Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why is the Middle East so rife with conspiracy theories?

This dispatch provides examples of what observer after observer remarks about the Middle East: it is rife with conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories seem to pervade people's cognitive maps to an extent which is truly astonishing.

Two fairly obvious features of Middle Eastern societies are highly controlled media and domination by authoritarian regimes, many of which came to power via conspiracies. If one has no trust in public media, and constant experience of deliberate control of the same, then conspiracy theories obviously have an appeal greater than they otherwise might, particularly due to the lack of respected public fora for their debunking. That various regimes came to power through conspiracies just reinforces the notion of hidden, or not so hidden, controllers behind the scenes.

Of course, the far more open societies of the West are not exactly immune to conspiracy theories either. The extreme right and the not-so-extreme left are both rather prone to conspiracy-mongering. 9/11 "truthers" are just propounding the latest in a long line of conspiracy theories. Both groups experience significant levels of alienation from their surrounding society and operate through activist networks. Conspiracy theories provide an "explanation" for why things do not happen as they want/expect as well as reflecting aspects of their own political existence.

While the far more open Western societies also provide plenty of avenues to debunk such conspiracy-mongering, conspiracy mongering still appeals to the cognitive bias to (over) ascribe intention to actions and particularly consequences. Still, the level of conspiracy-mongering in the West is clearly much lower than it is in the Middle East.

Nor does the greater level of alienation by ordinary folk from their public institutions, and the lack of respected public fora to debunk conspiracy theories, seem to be quite enough to explain the extent of the conspiracy-mongering in the Middle East.

The alternative to conspiracy mongering is greater confidence in more impersonal processes of causality. The epitome of which is science. It is another feature of the Middle East (and the Muslim world in general), that the level of scientific activity and understanding is much lower than in the West. Muslim scientists, or scientists with a Middle Eastern background, write long, thoughtful essays about, or otherwise discuss, the problems of science in the Middle East and the Islamic world. So, the lack of confidence in, or awareness of, other, far more impersonal, causal explanations may also be part of the problem.

It is, after all, notable that the extreme right in the West tends to put much emphasis on the heroic will -- which encourages conspiracy mongering -- while much leftwing thought in the West is still beholden in one form or the other to Marxism which -- with its notions of hidden forces, differential consciousness and individuals as manifestations of classes -- also encourages a personalised conception of causality that leads easily to conspiracy mongering.

The cognitive map which most pervades the Middle East, and the Islamic world in general, is, of course, a religious one. Moreover, a religious one which, since al-Ghazali, has emphasized a conception of causality as just the manifestation of God's will with no inherent ordering beyond that which God happens to follow. All of Creation is taken to be a manifestation of the intentional will of God in a specific, day-to-day, every-moment sense. Such a profoundly personalised conception of all of causality undermines more impersonal notions of causality and so encourages other personalised conceptions of causality -- such as conspiracy theories. Hence, a whole series of factors encourages conspiracy theories, leading to the intense level of conspiracy-mongering that is such a feature of the Middle East.

Which is not a good thing for the prospects of more formal systems of social action, such as the rule of law and democracy. The penchant for conspiracy mongering is not only a penchant for illusion and delusion, it is also a barrier to other ways of thinking about, and so acting in, the world.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied]

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