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Functions of Conspiracy Theories and Extremism in “Educated"

How do the conspiracies we inherit shape our world?

Key points

  • Conspiracy theories can be culturally inherited from other people and the groups we belong to.
  • Certain types of people—including Mormons and American frontiers people—may have special reasons for believing in certain conspiracies.
  • The extreme beliefs that people share in conspiracy theories can serve to separate believers from others—and make them feel important.
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In "Educated," the Westover family expresses generations-old conspiracies.
Source: Photo by George Becker from Pexels

Tara Westover’s father raised her on stories of the corruption of “socialist doctors” and “liberal professors,” and even stressed that most mainstream Mormons weren’t living up to the strict standards he set for the family. When she recounts some of the monologues he delivered to her as she was growing up, they are full of references to the Illuminati, cabals of Jewish bankers, and a global socialist world order. These beliefs are extreme, but they shouldn’t be unfamiliar to people on social media in recent years. They contain elements common to many conspiracy theories. As Westover herself later identifies, some of these are pulled straight from historical propaganda against Jews that has long been identified as invented falsehoods.

What strikes me as remarkable is not necessarily that Gene Westover has extreme beliefs, but that this man who spends his life working in a scrap yard on a remote mountainside in Idaho should be so concerned with faraway people he’s never seen. Why have the same elements from conspiracy beliefs across the spectrum been repeated over and over? What does it tell us about how and why people come to certain beliefs?

My friend and colleague Peter Leavitt and I are writing a series of posts on Tara Westover’s memoir, “Educated,” which we are reading as part of a political discussion book group. You can find earlier installments of the series here, here, and here.

Alex: The beliefs Gene Westover espouses are anti-Semitic and racist. Tara’s home education featured a history of slavery in which slaves were happier than their masters, because they had less responsibility. Yet the way Tara grew up, these ideas seemed remote. She didn’t know Black or Jewish people, and she didn’t have contact with outside ideas. To me, this highlights the way that ideas can get passed down as a sort of cultural inheritance from the previous generation, even when they aren’t connected to any specific experiences or actions.

People may not necessarily take action on these extreme received beliefs in everyday life—although they may “go off” later in life, if something deeply out of line with them were to occur (like the election of a Black president). Instead, just having these extreme beliefs serves as a way to separate people. Expressing these beliefs—beliefs offensive to most people—would end up ostracizing people. That would reinforce the idea that they can’t be accepted by and integrated into broader society. In daily life, the harmful beliefs held by Gene are not primarily about harming others, but about marking him and his family as different and apart from others. They are the “real free thinkers” who “did their own research.”

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Expressing extreme beliefs can further isolate people.
Source: Photo by Mikhail Nilov from Pexels

Peter: The more clearly and starkly we draw boundary lines between ourselves and others, the easier it is to justify excluding and ostracizing people. The Westovers clearly do this deliberately and in ways that seem extreme to many readers but they’re certainly not alone in their tendency to do this. I have many friends and family members who draw similar boundaries and make similar calculations about who is worth being close to. I have friends and family members of all ideological stripes considering major moves and career changes in order to be closer to people who view the world as they do, and to put distance between themselves and the people they have determined to be irredeemably evil. People feel confidently virtuous when they do this.

Alex: Westover talks about how her older siblings grew up with a “different father,” a father who wasn’t obsessed with government control and the Illuminati. She identifies the shooting of the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge as a turning point in her father’s view of the world. It’s terrifying to know that someone nearby was killed by government agents, and there appears to have been real trauma involved in Gene Westover’s reaction to the news. Yet he did not join or organize a group to push back against government overreach or propose to reform the government. Instead, he found ways to try to isolate himself from all government influence. This seems like a big difference in the way that someone who is typically left-leaning would respond, as compared to someone right-leaning. Is the modern world more full of people who have reached this tipping point, and been pushed in one direction or another? Could Gene Westover have been convinced to change his views regarding the government?

Peter: To the point about cultural inheritance of conspiratorial and extreme views, this is an area where my familiarity with Mormonism can shed some light on the Westover family’s affinity for conspiratorial explanations of the world around them. While most mainstream Mormons today are not nearly as extreme as the Westovers, it’s not surprising to me when a Mormon leans into conspiracy theories.

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The real history of Mormon persecution influences current beliefs by many Mormons.
Source: Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

The story of Mormonism’s origins (as Mormons tell it) is marked by near constant persecution for their beliefs and repeated displacement in their quest to find somewhere they could practice their religion in peace and without interference. For example, every Mormon is very aware that in 1838 the governor of Missouri issued an order to exterminate or drive out the Mormons in the state. Or consider that a focal event in mainstream Mormonism’s founding is the death of the first modern prophet, Joseph Smith, at the hands of a vigilante mob. The tendency to see persecution everywhere (both real and imagined) is baked into Mormonism and constantly reinforced in the teachings of Mormon leaders. When you combine this hypersensitivity to persecution with the rugged, American pioneer individualism common among Western settlers, the historical politics of the region, and the Westovers’s isolation, the worldview of Gene Westover and family is not particularly surprising to me.

Notably, these sorts of details about the cultural and psychological foundations of the Westovers’s existence also make sense within the framework of what psychologists know about the common motives underpinning beliefs in conspiracy theories, namely, a desire to understand and be in control of one’s environment and to create and maintain positive personal and social identities.

Alex: Given their cultural history, the Westover family was predisposed to hold certain kinds of extreme beliefs. They are driven by perceptions of real historical traumas. Yet holding them also creates a positive feedback loop and “filter bubble” occurring outside the online world. When the views are extreme enough, and they are shared among enough of an individual’s important friends and family, conspiratorial beliefs function to create and grow divisions.


Peter: To relate this back to our current political and social polarization, I think it’s important to remind ourselves how susceptible each of us is to the kind of feedback loop thinking that keeps the Westovers mired in conspiracies and resistant to outside influence. We’ve all likely been the target of some persecution and trauma that can make us a little paranoid and mistrusting of outsiders and that leads us to carefully construct our social worlds in ways that validate our trauma and that protect us from potential outside threats. We don’t all end up trying to live off the grid in rural Idaho but it doesn’t mean we don’t have our own less extreme version of this in our own lives.

References

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current directions in psychological science, 26(6), 538-542.

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