We humans need narratives to process what happens around us or in the world at large. As the popular historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has said: “The truly unique trait of Sapiens is our ability to create and believe fiction. All other animals use their communication system to describe reality. We use our communication system to create new realities.”
Both the conspiracists and the reformists are engaged in this utterly human process. By connecting events and facts, and tying red strings between them on their metaphorical pin boards, the conspiracist and the reformist each develop a thesis about what happened. Stories help us live with each other and with ourselves, and in the wake of great and sudden suffering, we need something to keep us going.
It might be difficult to see how a story about a satanic blood sacrifice helps people live with themselves. But the conspiracist’s story offers a kind of clemency for the people involved, and perhaps for humankind at large. The image of concertgoers booing a woman who climbed a platform to try to stop the show at Astroworld is difficult to stomach. It can be easier to believe that the events that transpired were a satanic plot than to see them as a result of mundane human indifference.
The soothing quality of the reformist’s story is even easier to identify. Their program of measured improvement offers hope for progress and the promise of control. For that, the reformist attitude is to be admired. If it’s true that “the story in which you believe shapes the society that you create,” as Mr. Harari recently said in an interview, then reformists, with their efforts to eliminate systemic malfunctions, are working toward a better world, or at the very least, a more safe and just one.
The conspiracist and the reformist tend to double down on the narratives valued by their respective communities. The reformist lives in a world where expertise and problem-solving have cultural cachet. The conspiracist lives in world where spirituality and belief in higher powers can answer a lot of the big questions.
Of course the distinctions between the reformist and the conspiracist, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, are not absolute. Within any one person, the lines blur: Many of us can be reformists and conspiracists, prone to mysticism in some areas and beholden to reason in others. A tree may fall and nearly kill you, leading you to believe that this was a sign from the universe that you must live life to the fullest and appreciate each day — even as you email the city council about hiring more arborists.
There are problems with the stories that both conspiracists and reformists peddle. The conspiracist’s story, taken to its extreme, would have us believe that there is nothing we can do about accidents or problems because they are spawned by devils and cabals, malevolent forces beyond our control. The extreme version of the reformist’s story, by contrast, would have us believe that there’s nothing we can’t do about accidents or problems, that reason can secure us total control over our environment, and even over ourselves.