Conspiracy Theories


By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

Conspiracy theories, mis/disinformation, and propaganda are unchecked in their boldness. We have an endless cataract of confusion, a new Babel on our hands.

The crisis in Ukraine is, of course, top of mind. While travelling home from St. Mark’s the other day I heard the replay on CBC’s As it Happens of an original BBC interview with a member of the Russian Duma or Parliament. Articulate, poised and adamant, she insisted that the bombings in Ukraine originate actually with Ukrainian Nazis, that in truth it is Ukrainians bombing Ukrainians. The Russians are the humanitarians. Astonishing.

But that is the power of conspiracy theories and their ilk. Keep repeating the mad tune and it gets embedded in our collective memory and we hum along in the end.

I was reminded of the durability of irrational notions just last week when I received notice that Judy Collins, the American singer, is on tour and has a new album out with one of the new songs called “Thomas Merton.” That caught my eye, and when I read the lyrics I discovered that she accepts as truth the much circulated rumour that this famous monk was assassinated and not accidentally electrocuted.

I had been asked to write a detailed review/essay of a book on the subject of Merton’s death by two freelance journalists and I dismissed its fanciful speculations, at the same time acknowledging the discrepancies to be found in the various accounts of Merton’s death. There is always a kernel of truth in a conspiracy theory, as there is in a heresy, and it is a mistake to simply discount without a forensic analysis of the argument.

Conspiracy theories and their spawn are dangerously mischievous but there is the risible side as well. If I am flying overseas—curtailed rightly because of pandemic protocols—and I find myself in a working groove, if approached by my seatmate to identify who I am and what I do I will say that I am a professor of English and instantly they retreat into silence. If, however, I am in a talkative mood I will say that I am a professor of religious studies and the conversation will flow for several hours. Even when people are hostile to religion or profess indifference to it they love to talk about it.

On one such occasion, my row companion asked me if I thought, as he clearly did, that the College of Cardinals was taken over by extraterrestrials. I told him that, although there were certainly some cardinals I knew who struck me as coming from another planet, the wholesale occupation of the College by Martians seemed to me highly improbable.

He was unpersuaded.

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