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School trip to the forest

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5442 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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I was six years old when we had a school trip to the forest in order to explore the local fauna and flora. When we walked through the forest I started noticing little white circles that were sprayed onto the bark of some old and sick looking trees. One week later, I found myself at a bus stop with my mum. Waiting for the bus was always very boring for me and therefore, I usually started interpreting the advertisement posters with my newly acquired reading abilities. One poster caught my attention immediately. This very poster had a baroque cross on it and it said something in a language which I did not understand. My mum explained me that day, that this was a poster of Scientology. On the bus we had a long conversation about sects and what they do and what they are. I assume that I was a bit too young to understand the whole dimension of the term sect but since that day, for many years, I was convinced that the white circles in the forest must have been some secret mean of communication and that some sect would meet there every now and then to do some of their practices. Looking back at this now, I surely notice that the white circles were simply a mark for probably old or sick trees that needed special attention from the forester. However, being six years old I was sure that I discovered something extremely secret and hidden.

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In February 1748, Adam Weishaupt was born in Ingolstadt. Through his father and godfather he was taught the ideas of the enlightenment. Furthermore, he was a professor at the University of Ingolstadt for canon law and philosophy. The enlightened thinker Weishaupt struggled with the old and conservative Jesuit order at the university. He started studying the writings of the freemasons and in 1776 he founded the Bavarian Illuminati, an order which was intended to spread the ideas of the enlightenment.

In January 1933, the Austrian-born Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of the German people. One year later, due to the death of President Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler was proclaimed ‘Führer and Reichskanzler’ which made him the head of state. From this extremely powerful position Hitler started his crusade against Jews, communists, foreigners and other ‘enemies’ of the German Reich.

In April 1994, the lead singer of the grunge and rock band Nirvana, Kurt Cobain, was found dead in his home in Seattle. With three times the lethal amount of heroin in his body, the musician took a shotgun, put it into his mouth and shot himself.

In September 2001, terrorists hijacked commercial passenger air planes. Two of these planes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City. Apart from the hijackers and the plane passengers also many people working in the towers were killed. Within, two hours both of the buildings collapsed and Ground Zero was erected as a memorial for the victims.

All of these events and people are connected through the fact that there are conspiracy theories evolving around them. The illuminati are still often referred to as being the driving force behind global events and there is the popular theory among conspiracy believers “that the new nation was about to be taken over by the Bavarian Illuminati”. Adolf Hitler developed probably one of the most influential conspiracies which blamed the Jews for the loss of the First World War and the misfortune of the people in Germany. The death of Kurt Cobain and inconsistencies in the crime scene investigation caused the quite well known murder theory of his death. Lastly, the events of September 11th 2001 are probably most discussed in conspiracy theories. Several theories exist in which it is assumed that the US government actually initiated the attacks. Other theories claim, that despite the thousands of eye witnesses there were no planes what so ever. Whereas even other theories argue that shortly before the attacks happened a UFO could be seen and that these attacks were caused by aliens.

Conspiracy beliefs have guided the human kind through many centuries of history. When considering the freemasons and the illuminati it becomes visible that conspiracy theories are by no means a contemporary phenomenon. Especially strong superstitious beliefs in the past gave rise to some influential conspiracy theories which led to the prosecution of witches and heretics, for instance. Despite the fact that conspiracy beliefs are rooted in the past, many sources speak of an increase in conspiracy beliefs especially among the population. Michael Barkun, professor at the Syracuse University in the state of New York and author of the book “A Culture of Conspiracy”, termed the belief in conspiracy theories as an “emerging cultural phenomenon”. Also the researcher for folklore studies at the Oregon University, Daniel Wojcik, claims: “Ideas and images about the end of the world permeate American popular culture and folklore, as well as popular religion, and are expressed in films, literature, music, poetry, […], and commercial products”. The fact that conspiracy theories seem to gain more hold within the people seems intriguing and should be investigated. Therefore, the thesis for this paper will be:

Despite the claim of insanity, conspiracy theories have become an important part of our contemporary thinking and due to popular culture, especially the mass media, they seem to be taken more and more seriously in our contemporary society.

