July 26, 2021
Fairy tales deal in truths rather than facts. While they are usually written for specific communities, they can travel well.
Fairy tales teach us about the caprices of nature, and how we can best adapt to them. The world is complex and not always in our favor, but the stories themselves are often simple and comforting— a soft cushion of order and adventure.
They prepare us to face an inescapable truth of human nature: that we are still animals, with horrible impulses. A few of us will act on these impulses with regularity in the best of circumstances, while most of us will employ them only under extreme stress. Among their many lessons, fairy tales show us how to recognize, avoid and confront the worst in ourselves. They prepare us as children for the hardships and disappointments of adulthood.
What I’ve learned from writing fairy tales is that humans are always trying to control chaos, and, in doing so, creating more chaos.
Like fairy tales (and some religions), conspiracy stories impose order onto the complexities of life that we can’t comprehend, predict or control. Conspiracy stories promise to tame the chaos for us, as long as we believe in them fully.
These stories don’t seek to comfort us, however; they seek to seduce. While we feel a sense of belonging and purpose in their embrace, they can deftly drain our money, power, fealty, and, most importantly in the internet era, our attention.
The internet hasn’t just revealed the complexity of the world; it has given us all the ability to add to it. And, just as candor gets mistaken for honesty, information can be mistaken for meaning.
Conspiracy stories tend to cover large, traumatic and inescapable events or trends, using language that, on its face, sounds rational and confident. You’ll hear “in-the-know” acronyms, terms and phrases, because a tone of authority is useful to bolster a fear-filled message.
Along with authority, an air of factual credibility is essential to a conspiracy story. Storytellers know that most of us are apt to take facts more seriously than fictions. After all, we need facts for our day-to-day survival. Conspiracy stories seduce us by mixing real facts with invented ones to construct a credible, coherent structure. If all the pieces fit together this tightly, then they all must be true. There are no bad bricks in a good building, right?
A good conspiracy story will get you to fear the unknown while giving you just enough hope to gain control over it. It will tune your mind to the constant hum of existential threat, and keep you in a state of high alert.
Lastly, conspiracy stories seduce us with the promise of inclusion. The storyteller claims to know an important, secret set of facts to which only a few—including you!—can be privy. You are part of an elite tribe, sharers of an earth-shattering secret. Storytellers can target specific real world communities, or form new ones based on affinities to the stories themselves. Your personality, habits, family history, social group, economic means, old grudges, even past traumas can all attract you to conspiracy stories, and link you to a like-minded group.
We are all living with accelerating advances in medicine, biology, physics, engineering, surveillance technology, tyranny and, of course, global warming, the dominant issue of our lives going forward. Add to all this the information-bombardment of the internet and you have the problem of our age: overwhelm. When we are overwhelmed we long for a foundational story—a myth for our existence—to impose order onto the chaos. We are on the hunt for new myths which will move us, with good and evil players, dramatic battles and certain victories.
As animals we seek comfort, pleasure and a healthy balance of stimulation and rest.
There are plenty of storytellers out there, ready to offer their services, for a price.
If you believe that a storyteller can control your chaos, you can be certain they’re controlling you.