We’ve all had those inter-generational arguments over Christmas dinner. All I wanted was to enjoy some sage and onion stuffing and now we have to have a heated discussion about [insert incendiary topic]. Contradictory sentences flowing out of one mouth, struggling to articulate just how wrong one of your closest relatives is, and trying your absolute best to play Boggle as if the last hour wasn’t the most infuriating conversation you’ve had all year. “Just because the Harvard Business School said it, doesn’t mean it’s true” was a kneejerk retort that still floats around in my head years later.
At the very least, we’re all speaking our genuine truths, whatever form it takes. We’re all working from a shared foundation of information, even if we interpret that reality differently. But what happens when you come face to face with someone whose baseline of knowledge is just disconnected from everyone else? It springs on you without warning. You could be having a normal chat with the family you don’t know a life without, and suddenly your uncle insists that he will never get vaccinated against Covid-19 and knows people who ‘de-vaccinated’ themselves in incredibly dangerous ways. Your parents who always warned you against the dangers of the internet as a child are suddenly wringing their hands over ‘cultural Marxism’ and the ‘stolen election’.
I’m not talking about a difference in opinion, a matter of interpretation of similar information. These conversations are to be expected in any family that is open about their political views, especially when we consider inter-generational conflicts and the different worlds we lived in in comparison to our parents and grandparents. I’m talking about watching someone you love sink into an abyss of misinformation, making open conversation near impossible. How do you explain that the vaccine is safe to someone who truly believes that Covid was invented by ‘global elites’? How do you even begin to unpick the plethora of lies that your loved one has absorbed when the statistics are brushed off by the insistence that ‘no one can actually know anything’?
These subjects can be emotionally harrowing too. It’s one thing if your healthy aunt believes that the pharmaceutical industry is suppressing ‘natural’ alternative medicines, something which half of Americans believe anyway. But what if your cousin won’t vaccinate their child against measles because of the disgraced Andrew Wakefield’s constructed moral panic about vaccines causing autism? What if someone you love has decided they’d rather take their chances with Covid-19 than get the vaccine? What if conspiracy theories cause your loved ones to attack the usual victims of conspiracy theories such as Jewish people?
This is where silly conspiracies transgress into dangerous territories, genuinely placing the life and wellbeing of people in jeopardy. We may laugh at the odd anti-vaccine rant but that doesn’t mean that these people deserve to die of Covid-19 alone in the ICU, which is increasingly the case according to Dr. Andrew Pollard. Sometimes, it is necessary to employ some callous cruelty to preserve your conviction in incorrect theories (believing that the increased vulnerability of the elderly and immunocompromised is just natural selection, for example). Does it then follow that we should employ the same cruelty when the consequences of their beliefs catch up to them? While I can’t blame anyone for indifference or even a degree of schadenfreude, I believe these people are victims of fraudsters and charlatans preying on their ignorance and fear.
Conspiracy theories are one hell of a drug if you’re genuinely afraid of the state of the world. Conspiracy theories can be taken on defensively, plus you can enjoy the high of feeling like you are part of the in-group that knows the real truth. Why worry about the impending catastrophe of climate change if you believe that it’s a hoax? While a whole lot of ego is a key ingredient to denying scientific consensus, fear of confronting reality is sadly an undeniable part of conspiracy. That might be something to consider when you argue with your family over vaccines before going to midnight mass.
In my mind, the best way to have impossible conversations is to stop trying to convince the other. If someone doesn’t want to believe something, no amount of evidence, shouting, or crying will dissuade them from what they’ve already internalised. If you’re someone who gains an unspoken pleasure from hashing it out with conspiracy theorists, then have fun! However, for the sake of saving breath and mental energy, maybe some conversations are made to be impossible and there’s not much point in engaging with them.