Unconscious Conspiracies

I’ve been meaning to write about this idea for a while, but a recent posting on Boing Boing reminded me of it again.

I believe that most so-called “conspiracies” are in fact subconscious conspiracies - meaning that one can be a member of a conspiracy without actually knowing it.

A subconscious conspiracy behaves much like a conscious one - that is, you have some group of individuals who share a covert agenda, one that would be considered detrimental or even diabolical by the general public. There are secret meetings, cover-ups, and a web of insidious influence. And yet, no one in the group realizes that this is going on.

One might ask how such things can go on without the participants being aware of what they are doing? As I often say, “never dismiss human dismissiveness”. It’s easy to convince yourself that what you are doing is “just natural”, that there’s nothing special or untoward about your actions.

Here’s how subconscious conspiracies work: Say you have a group of people in power - goverment officials or perhaps a corporate board of directors. Say also that these individuals are tightly-knit, with a common history and shared goals. Now, also suppose that this group is somewhat insular, isolated from the outside by a layer of protection (by this I mean things like office assistants, press secretaries, and others who mediate the discourse between members of this group and those outside the group - what Heinlein called flappers.) What happens is that these individual eventually, and inevitably, take on a cult-like aspect.

I’ve personally seen this kind of groupthink at work: What ends up happening is that, for any given member of the group, the vast majority of their discourse is with other members of the group. A given factoid (by which I mean literally “having the form of a fact”, which is implied by the suffix -oid) will bounce from one member to another, until everyone ends up believing it, irregardless of its actual truth. “We have the best product in the industry!” says the CEO. And when you ask the CEO why he believes this is true, he replies that it’s because the engineering VP assures him that this is true; And when you ask the same question to the engineering VP, he’ll say that it’s because the CEO says it’s true. And so on.

In a subconscious conspiracy, everyone believes that they are in fact working for the public interest - it’s just that their view of the public interest is completely skewed beyond all recognition.

And of course, when they try to communicate with people who aren’t in the group, there’s a disconnect - they sense that these outsiders aren’t aligned with their goals, and they begin to percieve them as a threat. And of course, once the human threat response enters the picture, collective insanity is not far behind. They begin to exclude outsiders and other people who “wouldn’t understand” from their circle; their thoughts turn to how they can discredit and undermine their enemies - all in the cause of what’s good and righteous, of course.

The most important thing to understand about subconscious conspiracies, however, is that they are merely symptoms of a deeper cause. And as usual with symptomatic maladies, merely treating the symptoms does no good. With a regular, conscious conspiracy, all that you need to is round up the ring leaders and toss them in jail. But with a symptomatic conspiracy, the same conditions that created the conspiracy will simply continue to create new conspiracies to replace the old one.

4 Responses to “Unconscious Conspiracies”

  1. John Morales Says:

    This reminds me of Jerry Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy”.

  2. DensityDuck Says:

    We already knew about this, and it’s called “groupthink”.

  3. Bill Clardy Says:

    Just to remind folks, a more descriptive (albeit less polite) term for groupthink is intellectual incest — it makes the dangers more vivid while also making it easier for the listener to grasp how the bad ideas can be given life.

  4. ech Says:

    Read Umberto Eco’s “Foucalt’s Pendulm”.

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