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How to love a conspiracy theorist

conspiracy theorist | Shutterstock

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 02/16/22

Showing respect and compassion to others doesn't mean you have to agree with their beliefs.

You can’t go anywhere these days — and sometimes it’s only as far as your own kitchen table — without hearing someone share what sounds like a conspiracy theory, or accuse someone else of being a conspiracy theorist.

While the trendy solution is to denounce and “cancel” those who hold conspiratorial beliefs (or any belief we don’t like or agree with these days, for that matter), that solution not only promotes further division, but destroys personal relationships and doesn’t address what’s most important.

Before we go any further, it’s always helpful to define our terms. Merriam-Webster defines a conspiracy theory as “a belief that some covert but influential organization is responsible for a circumstance or event” and Brittanica defines it as “an attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of a small powerful group.”

While that seems to be the basic definition, some broaden it to emphasize the notion of secrecy — that there is a small elite group of people somewhere behind closed doors plotting some kind of evil and keeping important information away from us.

We tend to think that conspiracy theories are more prevalent now than in the past, but that’s not the case — conspiracy theories have always thrived during times of crisis, natural disaster, and social upheaval. When there is widespread anxiety, uncertainty, and hardship, conspiracies are one way that humans try to make sense of the world.

Is the label fair?

Today the term “conspiracy theory” gets thrown around pretty loosely — it’s used for everything from the most outlandish idea that flies in the face of all evidence (such as the belief that the earth is flat), to disagreements with authorities or experts about issues or policies (such as the view that requiring children to wear masks at school does more harm than good).

So we might begin loving our favorite conspiracy theorist by first examining if he or she truly deserves the label. Disagreeing with policies or questioning information, intentions, or solutions does not necessarily make for a conspiracy. Just because you find another person’s view illogical, strange, or just plain wrong, doesn’t make them a conspiracy theorist.

But there is more to keep in mind.

Loving people first

Somehow, many of us have been lured into thinking that we can only love those who agree with us, who hold to our own perfectly sane beliefs. But who wrote that rule? Why should we only have relationships with people who think the way we do? That certainly isn’t in the Christian playbook; nor is it an enriching way to live.

People are more than their ideas, beliefs, or theories. Your Aunt Sheila is more than her conspiratorial idea about aliens living in the center of the earth and pulling all the global strings. Your neighbor next door is more than his belief that 9-11 was an inside job. Such beliefs may appall or distress us, but it is the person who holds them that we are called to love, not the beliefs themselves.

Our relationship with others improves, however, when we show interest in what they think and why they think it — even if their beliefs seem really “out there” and even if we still end up strongly disagreeing with them.

One of the best ways to love someone who holds to conspiratorial ideas is to take a genuine interest in what they care about, and to look a little closer.

What if the next time your friend began sharing his views, you got really curious? Few of us ever take the time to really understand — we don’t want to hear anything more about ideas we think are crazy. But what if we learned something new — especially something new about the other person?

What lies underneath

Conspiratorial ideas flourish when there is a lack of trust. And trust must always be earned. There are good reasons to be distrustful of those who wield power, authority, and great sums of money — such individuals and groups have not always had others’ best interests at heart. History teaches us that much. There are many reasons a person may not trust people and information that for us seem credible so the topic of trust is a good one for discussion. (Why does your friend trust this and not that? And what about you?)

People are often drawn to conspiracy theories because of a need for understanding and a sense of control. An additional element for some people is the need to feel “in the know.” They enjoy believing that they have access to information that others do not.

But depending on the person, situation, or belief, talking about a conspiracy theory may go nowhere. After all, no one thinks they are buying into conspiracies — we all believe we are seeking the truth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about it.

A little humility goes a long way. Maybe you don’t have it all right, and maybe your conspiratorial-minded friend doesn’t have it all wrong. After all, some conspiracy theories end up being true. (Remember when the belief in the possibility of aliens and UFOs/UAPs was considered conspiratorial? Now we have official military and government bodies exploring these matters.)

At the root of most beliefs that lack any evidence is fear, and we can all stand to be compassionate about that — and honest about our own fears.

So the next time you’re listening to a loved one’s crazy theory, grab a cup of tea, pull up a chair, take a deep breath, and ask some open-ended questions. And if the conversation goes nowhere, or you just can’t handle going there at all, change the subject and focus on something else. You have a lot more in common with conspiracy theorists than you think. We’re all trying to make sense of this crazy world, and that’s not a bad thing — just a human thing.

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