, when I confronted her on the nature of conspiracy, came back with the type of futures-narrative we use in workshops and courses to open up the often rigid minds of corporate and governmental executives. She suggested that we need to open our minds, get out of the box, think in terms of alternative paradigms, and go deeper by challenging our assumptions. "Why was it strange to believe that political leaders were in fact lizards?" Stunned, realizing she was quoting critical futures thinking to me, I mindfully watched my anger. She suggested we need to tolerate all perspectives. Relativism was the way forward in this case. My colleague at Metafuture.org who has written extensively on futures fallacies (2020), Ivana Milojevic asked: "All perspectives?" She further commented: "There is a view and there is delusion. And then the implications of one's view. For example, are you saying, for example, that male perpetrators of domestic violence are entitled to their view that women are property? And that other people should use these views as instructive. I have no problems with your views as long as they are confined to science fiction. However, when these views lead to national policy implications, the safety of others, and are used in an educational capacity, then your views should be firmly rejected. " She had no response. Milojevic was not only asking her to define the limits of her worldview, but to articulate real world implications. Does her narrative create or destroy more human futures, asked Milojevic.
Future Studies and De-Colonization
Decades ago, Futures Studies joined the march toward decolonization by challenging how the future was shaped by the West. Not just space and identity, but time had become colonized. What was needed were alternative perspectives, new and unheard voices. I argued through Causal layered analysis (Inayatullah, 2020), that we needed to challenge the view of one future, we needed to use epistemology to rupture the official discourse of a dominator world system. I had hoped that eventually we would move from a world of one dominant perspective to deep pluralism.
if the danger is coming from the external world
or produced from our meaning making activities
The Futures approach has been about using the future to rethink and eventually re-create today. It engages professionals and citizens in efforts to create anticipatory democratic systems. Agency is enhanced and ideally more sustainable futures created. However, this has been based on the assumption that while we live in a world of imperfect information and the future in particular is uncertain by using the views of many in the context of structured foresight methods we can enhance our ability to map and create desired futures. However, the conspiracy approach challenges that since information is now deliberatively occluded. This leads to a world where consciousness ceases to be a friend, but rather becomes an enemy since it is no longer trusted. As in Kafka's story "The Burrow" (Shapiro, 1992) in the conspiracy world, we can no longer tell if the danger is coming from the external world or produced from our meaning making activities. The creature digging the burrow seeks safety from enemies.
Eventually, the creature becomes aware that the sole evidence of the existence of its enemies is noise. Beginning in a romanticized state of silence and tranquility, as its efforts to create an impregnable burrow proceed, the creature draws disparate conclusions about the whistling it begins to hear in the walls. Its inability to determine whether noises are produced by its own burrowing or by a predator can be read allegorically as pertaining to interpretation in general (Shapiro, 1992: 123).
Our consciousness thus can no longer be a trusted ally in our attempts to interpret reality.
Anchoring and aliens
As it turns out, not just have we entered a world with many perspectives, we have lost many of our anchors. Given the loss of trust by many marginalized groups because of actual cover-ups, we can understand why any view is now allowed. Conspiracy has many causative factors, but among them is lived pain.
I remember well Debra Robertson's experience in Brisbane in the mid 1990s running a research experiment, which engaged audience members in a ‘fictional space’ stimulated by role playing actors on the topic of alien-human relations. The intention of the experiment was to bring the ‘voices’ of audiences, their experiences, their belief systems and their opinions to become the centre of the piece and henceforth take over the performance. The research explored the frontiers of audience interactive theatre. This was part of her doctorate in Performance Studies. The week long period of ‘performances’ were properly contextualised for audiences who attended and participated as research participants, inviting them to engage in a ‘fictionalised’ symposium on the topic of alien-human relations. At one point in these performance experiments that attracted high attendances by members of the public interested in the topic of aliens and UFOs, she made the comment that she herself could be a non-human visitor herself. Various audience members who had become quite immersed in the experiment then dismissed her contention that she was role-playing as part of her PhD. She insisted that in fact she was not an alien, yet audience members shouted back: "Well, that is what the aliens say - they deny." It was an interesting moment, she recalled. They seemed to have forgotten that they and she were within the context of a fictional symposium. One of her supervisors stepped in and reminded all that this was really part of a doctoral process. The views of these audience members were given space to be heard and not invalidated, but her denial was not fully accepted - they wanted to push this belief further; indeed, it reinforced the views of some of the participants that aliens were living among us. Some spoke of their own abduction experiences. The experiment on that particular evening was brought to an early close. The lines between actors and audience, fiction and real life had become uncomfortably blurred; and confusing.
This is the Foucauldian question. As we open up to differing ways of knowing, as we distance and see reality as not fixed, but malleable, as we seek to denormalize the natural, as we see that what is, is created, and thus can be undone, we need to ask: how do we anchor?
Milojevic suggests that one anchor is implications, that is, what are the implications of one's worldview? Do they lead to less or more violence? Do they lead to enhanced caring for the other? Or a desire to harm? For example, we can debate Trump's demand that the police and army should dominate all protestors, that domination is the only game in town, or we can ask what happens to the public trust between police and citizen if trust and legitimacy is lost? Thus, a first anchor is implications. This means a debate with those on planet conspiracy is best played with articulating first and second order implications, not on the epistemological issue of truth claims.
A second is science. While most futurists are informed by Thomas Khun's (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in that science is paradigmatic, as an enterprise has its own rules, and thus even as the scientific method claims objectivity, It is still to some extent political. Thus we have seen the rise of attempts to decentre science by challenging not just funding mechanisms, but the deep gender biases in science. This is the much needed shift to ways of knowing and science. More recently with uncertainty and the need for rapid policy measures, we have seen a move toward post-normal science. (Funtowicsz and Ravetz, 2003).
