Conspiracy Theories & Peak Generalization

by Robert Roman

Sound the alarm! The Coronavirus death rates are wrong. The Media is promoting the greatest hoax ever told about cold and flu season. The Deep State is… The Elite want to…

Anyone with an internet connection can fill in the blanks of this conspiracy yarn Mad Lib.

Gross and grotesque generalizations are to blame for this fabulist thinking. There are three subsets of generalization at work here.

The first is Generalization of Grandeur. Or, euphemistically, Seeing the Big Picture.

One way of processing the complex and confusing universe is by forfeiting reason and enquiry in exchange for a digestible lullaby. The weariest of this surrender is the all-encompassing, “It’s God’s will.” One wonders if the use of “the Devil is in the details” instead of “God is in the details” is intended to send folks hightailing it for the hills of willful ignorance.

A less simplistic version of this intellectual dunce-shrug is the well-worn Conspiracy Theory of Everything. Although many defy comprehension, these readymade tales are more formulaic than the tackiest Hollywood schlock. These open-source explanation myths are so customizable that any action or inaction, statement or silence, incident or stillness can be commandeered as a story-starter.

If aspiring Matrix Morpheus had the misfortune of eating a sour grape, he would proclaim that only the blind could fail to see the evil agent of acidity lurking within every grape, spawned by ubiquitous vineyards of tentacle vines and invisible subterranean networks of roots, disseminated by a clandestine cabal of grape purveyors, all overseen by shadowy, billionaire overlords whose master plan is to infect every hard-working, real American mouth with this unpatriotic tartness. The Road to Sourdom. And don’t forget the humanoid lizards.

Ironically, this color-by-numbers piffle is proudly yelped from the rooftops of Reddit as if derivative fan fiction was the equivalent of String Theory.

The second is Macro Generalization.

The Government. The Media. The Market. The Elite. The People.

Such terms are so ambiguous they are all but meaningless. The disparate and diverse aspects of these conceptual groupings should preclude any rational person from referring to them as single entities. The laziness required to bandy these mouth noises would redden Jeffry “The Dude” Lebowski’s cheeks with embarrassment.

Such statements beg a few tiny questions. Who constitutes this global brainwash apparatus The Media? CBS and Fox? Pacific Radio and AM Talk Radio? The Huffington Post and Breitbart? The Washington Post and The Washington Times? Ian Masters and Alex Jones? Millennial Niece’s TikTok and Uncle Hermit’s Zuckerbook page? Well-oiled synergy if there ever was.

When one asks Uncle Hermit where he read such hokum, and he declares, “The Internet!” he has eliminated the Triple Deuce Bar’s bathroom wall, but not much else.

This leads to the third type, and most malignant: Thought Generalization. Or, what Orwell may have called GenThink.

All roads of Macro Generalization—omitting modifiers, synonyms, and needless words—eventually arrive at the empire of binary language: on/off, good/bad, us/them.

In Orwell’s 1984, the Newspeak Dictionary even eliminates antonyms. The word “bad” is rendered unnecessary when the prefix “un” is added to the monosyllabic “good.” This streamlines the dichotomy for maximum sterility: good/ungood. Because efficiency!

The character Syme, a philologist who works on the Newspeak Dictionary says, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

In this age of Peak Generalization, as we bustle about whatever public or private square we find ourselves—classroom, social media, water cooler, or barstool—we should reduce the level of insidious drivel. (And slow the spin of poor George Orwell in his grave.) This can be done by asking one simple favor of our debate partners and ourselves. It’s the same favor our elementary school teachers asked us when they uncapped their red pens and wrote on the essays where we made our first attempts to convey our pre-adolescent thoughts, “Please be more specific.”

Robert Roman (@robroman23) is a writer and television producer.

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