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A Critical Introduction

During that event, in recounting how he and Alex Dauge-Roth designed their First Year Seminar scrutinizing the nature of truth , economist Michael Murray neatly summarized how the context has changed around the concept. Thematically, what are the things that unite it? Formally, what are the common argumentative strategies?


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A characteristic of conspiracy rhetoric, and a recurring device in the show The X-Files , is the mixing of fact with fiction as a means of lending credibility to the latter, says Kroepsch Award honoree Stephanie Kelley-Romano. As a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas in the mids, Kelley-Romano found rhetoric around human-alien encounters becoming something of a theme in her life. She was an obsessive fan of The X-Files , whose main characters, FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, were bent on exposing a federal plot to conceal the earthly activities of extraterrestrials.

Meanwhile, defying her Ph. A characteristic of conspiracy rhetoric is the mixing of fact with fiction as a means of lending credibility to the latter. An X-Files motif was the use of actual or carefully replicated news footage, often with text superimposed on it that serves the fictional plot. One episode references the famous Zapruder film of John F. Fact vs. Kelley-Romano noted that some professed abductees believe that programs like The X-Files are actually part of a real federal disinformation campaign.

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So a drama about a government conspiracy to hide the truth about extraterrestrial activities is, in reality, itself part of such a conspiracy. Some kind of perceived evil is an organizing principle or orbital center for a given conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories exploit the human need for coherence in stories, something that communications theorist Walter Fisher called narrative fidelity.

Which brought us to the role of evil in conspiracy rhetoric, a concept Kelley-Romano attributed to Earl Creps of Northwest University.

Conspiracy Theory

For Creps, some kind of perceived evil is an organizing principle or orbital center for a given conspiracy theory. In order to bust that theory, we need to identify the evil that the conspiracy believers are perceiving and responding to. Because we all know that we are not going to argue…any type of new mindset [into] most conspiracy believers. I loved the intellectual calisthenics and the illogic of it.

However, as Drury made clear, the rogue has to profess populist solidarity. Which raises the worry for some of us that we may not be quite getting with our definition at exactly what people talk about in the street when they say conspiracy theories. So there is an interesting tension there between a revisionary definition that is very usable in philosophy versus a really messy non-definition that the average person uses.

SS: And do all conspiracies fall under one definition or are there quite a few different types of definitions? PS: I think there are a number of different types. They probably all do fall under that definition just because it is so capacious, but there are different kinds. I made the distinction between, for instance, conspiracy theories that are born conspiratorial — so they start by looking at an event and saying this is a result of a conspiracy. So, Jesse Walker who is a contributor to the Joe Uscinski book Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them points out that after [Malaysian airliner MH] disappeared, one news organisation listed ten weird conspiracy theories about the disappearance of that plane including it was swallowed by a black hole.

And as he pointed out, black holes are not conspiratorial, it is just a weird belief. But often when we talk about conspiracy theories there is a conflation between theories which are about conspiratorial activity and stories that we just take to be false or unlikely. SS: How do conspiracy theories begin exactly and how is it that some manage to survive over time while others disappear?

MD: There are two dominant discourses that will explain this.

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So you will get what we call the generalist position which will put down conspiracy theories to some kind of epistemic or psychological pathology. So they are malformed beliefs by people interacting with the world and coming to the wrong conclusions, at which point conspiracy theories are almost always likely to be false by this particular kind of view.

And because of that they are formed in malformed ways and it can be all sorts of reasons, whether it be you are psychologically conditioned to see conspiracies where they are not, you have an epistemic fault where you infer the existence of a conspiracy without considering competing explanations. And then you get what is called the particularist position, which is kind of dominant in those of us who do the philosophy of conspiracy theories that say, look conspiracy theories often form with relation to evidence and sometimes they are malformed and sometimes they are well formed, and so you need to look at what evidence people put forward and what kind of assumptions they are operating with.

I spent a year and a half working in Romania. Romania is a very corrupt political space, they have an openly corrupt government, Romanians suspect conspiracies are behind an awful lot of things that go on in the Romanian political sphere, so they suspect conspiracies because conspiracy is normal in that space. Pat and I come from a much more benign political space…and so we kind of think of conspiracies as being relatively rare in our political situations and thus we are less likely to assume that that is a kind of primary cause for events in our political space. PS: One thing that is worth noting about the etiology of conspiracy theories — M is quite right in some ways it is going to come down to how conspired you take your body politic to be and that is to a certain extent going to license how reasonable any of these beliefs are going to be — but it is also noticeable that a lot of them tend to follow pre-defined sorts of narratives or structures for what you think explains a certain kind of action.

That is a very common trope and this same explanatory picture keeps being re-deployed in different contexts. So in some ways we look at the origins of these theories but we also have to look at the way in which there is a social practice that is being appealed to.


