“Conspiracy is a pathology of democracy”

La Croix L’Hebdo: In your essay devoted to conspiracy, Opium of fools (2), you wrote “Highly toxic for discernment, conspiracy is also toxic for democracy”. What do you think of the recent actions of Trump supporters in Washington?

Rudy Reichstadt : The staggering scenes we witnessed with the invasion of the Capitol on January 6 and the murderous violence that enamelled it were, in a way, inscribed from the start in the political logic of Donald Trump.

His choice of climbing to extremes, by heating up his supporters, stirring up the fable of “massive fraud” and persisting in refusing to admit defeat to his Democratic rival were indeed predictable.

→ THE FACTS. United States: hundreds of indictments for pro-Trump attackers on Capitol Hill

Still, it is always disconcerting to witness the spectacle of a secession of some from reality. Many Trump supporters today remain convinced that the certification of Biden’s victory by Congress is only the stage of a “plan” at the end of which, in a final coup, Trump will prevail. like the president actually elected …

In your opinion, does conspiracy directly threaten democracy?

R. R. : Yes, in the sense that these conspiracy theories undermine citizens’ confidence in their institutions and make any peaceful public debate impossible. When we no longer share a common reality, not only does the democratic debate turn into a dialogue of the deaf, but we also experience the verdict of the ballot box as an unbearable violence against which everything seems justified.

→ INVESTIGATION. The conspiratorial gear, when the lie makes democracy falter

If you think that the democratic system brings to power corrupt and dishonest people, puppets manipulated by forces lurking in the shadows, it is normal to aspire to overthrow such an iniquitous and also false system and replace it with something else.

We often see conspiracy theories as purely outlandish. You believe, for your part, that their political dimension is too often ignored. That is to say ?

R. R. : It is often said that conspirators are content to “ask questions” or “doubt” such or such “official truth”. What we observe in reality is that not only is their doubt purely rhetorical – it is a simple cosmetic dressing that allows them not to take full responsibility for their words – but that it is also very selective. In this sense, they hold an eminently political discourse.

As for the imaginary plots they denounce, they tell more about their obsessions than about those to whom they point an accusing finger. Claude Lanzmann had this very correct sentence: “Hatred pre-exists what it claims to originate from. “ In other words, it is the obsession, the hatred, the ideological presupposition that is essential, the conspiracy theory is only a means of expressing it.

The psychiatrization of the conspiracy phenomenon does not seem very appropriate to me: the idea that conspiracy is, at bottom, only a modality of clinical paranoia tends to erase its political dimension. If conspiracy is a pathology, it is above all a collective pathology, a pathology of democracy.

There is a generic conspiracy that can be summed up in three words: “They lie to us”. It is up to everyone, then, according to their political sensitivity, to specify the identity of this “we”. Unsurprisingly, this is a reflex that is found above all at both ends of the political spectrum, among those who – without being excluded from the electoral game – do not manage to convince enough to gain power.

How can democracies react to the rise of this conspiracy mentality? Should they adapt, rethink their operation, invent new, more participatory tools?

R. R. : They must start by seeing it as a systemic risk. At a time when false information circulates at an infinitely greater speed than the true ones and where they are complacently amplified by the media, sometimes state, whose explicit objective is to destabilize our democracies, the question which arises, after each new event likely to take on a political dimension, it is no longer so much whether conspiracy theories will emerge, but when. We must collectively, the State as well as the civil society, at all its levels, face the problem and urgently get out of the culture of excuse that still prevails too often when it comes to conspiracy.

How do you explain that we were not more alarmed by the rise of this phenomenon?

R. R. : By ideological blindness, by complacency, by lack of understanding of the situation and because we took time to take the full measure of the upheavals generated by social networks. The digital revolution of the past two decades has given rise to a “Deregulation of the cognitive market”, as Gérald Bronner quite rightly says. Each of us, with a simple smartphone and an Internet connection, has almost the same power as an information professional… without, precisely, being an information professional!

The relative proletarianization of the journalistic profession and the emergence of blogs and collaborative alternative media have given the most motivated active minorities unprecedented means to leverage their influence in society. All this flatters a kind of anti-intellectualism which calls into question the primacy of expertise and on which thrives a conspiracy that is both globalized and proposing a distortion of facts in real time.

It cannot be ruled out, moreover, that “post-modernity” and, with it, the idea that all truth is relative, have prepared the ground by disarming those who remain attached to the facts. If the facts are points of view, if they have no more value than an opinion, then all the “versions” are the same: this is giving conspiracy a historic chance.

The big social networks Facebook and Twitter recently censored some conspiratorial content. Can this be a game-changer?

R. R. : Ultimately, we will have to see the effect of these measures. The stake is in any case major because young people get information primarily via social networks. The new generations have socialized politically with platforms like YouTube; they are all the more sensitive to this conspiratorial imagination as they have been exposed on a massive scale to content of this type through the play of recommendation algorithms which we know to favor conspiratorial content.

→ THE FACTS. Conservative social network Parler banned by Google, Apple and Amazon

This often phantasmagorical imaginary is not without consequences: it obviously participates in the way in which these generations imagine the progress of the world, power, the production of information and scientific knowledge, etc.

Does not every radical critique of the “system”, economic or political, run the risk of being accused of being a conspirator?

R. R. : There is always a risk that unscrupulous people will misuse a negatively charged word. But this is also what happens to words like “racism” or “fascism”, and this does not mean that we should ban them from our vocabulary. Conspiracy is not a matter of reasoned social or political criticism.

Let’s understand: this is in no way to replace conspiracy with naivety. All the more so as conspiracy theories themselves sometimes proceed from real operations of manipulation.

I would rather say that one cannot engage in an authentic social criticism while avoiding a criticism of conspiracy. The conspiratorial lie leads straight to confusion and irrationality. We cannot build anything that is politically or scientifically sustainable on such bases. In any case, if one is attached to democracy.

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