Saturday, 04 February 2023

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Auntie's Trouble with Conspiracy Theories [by Auntie Najwa]

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Salaam Dearies,

The trouble with conspiracy theories is … that they are true.  Well, not in their entirety – but there is usually one tiny little bit of truth, that grain of credibility and a good dose of peer pressure, that lures you in. Otherwise, how would otherwise rational people fall for them? Unfortunately, I recently found out …

Think of it as a tray of Kunefe.  Not the cheesy kind – the kind with the custard.  I don’t care for the cheesy kind.  Why do we eat it when we know that fat and sugar are bad for us?  Your doctor says to stay away … but your sister just brought home a whole tray. Can you hear its sweet call from the kitchen? And since no one wants to be “bad” alone, it’s shared with the entire family, many of whom should also avoid sugar but … what the heck!  And those who don’t want it, have to eat it, too.  Anyone who has ever sat through an organized family food shaming knows better than to refuse a piece.  In my family, saying ‘no’ to food takes more courage than running with the bulls in Pamplona. You don’t want to eat? Don’t you love me??? And pretty soon the whole tray is gone.  And if the Kunefe example doesn’t work for you, use a bag of potato chips. It’s the same principle. A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.

That’s how conspiracy theories work, too, without the calories but just as damaging to your mind and body.  It starts with a message that causes an emotional reaction, and it’s downhill from there.  Permit me to give you a play-by-play of a full-blown Auntie tailspin based on a tiny grain of truth … nurtured by an ill-timed and very rare moment of self-doubt. For a moment there, I was convinced that Auntie is not as beloved as she thinks she is … which – of course – is ridiculous. Here’s what happened:  I opened my social media account and read the following quote probably falsely attributed to the famous Persian physician, Ibn Sina.  It said:

Mothers-in-law are like appendixes.  They are completely superfluous residual organs without any purpose, but they can cause real problems if they are irritated. And sometimes, they have to be removed.

It was like a kick in the gut.  Who posted this?  My son in law?  He gave me a funny look the other day. Is this how he thinks of me?  My husband said: “Of course, you’d think that – you think everything is about you!”  So now I’m superfluous, irritable AND selfish?  Of course, I am.  My mother once said I was selfish.  And my daughter and son-in-law stopped talking yesterday when I entered the room, was that a coincidence?  I know my niece is not prominently displaying the beautiful vase I gave her and her husband for their wedding.  Are they, too, snickering behind my back?  My friend (or maybe she isn’t really my friend???) hasn’t called me back.  Is she having that party without me? They’re all getting together to gossip about me! Sleepless nights, nasty thoughts, plotting revenge, and feeling bad about having those thoughts.  The never-ending spiral of doom …

The whole point behind this is descent into paranoia is to illustrate how easily people can get sucked into conspiracy theories based on a nagging insecurity, the more emotional, the better. I quickly regained my footing after realizing how silly I had been. Of course, my family loves me. How could they not?  But this made me realize that anyone concerned about their family’s future – and who isn’t – can fall prey to gut kicking messages from all kinds of sources.  Most Americans don’t have $400 for an emergency, let alone braces for the children or a decent vacation.  Then they’re being told that immigrants are threatening their families and bringing disease.  Immigrants are taking away their jobs and voting in their elections. “They” are scheming “our” system. Unless you actually know immigrants and have time to study the facts, those messages ring true, especially when delivered by authority figures or in groups of people you care about. Facts and reason take a back seat to emotions, and who listens to sound warnings about sugar when refusing to eat the Kunefe makes you an outcast in your own family? 

Now that the dust of the change of administration is settling; now that government is returning to the business of governing, and there was no Civil War, we all get to breathe easier. True, the preppers will have to watch the expiration dates on their supplies of C Rations or hope that they can convince their kids that it’s ‘cool’ to eat like GI Joe. Bummer. The gun industry sure made a lot of money selling weapons to scared people. Weapons that will hopefully gather dust in American’s closets. Most importantly, however, more and more people are coming out of the woodwork and admitting that they have been duped by crazy conspiracy theories. Cleanup of the mess left behind is going to take a long time – particularly in a pandemic – but the bridge-building has begun, and there is reason to believe that Americans are not nearly as polarized as we’re told we are.  We just need to feed each other a better diet and not buy into the ever-repeated corrosive narrative that we cannot get along. 

It also helps to realize that the polarization message is not accidental. Rather, it is being carefully curated and amplified, by the same linguists that gave us the phrases “death taxes” and “death panels” to create sentiment against taxes on the wealthy and affordable health care. They’re good at what they do. Gauging emotional responses in focus groups, they come up with “words that work” to drive their clients’ agendas. The message du jour is that Americans are too divided to get along – a message that is not helpful for a nation that needs to heal its wounds and unite. And the message is well funded, as industry does not profit if we learn to trust each other and talk to each other over tea or coffee. I know myself.  Hopelessness and despair send me right back to the refrigerator.  Hope makes me call a friend to take a walk or have some zero-calorie tea.  Unfortunately, walks are not good for business.

Call me a Pollyanna full of “hopium” – or even a meddling mother-in-law if you must - but I think that together, we can cut down on things that are bad for us and do more good for ourselves and others. Let’s adopt “words that work” for inclusion and kindness, integrity, and trust. That way, when we do get together to share some delicious Kunefe with our families, neighbors, and friends soon. InshAllah, we’ll enjoy it so much more. 

Till next time, Dearies …


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