One of the main sources for this essay will be the book “A Culture of Conspiracy” by Michael Barkun, which offers a great approach to the dynamics of conspiracy theories. Furthermore, this essay will discuss the nature, types and functions of conspiracy beliefs and the role of the mass media in the spread of those. Lastly, this paper will analyze if there was actually an increase in people believing in conspiracy theories.

The Nature Of Conspiracy Theories

The New World Order, millennialism, area 51, black helicopters, UFO sightings – those are terms usually associated with conspiracy theories. But what exactly are conspiracy theories? What functions do they fulfill for the people who believe in them? Is it possible to speak of “factual” conspiracy theories? These are questions that will be approached in this essay.

First of all, a formal definition of the term is needed: “A conspiracy theory is a belief that a group of people are secretly trying to harm someone or to achieve something. Usually this term is used to suggest something unlikely or even paranoid”. This definition mentions important criteria of conspiracy beliefs. One of the most important is that something is happening in secret. Due to this secrecy the conspiracy believers are convinced that they are the only ones who know the truth and that they need to spread the word to the unknowing population.

Another aspect of conspiracy theories is that they connote a degree of paranoia. When speaking of a conspiracy or of someone who believes in conspiratorial theories, we usually incline that this person is mad or paranoid. A good example for this can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘The Gay Science’. In section 125, a madman runs around exclaiming the often quoted statement: “God is dead”. This exclamation can be interpreted as a conspiracy theory which the madman is attempting to spread. However, the viewers of this scene see merely an insane person: “Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; they too were silent and looked at him disconcertedly”. The madman and his beliefs are not taken seriously.

Moreover, a very problematic criterion of conspiracy theories is the fact that they are non-falsifiable. Conspiracy theories are usually termed this way because they lack evidence or logical explanations compared to the official theory. It is most of the times impossible for believers to prove their theory. However, conspiracy believers are convinced that “information that appears to put a conspiracy theory in doubt must have been planted by the conspirators themselves in order to mislead”. This means that even information or evidence against the conspiracy is seen as a proof in favor of the theory because it must have been brought up by people who try to cover the conspiracy. Therefore, no matter what kind of evidence it will always speak in favor of a conspiracy theory.

Types Of Conspiracies

Barkun differentiates between three types of conspiracies: event conspiracies, systemic conspiracies and superconspiracies. In an event conspiracy, the conspirators are believed to be responsible for only a limited, discrete event. Systematic conspiracies are characterized by broader goals, such as gaining power over a country, a certain region or even the world. However, only a single group of people or a single organization are believed to take part in this. In a superconspiracy multiple conspiracy theories are linked to more conspiracy theories and global events. Superconspiracies are characterized by the belief that everything is connected.

This paper will mainly deal with the identified event conspiracies. Although Barkun’s book “A Culture of Conspiracy” displays an excellent theoretical approach to conspiracy theories it seems slightly narrow when it comes to different kinds and beliefs of conspiracy theories. Barkun generalizes conspiracy theories and theorists as believers in UFOs, alien intervention in global events and the New World Order. However, he does not discuss the possibility that there might be people, who do not believe in supernatural interventions in earthly happenings but who still believe in alternative explanations for national and international events that deviate from the official explanation. For this reason, two different categories have to be integrated into the types of conspiracy theories. This paper will differentiate between supernatural and factual theories.

Supernatural conspiracy theories include, among others, beliefs in aliens, UFOs, the New World Order and millennialism. They are irrational and non-falsifiable as nothing supernatural was ever able to be empirically proved and verified. Most certainly, these theories are the reason why the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has a paranoid or even insane connotation. Furthermore, theories about the freemasons and the illuminati will be included into this category.

