Throughout history, many dictators and social disrupters have used coercive language and conspiracy theories to encourage the public to hate individuals and social groups that are different from themselves.
Unfortunately, according to a new book published at Routledge, our brains may be hardwired to believe such lies.
In Politics, Lies, and Conspiracy Theories, Marcel Danesi – a professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto – has analyzed the speeches of dictators such as Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, or Putin, as well as those of prominent hate groups in order to highlight their specificity and persuasive capacity.
Professor Danesi’s investigations revealed that all these speeches tend to use dehumanizing metaphors to instill and propagate hatred of others.
For instance, the Nazi regime frequently used words such as “pests,” “parasites,” or “reptiles” to describe minorities such as Jews or homosexuals.
More recently, groups of white supremacists participating in a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 employed both animal and dirt metaphors in their attacks against “the parasitic class of anti-white vermin” and the “anti-white, anti-American filth.”
With the rise of far-right and populist political movements in the 2010s, the use of such dehumanizing metaphors to engender hatred of minorities has spread worldwide, leading individuals such as Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán to characterize refugees and migrants as “poison.”
“The intent of such speech is to attack those who do not belong to the mainstream, such as racial minorities, or people of different sexual orientations,” Danesi explained.
According to Professor Danesi, dehumanizing metaphors such as these are so powerful because they make use of existing circuits in the brain. This links together important and salient images and ideas, while bypassing higher cognitive reasoning centers and forcing us to focus on certain things and ignore others.
The more such circuits are activated, the more hardwired they tend to become, until it is almost impossible to rationally control them.
This happens also in the case of conspiracy theories, which lead to the development of rigid neural pathways, making it highly difficult to rethink and recontextualize specific scenarios and situations.
“When we come across a big lie or a conspiracy theory, it can shape our ideas without us even being aware of it,” Danesi warned. “By being exposed to particular metaphors, we may develop hostile feelings towards specific groups – this is why hate groups use metaphors to turn the switches on, so as to motivate people to violent activism.”
Unfortunately, as previous research has shown, once people begin to believe lies and conspiracy theories, they are unlikely to change their minds even when confronted with contradictory evidence.
Instead, they will often seek out information that confirms their beliefs, while avoiding anything that might make them reconsider their worldviews, frequently leading to devastating consequences.
“When lies are used to generate hate, harmful behaviors tend to result, including violence and genocide against the target individual or groups. The spread of lies is also becoming a powerful factor in generating political and social instability worldwide, destabilizing democracies,” Danesi explained.
To protect ourselves from the power of lies and conspiracy theories, Danesi suggests that we should try to be aware of the metaphors peoples use, while also closely examining the metaphors we use, often unconsciously.
Although it may be very difficult to change entrenched beliefs and worldviews, increased awareness of their metaphorical structuring could help us take some distance from them and accept being exposed to different ideas and perspectives.
Conspiracy theories are hypotheses that suggest events, often of considerable significance, are the result of secret manipulations by two or more individuals or an organization.
They are often characterized by a belief in the deliberate, covert actions of powerful or influential groups, such as governments, corporations, or secret societies.
While these theories sometimes stem from a lack of information or misunderstanding of complex issues, they can also serve to provide simple explanations for complicated or troubling events.
In some cases, they can fuel fear and paranoia, lead to social divisiveness, and be used for political manipulation. Some well-known conspiracy theories include:
Many believe that the killing of President John F. Kennedy was the result of a conspiracy rather than the act of a lone gunman, as the Warren Commission determined.
Some people maintain that the U.S. faked the moon landing in 1969 to win the space race against the Soviet Union.
A variety of theories suggest that the U.S. government was involved in or allowed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, to justify wars in the Middle East and the passage of laws curtailing civil liberties.
Despite the prevalence of these theories, it’s always important to critically evaluate information, consider the source, and seek out credible, peer-reviewed, and established news outlets for information.
It’s also useful to understand cognitive biases, which can lead people to interpret information in a way that confirms their existing beliefs and ignore contradictory evidence. This phenomenon, known as confirmation bias, often plays a role in the spread and persistence of conspiracy theories.