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Conspiracies — Termite and Otherwise

Friday, 29 March 2024

In the most general of the still living senses of the word conspire, it means

Combine in action or aim (with); cooperate by or as by intention (to do).
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
to act in harmony toward a common end

The two dictionaries that I just cited also offer definitions that include aspects of secrecy or lack of acknowledgement and of wickedness,

Combine secretly (with) for an unlawful or reprehensible purpose, esp. treason, murder, or sedition; agree secretly. (Foll. by against, to do.)
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
to join in a secret agreement to do an unlawful or wrongful act or an act which becomes unlawful as a result of the secret agreement

which aspects indeed most people usually associate with conspiracy, but these dictionaries are silent about a third aspect that most people usually imagine, central coördination. Centralization is not part of the definition. A conspiracy could be highly centralized, largely decentralized, or have no center at all.[1]

Decentralized processes of people working in harmony for a shared and unacknowledged purpose — and even more specifically for a shared, unacknowledged, and nefarious purpose — are abundant. Nearly every adult American is familiar with my favorite examples of decentralized conspiracies. Most American journalists fall into two camps, one camp favoring one of America's two largest political parties, and the other camp favoring the other party. Very often in each camp, when some news story is about criminality or other widely despised action by an official or political figure from the favored party, the story will not mention that person's political affiliation until well into the article, if at all; but if a news story is about such action by a person associated with the disfavored party, then the affiliation is swiftly and prominently mentioned, perhaps even in the headline.[2] No one had to tell journalists to behave in this manner for them to have done so. They merely observed other journalists, and joined one conspiracy or the other upon recognizing how readers' impressions of the favored and disfavored parties would be affected.

When referring to a process of people working with little or no central coördination but in harmony for a shared, unacknowledged, and reprehensible purpose, I call it a termite conspiracy, by analogy with behavior of termites that has been widely mistaken as requiring a high degree of central administration. Termites are not the only beasts that furnish examples; flocks of birds come immediately to mind. At one time, a great many educated people accepted or arrived at theories of telepathic hive-minds. But, as it turns-out, under examination and careful consideration, these behaviors can be explained without such centralization. And part of what led me to apply termite conspiracy to human beings was my having read The Human Termites, a classic science-fiction story by neuropsychiatrist David H[enry] Keller in Science Wonder Stories volume 1 #4, #5, and #6, in which story Keller proposed that human behavior like that of termites were under direction of hive-minds.[3] In fact, human behavior like that of termites needs no such thing to effect a shared purpose. I could use the term termite conspiracy more generally to include benign cases of people working without central coördination but in harmony for a shared purpose, but I haven't had much occasion to do so.

As a social scientist, I find termite conspiracies more interesting in the abstract than I find centralized conspiracies. And, because the plausibility of a datum remaining more generally secret decreases with each added person coming into possession of that secret, I tend to be rather doubtful of claims of large-scale, centralized, unacknowledged conspiracies. But such conspiracies are more prevalent than I once believed. In the case of UAPs, the choice is now between belief in a previous large-scale, centralized conspiracy by agents of the state to hide the truth, or belief that the present admission to past deceit is a product of large-scale, centralized conspiracy. (I very much incline to the latter belief.) Meanwhile, the only plausible reason that documents are still being withheld concerning the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy — more than sixty years ago — is that still-existing institutions would lose credibility if the truth were widely known.

Still, people with predisposition to believe in centralized and unacknowledged conspiracies need to give more thought and discussion to termite conspiracies. On the one hand, a termite conspiracy is even more readily mistaken for a centralized conspiracy than is an invisible-hand process. On the other hand, a conspiracy theorist can present a more persuasive case, by discussing the range of possibilities, running from conspiracies in the most general sense, through termite conspiracies (with which, again, nearly everyone is familiar), to increasingly centralized conspiracies. An audience compelled to see that explanation is in terms of something familiar, except perhaps in degree of centralization, is an audience more inclined to attend.

Certainly, people have been strong conditioned not to attend rationally to discussions of conspiracy. Dictionaries not-withstanding, within my lifetime, the terms conspiracy and especially conspiracy theory and conspiracy theorist have come to be associated with irrational theorizing. The mere act of labelling a proposition with conspiracy theory is treated as-if a perfect refutation; indeed, the mindlessness here has grown so terrible that I have seen journalists using the label conspiracy as if it is synonymous with conspiracy theory, and labelling propositions conspiracy, as if this labelling falsifies these propositions. Journalists and other shapers of opinion must now avoid using conspiracy theory to refer to their own assertions that this or that group has secretly coöperated in some centrally coördinated, unacknowledged, wicked scheme. Notice how, for example, the mainstream of the media and Wikipedia do not used conspiracy theory or conspiracy theorist in reference to the Russiagate Narrative and to those who participated in its narration, though the mainstream of the media and Wikipedia freely apply these labels to various claims and to various persons in conflict with the mainstream narrative. I have even encountered journalists offering theories of conspiracies and insisting that these theories were not a conspiracy theory.

[1] A conspiracy is characterized by shared purpose, whereäs the results of an invisible hand process are not sought by participants from that process, and may not be purposes at all, let alone shared purposes. When a conspiracy, with or without centralized coördination, is somehow also an invisible hand process, the purposes behind the former are different from the results that make it the latter.

[2] In the days before wide access to the Internet, this pair of journalistic practices was even more pronounced; but when news sites sought to foster a sense of engagement amongst their readers, by providing fora in which readers could comment, many readers began highlighting instances of the first practice, and continue to highlight it.

[3] The theory in Keller's story entailed apparent invisible-hand processes as actually having intended results.