The main focus of this paper will be the so-called factual theories. Factual conspiracy theories incline the secret involvement of an earthly group, organization or even state in global events and affairs. The murder theory of Kurt Cobain’s death as well as the theory of US state involvement in the 9/11 attacks constitute examples for this kind. However implausible these theories may sound, they do have a slightly more rational nature. They deal with an issue that could be verified or falsified with access to the right information. Nevertheless, this information is usually impossible to attain which also gives these conspiracy theories a non-falsifiable nature. So eventually, it still comes down to belief or disbelief. However, it is important to mention that these factual theories reduce the paranoid connotation of the term ‘conspiracy theory’.

The Case Of Anna Politkovskaya

The events surrounding the death of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya is now used to explain the plausibility of factual conspiracy theories. On October 7th 2006 Politkovskaya was shot four times in the elevator of her apartment. Politkovskaya dedicated her life to the conflicts in Chechnya caused by the Russian domination. After the Russian troops brutally crashed down the separatist revolts in Chechnya after the first and second Chechen War the Russians reestablished their hegemony. However, the separatist cry for independence still finds proponents among the Chechen population. The Russian government is accused of using torture and other violent means to suppress these movements.

This conflict has caused human rights activists such as Politkovskaya to investigate into and demonstrate against the Russian practices in Chechnya. Along with these demonstrations activists and demonstrators were held in custody without a legal basis. The events in Russia and Chechnya have caught the attention of many human rights organizations. In 2007, the human rights watch proclaimed: “Russia has ignored a series of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights on Chechnya, fueling unchecked violence in the North Caucasus. Following the recent murders of human rights defenders there, the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly will decide on September 28, 2009 whether to schedule a debate to focus on the dangerous conditions for human rights defenders in the North Caucasus”.

Politkovskaya was only one journalist and Kremlin critic that was murdered in a series of killings. However, Politkovskaya’s case has drawn global attention to the events in Russia and to the declining freedom of speech: “Her killing underlined the shrinking freedom allowed dissenters in Russian society, provoked international outrage and cast a shadow over Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia”.

Not only the actual murder of Politkovskaya are a doubtful subject but also her trial was perceived as flawed and manipulated from western media. All of the four convicts were cleared of their charges and evidence such as a video of the assassination as well as photos and a sim card completely disappeared from the trial scene. The newspaper which Anna Politkovskaya was working for, Novaya Gazeta, suggested that the “conspiracy was planned at a much higher level”.

In the case of Politkovskaya the Russian state as well as the Russia-oriented Chechen government disclaimed any involvement in the murders of any of the journalists and human rights activists. This claim can be seen as the official explanations of the journalist killings in Russia. Therefore, the theory that there is state involvement to some degree can be seen as a conspiracy theory. However, especially in the western part of the world it seems as if the state-involvement-theory around Politkovskaya’s death seems to find more and more acceptance. Due to unlawful arrests of demonstrators, several killings of other human rights journalists as well as the disappearing evidence from Politkovskaya’s trial it becomes more and more plausible that there is some kind of higher state involvement. In this sense, the events and conspiracy surrounding the death of Anna Politkovskaya can be seen as a factual conspiracy theory which has started to gain more and more proof as well as proponents all over the world.

The Functions Of Conspiracy Beliefs

Why do some people believe that Anna Politkovskaya was shot on order of the Kremlin whereas others do not? How come some people find it plausible that the US government initiated the attacks on the World Trade Centre whereas others think this extremely far-fetched? Conspiracy theories fulfill certain functions in the minds of the people and in the population as a whole. They can show a certain distrust of the people in what is official presented to them. Furthermore, they constitute another kind of choice that we have in a consumer society. Moreover, they can be seen as a new form of scapegoating. The following sections will analyze why people believe in conspiracy theories and what other options those theories offer to them.