Instructive is the plurality of the South Asian episteme. In it, many perspectives are possible, indeed, in Jain logic, there are at least a dozen positions on the nature of what is truth. Along with empiricism, other ways of knowing are accepted, including reason, authority, intuition, and most of all, love (Inayatullah, 2002). Going further, the South Asian philosopher Sarkar argues that the "consciousness" of the scientist is not something to be controlled for eventually needs to become part of the methodology, especially as we go deeper into spirit-mind-body health realms or what is referred to as the problem of the placebo in medical literature (Inayatullah, 1999). But relevant for us here is that science remains the controlling faculty. Sarkar suggests that we know medicine by its ability to cure - the pragmatics. All traditions are allowed. However, the controlling faculty as the director of the Gurukul University, Dada Shambushivananda has pointed out is evidence. Scientific evidence. But science as we argue and as do our conspiracy friends assert needs to keep evolving. And evidence base cannot be the only measure. As my colleague Lisa Fraser - a Buddhist practitioner says: "I'm happy the Buddhist monks didn’t wait over 2000 years for the evidence base for meditation."
However, this does not mean that science should be thrown out. Critically examining science is different from saying just because we have evidence that world leaders are not lizards or that COVID-19 was not started by a particular ethnic group, the evidence should not be trusted since it bound by an "Earth-based" paradigm based and thus relative. Causation and co-relation and the why - the theoretical basis of an approach - still stand (Sloat, 2017). This is the difference between postmodern and transmodern. In the first, all is allowed, and thus we can become lost in the room of mirrors alluded to above; in the second, we remain indebted to modernity's challenge of the obfuscation of the middle-ages. But the modern needs to remain a reference point. Otherwise, we will see a continuation of de-education. Already, according to the US National Science Foundation, 25% of Americans believe that the Sun goes around the Earth (National Science Foundation, 2020).
Many doors: one shared view on evidence
I remember when we ran workshops in Australia on the futures of health. The preferred model was the multi-door health centre. The patient walks in and the physician suggests that the best cure is inner work/meditation. Or antibiotics. Or surgery. Or exercise. Or to leave and move to a place with fewer pollutants. Or...When we had naturopaths working with us, they liked this model. However, the issue was who was at the centre of the model. This becomes the battle. Is it the market? And thus the debate on COVID-19 is not about the truth of the illness, but the selling of cures. Or is about raw power - who has it can decide what public health policies are used. Or is it national governmental power? Intellectual power through experts? For Sarkar, it is modern science. While exercise, meditation, diet are all factors for health, so are where one is born (in the world economic system, level of wealth and access to public health), the issue is how do we decide in the context of uncertainty. This does not mean we are ahistorical. Thus, implications and science at the centre are crucial for ensuring that even as we deconstruct power, we have anchors to help us on our way. Jose Ramos (2017) suggests that in this transition, we need a global commons for knowledge.
Ramos' point is critical. In the doxa of Futures Studies, we are in transitional times. The old world - industrial, deeply hierarchical, western, masculinist, capitalist - is being challenged. A new world is emerging. In this transition, as we open up, and alternative perspectives enter the space, one such view is the conspiratorial. This is not a conspiracy based on shared visions, economic interest, or political ideals, but a secret conspiracy based on fear and malice. It challenges the foundations of science, of a good society. In these conspiracies, there are always secret powers, evil ethnic groups, clandestine meetings of the rich and powerful and always a figure like Soros running the show. However, we know that believing in a conspiracy creates a feeling of community, it makes one feel less powerless, it allows agency to result or since the powers to be are so grand, one feels happy to accept the world as it is, since nothing can be done. Except to share the conspiracy on Facebook.
For me, these are distractions in terms of the real political work of challenging power, mindfully creating a more inclusive society, ensuring that future generations have a healthy planet to live in and moving from a world where only GDP matters to a world where prosperity, people, planet and purpose matter. This is essentially about what world we wish for. Can we move forward with a shared vision of the future. At one meeting of a progressive spiritual group and conspiracy theorists in Denmark, I tried to move the discussion toward shared visions of reducing inequity, enhancing social justice, and mitigating climate change. We disagreed on most issues, but can we agree where we wish to go, I asked? We were able to move a shared action plan. However, certainly many of us found it difficult to be with those who believed that the world problems began and ended with particular ethnic groups. Thus, even as we worked on creating spaces for agreement, there were clear boundaries we were unwilling to cross.
The conspiracy approach helps me reflect on my own false consciousness and delusions, differentiating between reality and narrative about reality. We need community to insist that lizards do not run the planet (though we know that as one rises up in organizations, one can become colder toward others), that is to confuse metaphors about reality with reality, even though both are constitutive of what is.
Conspiracy theories are thus the dangerous rocks that help us focus on the direction we wish to go toward in this remarkable transition. They can help us navigate the future we wish for. And the future we wish to avoid.
Creating the new anchors
And: as traditional anchors are swept away by the massive transition, we are in, we need to create new anchors so we have some semblance of society and civilization - a global knowledge commons. Futures Studies can assist in this path in helping create new visions and critically analysing if these visions create destructive futures or better futures for humanity and the planet. Within the context of implications and science - alternative views, risky as they are - can help us create a Gaian polity, where opposites are part of our human evolution. Exceptions create evolution. Conspiracy theories help us understand the worlds we do not want so we can create and anchors the worlds we do.
Sohail Inayatullah holds a number of academic positions in the Asia-Pacific region, and is a researcher at Metafuture. He has recently written a paper entitled Co-creating educational futures: contradictions between the emerging future and the walled past, in UNESCO’s Education Research and Foresight Working Paper Series.