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  7. And that social practice will differ according to different contexts. So it may look very different in a corrupt society where conspiracies turn out to be happening all the time, compared to a more transparent society. You are seeing every signal that comes out of the body politic as sinister; everything is meaningful and everything is sinister, there is no noise, it is all signal and everything has some dark meaning behind.

    So there are interesting things to be said about the etiology of conspiracy theories which in some ways sit awkwardly with what as philosophers we might want to do, which is to come up with a nice clear definition and see how rational that definition is. SS: I would like to turn to the role of the internet and the media in contributing to the rise of conspiracy theories and conspiracy culture. How has the internet contributed, firstly, to the rise of conspiracy theory culture?

    Very recently we have heard a lot about 8Chan and 4Chan for example. MD: Yes, so the internet plays I think a fairly important role with why we talk about conspiracy theories. What I am going to say now is contentious amongst conspiracy theory scholars. There was a book that came out in called American Conspiracy Theories written by Joe Uscinski and Joe Parent and they looked at a whole bunch of letters to the editor in these newspapers in the US over the 20th century trying to map as to when the peak of conspiracy theorising was going on in US discourse.

    And, of course, this ends up being contentious amongst scholars of conspiracy theories because anecdotally conspiracy theories look really popular at the moment. In the same respect there has been a general decline in criminal activity in Western nations over the latter part of the 20th century, beginning of the 21st century which has conversely led to increased reporting of crime because crime is more notable.

    So there is a question here as to whether conspiracy theories are the big issue they appear to be, but they certainly are very easily spread because in the old days, if you had a conspiracy theory and you wanted people to learn about it you would have to write a letter to the editor in a magazine, publish an article in a magazine or write a book, and then you would have to wait for people to read that material, then you would have to wait for people to reply to that material and then you might engage in a really prolonged discussion of that material for years and years.

    Now, if I was put a conspiracy theory up on my blog I would have people responding to it within hours if not minutes of the post going up. So there has been a kind of weird focussing effect we are seeing with the internet. It is very easy to find out about conspiracy theories now. It is much easier to find a community of people who believe the same things you do or who are at least inclined to go down the same kinds of pathways.

    So there is a point about speed of dissemination of conspiracy theories, but there is also a point about the way in which epistemic communities can arise to reinforce these beliefs amongst each other. It is much easier to form those communities now. SS: How dangerous can it be for a conspiracy theory to flourish and the culture around certain conspiracy theories? PS: It depends by what you mean by dangerous. There are two ways of looking at this.

    One is a consequentialist way, which is to say that conspiracy beliefs do often motivate people to do harmful sorts of things. We saw that with the Pizzagate controversy in the US where people actually burst into restaurants with guns and things. So there is that. I think in some ways conspiracy theories does make it easier to make accusations against people for instance, so it is psychologically a bit easier to harass, say, a grieving parent by saying your child never really existed and you are a crisis actor.

    Q+A: Believing the ‘unbelievable’: What are conspiracy theories? How do they flourish?

    It is probably much easier to do that if you have a prior commitment to the world being a certain way and to a conspiracy as the best explanation for a certain kind of event. There is also, and this is something I know M and I disagree on, a broader issue about whether conspiracy theories license accusation, where simply accusing someone contains a certain kind of non-consequential moral wrong in itself. MD: I think part of that can be mopped up by trying to assess what kind of society you are in.

    So once again, in the Australia-New Zealand context where conspiracies are, as far as we are concerned, relatively rare, maybe we do kind of have a duty to be trusting to one another all the time, or at least most of the time. Well if you are in a corrupt polity where your levels of trust are very low, or imagine growing up under the Stasi in East Germany a situation where you really cannot trust that your neighbours are looking after you, then you will have a completely different attitude towards these things and the ethics of how you talk about conspiracy theories will change depending on the culture of historical time you are in.

    I also think it is important to note that yes, it is true that some conspiracy theorists do terrible things, and as Pat points out, that is because some people just do terrible things anyway, sometimes because of conspiracy theories, sometimes for other reasons. But also, conspiracy theorising as a phenomenon can also be a useful release valve in a democratic system because we need to be aware that there could be conspiracies going on in our political system now.

    And the presumption there is, if it is not sinister activity, it could be suspicious activity that needs to be checked nonetheless. So, I mean there are negative consequence to belief in conspiracy theories but there are also positive social consequences as well. PS: You may say that part of what we need in any healthy polity is a kind of standing distrust of power, a standing suspicion of power.

    And that can also then lead to the intention that very often we need to look at our societies in terms of how things happen that no one intends, but are actually as a result of institutional structures or forms of power. So there is a tension there, there is a distinction between institutional theorists and conspiracy theorists.