Conspiracy Theories As A Sign Of Distrust

Conspiracy theories can be seen as a general sign of dissatisfaction and distrust that people have with the government, society and the system in general. Jodi Dean, professor for political science at the Hobart and William Smith College in the state of New York, stated: “[…] conspiracy theories, far from a label dismissively attached to the lunatic fringe, may well be an appropriate vehicle for political contestation”. Probably every country experiences every now and then affairs of corruption among politicians or within larger and well-known companies. Furthermore, everyone is familiar with parties or politicians who do not stick to their election promises. Those experiences fuel the feelings of distrust and skepticism. Many people show strong doubts of the trustworthiness of information that they get about the acts and deeds of the governments. Barkun points out: “[…] where political matters are concerned, there is no longer a consensus reality about the causes of events and reliability of evidence”. Furthermore, in our globalised world everything gets more interlinked. Big companies as resources for employment, gain more and more power in the political landscape of the countries. Moreover, the media coverage of events increases which makes it easier for people to hear about events all over the world. It can be argued that the increased media coverage leads to a rise in the imagination of people of what could happen or what could be going on. This development can lead to the described distrust into the governments and to the fact that conspiracy theories seem plausible to the people. However, this does not mean that people completely discard the official explanations. It merely inclines that people believe that the alternative explanations provided by the conspiracy theories seem imaginable.

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Conspiracy Theories And The Paradigm Of Choice

In 2004, the American psychologist Barry Schwartz published the book “The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less”. In this book he argues that we have reached the height of a consumer society in which it might happen that choice “no longer liberates, but deliberates”. Schwartz describes the various areas of life in which we can choose these days, such as education, career, friendship and religion. On top of the field of religion one can place the general category of belief. In our society, people can choose what to believe in and what they find believable. Whereas some people believe that the earth and the species were created by god, others find this completely incredible and support Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Choice is a crucial aspect of our lives. Schwartz points out that: “Choice is essential to autonomy, which is absolutely fundamental to well-being”. Although, not directly implied by Schwartz’ book, it can be argued that conspiracy theories constitute another choice that we have in our society, namely a choice of truth. The issue of belief and what we believe in is vital to human choice. Schwartz explains that: “[…] we make the most of our freedoms by learning to make good choices about the things that matter, while at the same time unburdening ourselves from too much concern about things that don’t”. Continuing in this line of thought, beliefs are essential to a person’s existence and personality: “Existence, at least human existence, is defined by the choices people make”. In order to choose we need to be able to believe and we need to be able to assume that our choice will bring about a desired outcome.

When choosing our beliefs we have a choice between religions, political parties, movements of any kind and many more. However, the term belief also inclines that we have a belief in what is going on and how things work. When it comes to our own lives this is quite manageable and even if we feel that we do not know how we work we can go to a specialist who will clarify this for us. Nevertheless, when it comes to a more general truth, something that we cannot check or see for ourselves we need to rely on sources telling us the truth and making us believe. The field of ‘truth’ however, seemed to be ruled by the monopoly of official explanations. Obviously alien involvements, for instance, in several earthly events often served as useful alternative theories for believers in superconspiracies but there was no real choice for people who did not believe in supernatural happenings. As outlined before, it is important for people to on the one hand have choices and on the other hand to be able to make choices about things that matter. Due to this, conspiracy theories offer a choice in truth to people or as Schwartz would put it: “Individual customers are free to ‘purchase’ whatever bundles of knowledge they want, […]”.

A New Form Of Scapegoating

Explanations to negative events usually involve something or someone being blamed for having caused a negative outcome. It is a very common psychological phenomenon that in order to handle difficult, sad or even traumatic events people need someone on whom they can produce their anger, fear, frustration, sadness etc. Scapegoating is a special form of blaming in which “[…] a hostile social-psychological discrediting routine by which people move blame and responsibility away from themselves and towards a target person or group” is performed.

By blaming the terrorists of Al-Qaida for the 9/11 attacks the US government has found a scapegoat for the public. This does not mean however, that the US government invented a new scapegoat. They merely found a group of people that was called responsible for the attacks. Most definitions of scapegoating involve that the scapegoats feel they are wrongly accused or persecuted. As Al-Qaida did claim responsibility for the events the US government was right in proclaiming this.

However, the scapegoating process started in the minds of the people. Through generalizing, a large amount of people started to belief that it is the Muslims as a whole who try to cause damage to the western world. Continuing on this line of thought, conspiracy theories have a similar effect. They are merely alternative explanations for events but also they include the element of blame. So instead of blaming Al-Qaida for the attacks on the World Trade Centre they blamed the US government and instead of only blaming the murderers of Politkovskaya they blame the Russian state.

Therefore, it can be concluded that conspiracy theories fulfill the basic functions that official explanations accomplish. The only difference is that the target of their blame is usually dissimilar. However, some articles argue that conspiracist scapegoating has a much larger effects than other kinds of scapegoating: “When conspiracist scapegoating occurs, the results can devastate a society, disrupting rational political discourse and creating targets who are harassed and even murdered”. The analysis if scapegoats that evolved out of a conspiracy theory are more in danger than those that evolved out of official explanations for events would go beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, the medieval witch hunts as well as Hitler’s conspiracy against Jews, Communists and foreigners might argue in favor of the claim that scapegoats made by conspiracy theories are in higher danger.

Conspiracy Theories And Play

In 1938, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga published his work “Homo Ludens” which contains an exceptionally influential theory on contemporary culture. Literally translated from the Latin, homo ludens means something like ‘Man the Player’. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga determines the play elements of contemporary culture and claims that culture itself bears the character of a play. Huizinga’s theory was mainly formed by the approaching fascism and the threats that it brought with it. However, his theory is still extremely influential in cultural studies and is used in order to analyze numerous elements of contemporary culture. Also conspiracy theories can be applied to Huizinga’s theory.

Huizinga’s general idea of the nature of this play goes as follows: “Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means”. This very complex definition can be unravelled into five most important qualities of play.

First of all, play is supposed to be a free activity which intentionally stands outside of ordinary life and which is not seen as being serious. In addition to this, it is important to mention that Huizinga differentiated between ordinary life and higher culture. Ordinary life includes the basics of living and is not seen as an element of play. Higher culture however, is what Huizinga refers to in his play theory. Conspiracy theories partly fulfil this criterion. Conspiracy theories are a belief and beliefs and the choice of those, as outlined before, are important elements of our society. Therefore it can be claimed that conspiracy beliefs are a part of higher culture. However, those who believe in conspiracy theories do take this subject very seriously whereas other people might ridicule those beliefs.

A second and third criterion for play is that it must absorb the player intensely and utterly and no material gain or profit must be achieved by it. Conspiracy theories complete this criterion. As conspiracy theories can be viewed as beliefs or also as persuasions, they will fully and intensely take in a person. Furthermore, it can be argued that thorough persuasions or beliefs of a person are not connected to material gain or profit. However, it can surely be claimed that some people hold certain views in order to gain material profit. Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that those views cannot be considered an accurate persuasion. Therefore, one can assume that people who thoroughly belief in certain conspiracy theories do so without expecting any material profit.

The fourth criterion states that this kind of play has to take place in an arranged manner within certain boundaries of time and space. Contemporary conspiracy theories usually evolve around contemporary subjects and events. However, conspiracy theories see history as a plot. Everything is interlinked and connected. Due to this conspiracy theories repeatedly deal with past and maybe even future events. However, the order of past, present and future is usually not confused or changed.

The last main criterion includes that play supports the creation and development of social groups which are supposed to act in secrecy and which should differentiate themselves from other groups and people. It is very obvious that this element can be found in conspiracy theories. People who believe in conspiracy theories usually form a group with other people who agree with their event explanation and they communicate with each other. Secrecy is one of the main criteria of conspiracy theories as they incline that an action or event took place in secrecy and is trying to be concealed. Lastly, many psychological theories on group formation claim that groups include but also exclude. People who believe in certain conspiracy theories are therefore included into the group, whereas people who disbelieve are excluded. In this sense, group formation is also a mean of differentiating oneself from another group of people.

Therefore, in conclusion it can be said that conspiracy theories can be seen as a play element in our contemporary culture.

Conspiracy Theories In Popular Culture

So far, this paper has outlined the nature and different types of conspiracy theories as well as their functions in the minds of the people and in the population as a whole. In addition to that, conspiracy theories have become an important part of popular culture: “The volume and influence of stigmatized knowledge [conspiracy theories] have increased dramatically through the mediation of popular culture. Motifs, theories and truth claims that once existed in hermetically sealed subcultures have begun to be recycled, often with great rapidity, through popular culture”. The main force behind this popularization of conspiracy theories is usually seen in the role of the mass media. However, popular culture also has the function of demystifying conspiracy theories. A common criterion of conspiracy theories is the fact that the believers think they are the only ones who know about this secret plot. By broadcasting the theories to an enormous number of people they lose their secrecy: “Once hidden, they are now revealed. Once intended only for the knowing few, they are now placed before the ignorant many. Once mysterious, they can now appear banal, the building blocks of not particularly distinguished popular entertainment”.

The Mass Media And The Spread Of Conspiracy Theories

The most crucial force in the spread of conspiracy theories is the mass media. Alternative explanations for events can be read in literature, internet and newspaper articles, can be seen on television and in the cinema and can be heard on the radio. The mass media is our biggest and maybe even most influential source of information. Conspiracy theories have long made their entrance into popular culture and mass media. Also Barkun describes this development: “Now, however, the boundary between the stigmatized and the mainstream has clearly become more permeable. Themes that once might have been found only in outsider literature or on the more outré Web sites have become the stuff of network television and multimillion-dollar motion picture”. When it comes to television, Barkun especially refers to shows like ‘The X-Files’ which were extremely popular, not only in the United States. The main focus of this series was to unravel conspiracies planned by the governments and accompanied through the help of extraterrestrial life. Furthermore, Barkun refers to films such as the 1997 Mel Gibson movie ‘Conspiracy Theory’. In this movie, a paranoid taxi driver is convinced that many global events are triggered due to a government conspiracy. Barkun points out: “The appearance of conspiracism in major motion pictures signals a major change in the relation between stigmatized and mainstream knowledge claims”. However, one does not need to look into special conspiratorial films or series to figure out that the topic of conspiracism has been widely adopted by the mass media. Many mainstream films such as ‘Mission Impossible’ or ‘Three Days of the Condor’ evolve around conspiracies planted by governments or intelligence agencies. Furthermore, intriguing but admittedly quite propagandistic documentaries such as Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11′ contribute to manifest conspiracy theories in the mainstream.

Many of these mentioned motion pictures serve to stimulate the imagination of the public. As already outlined when analyzing the functions of conspiracy theories, the broad and wide-ranging media coverage of different global events also leads to the fact that different views on events are accumulated. Furthermore, the media does not only show different views on events but also covers a wide range of events that happen all over the world. This together with conspiracy theories that can be found in mass media means of entertainment such as movies and TV programs leads to the increased imagination of people of what could possibly go on in their country or even in the world.

Furthermore, it can be said that: “[…] the appearance of conspiracy themes in popular culture at least partially destigmatizes those ideas, by associating them with admired stars and propagating them through the most important forms of mass entertainment”. Considering this, it can be concluded that the media did not only spread popular conspiracy theories but moreover, did it de-condemn conspiracy theories to be only an issue to paranoid or lunatic people. By doing so the mass media made conspiracy theories which used to be considered as stigmatized knowledge available to a wide range of people.

Barkun assigns another function to the mass media. Everyone has probably heard of the concept of surreptitious advertisement, when we see protagonists in a movie drinking a certain brand of cola or when they use a very popular new mobile phone


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