Let’s say I have a friend that we’ll call “Chrissy.” Chrissy is a perfectly pleasant and fun person to hang around with at a party. One night, apropos of a lull in the conversation, Chrissy explains her belief that Shakespeare wasn’t “Shakespeare.” She clarifies that it is not that the most influential writer in the English language borrowed ideas, plots, and characters from other works for his plays. She believes that the actual author of Richard III was Edward de Vere (or Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I). Upon hearing her belief, you probably would not be too concerned. Shakespeare denialism is a minor conspiracy theory that has no impact on the larger world. If it were true (it’s not), it would only affect literature majors. Perhaps the local Shakespeare company would put an “*” next to the name on the playbill.
Her date, “Thomas,” taking advantage of another lull, explains that he thinks it is weird that the best musicians in recent history all die at the age of 27. This belief might get a raised eyebrow, while some music aficionado wants to hear this list for no reason other than to rate Thomas’s idea of “best musicians.” Chrissy isn’t storming a capitol building because of her belief, and Thomas isn’t stamping anti-mask stickers across London while voting for Brexit because of his belief.
These conspiracy theories aren’t considered problems because they are small. They are trivial minutiae that are not one of those conspiracy theories. American writer Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, and a surprising number of U.S. Supreme Court Justices (n > 0 is that surprising number) share Chrissy’s belief. She is fine; she’s not listening to Alex Jones, buying from Goop, or reading from David Icke; so we don’t care about these beliefs.
We should care, though. We should care because that nameless person that voted for Brexit, listens to Alex Jones, and attends David Icke’s speaking engagements did not start there. They started somewhere small. In an earlier article, I wrote that QAnon was recruiting people via wellness and alt-med sites in social media. The same phenomenon is here, only, more general. The difference is that Shakespeare denialism is obviously a conspiracy theory, but it also has the appearance of a serious debate within academic circles. Homer used to be considered a blind poet that composed the Iliad, the Odyssey, and some missing works. Now, there’s a debate over whether “Homer” was an oratory style or a group of individuals. The “27 Club” is the result of Thomas cherry-picking the deaths of musicians. It only appears strange that Amy Whinehouse, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin all died at the same age when you don’t include the great musicians who didn’t die at 27. We could just as easily talk about the “35 Club”, which would include Stevie Ray Vaughn and Mozart.
No matter how small, these theories are critical because the best predictor of a belief in conspiracy theories is not political affiliation, religion, or education level (though those are important); instead, it is whether the person already believes in another conspiracy theory. Of course, this claim is question-begging: yes, a person that believes in a conspiracy theory will believe in a conspiracy theory. Chrissy doesn’t follow Q; she thinks that Edward de Vere wrote the line, “While you here do snoring lie, Open-eyed conspiracy His time doth take; (The Tempest Act II scene I)” – despite the notable handicap of de Vere having died six years earlier. This belief isn’t the same as thinking that MI5 orchestrated the 1971 Baker Street bank robbery or that MI6 killed Princess Diana. The beliefs are not the same, but the one conspiracy theory can lead to the other. If “they” are willing to lie about the true identity of William Shakespeare, then what else are they keeping from us?
In my previous article, I claimed that the actual conspiracy theory isn’t the attraction – the attraction is piercing the veil of secrecy that “they” use to hide everything. Shakespeare denialism is ostensibly about finding clues in Shakespeare’s works, but it’s really about piercing the conspiratorial shroud that is thrown over the truth. Conspiracy theories, in general, are about agreeing to a conclusion and then finding all the clues that “they” missed.
Thomas’s belief that the best musicians are killed at the age of 27 requires a hidden hand killing those people. If Thomas thinks that this force is supernatural, his research will push him in a direction that gets more general. If he thinks that it is the Illuminati, it will veer in that direction before likely joining back up in Satanic-Illuminati-Alien cabal. Thomas will assent to a new conspiracy theory that is only slightly more extreme than what he already believes. His exposure to these new theories we can credit to the algorithm recommendations of sites like YouTube. Thomas, the music fan who noticed a coincidence, is now buying red yarn to show that Annelise Dodds secretly takes orders from Joe Biden and the Council of Foreign Relations.
The radicalisation of conspiracy believers is a growing problem. Identifying conspiracy beliefs early may well be the solution. Radicalisation begins with a more minor beliefs. Even these tiny beliefs harm the individual. Chrissy, starting with Shakespeare Denialism, begins to wonder what other facts are being hidden from her. After a semester at Google University, she now believes the world is hollow, filled with Nazis, and the entrance is in Staffordshire. It is a slow process, but each click on the subsequent video or scroll to the next post pulls her further down a conspiratorial rabbit hole that is hard to escape.
The process by which this occurs is called cascade logic. Chrissy has to make one mental leap for her pet theory; that “Shakespeare” kept writing for at least seven years after de Vere died. Conspiracy theories pull people in by appealing emotionally to the individual. The further down they are, the more they will bind their identity to the conspiracy theory itself. When they take up arms (literally or figuratively) to defend their beliefs, they defend their sense of identity. Rational argumentation is divorced from their consent which is why objective evidence does not work. We ought not to regard the radicalised with vilification or scorn; we should save those feelings for the con artists and grifters that exploit them. We should also not regard people like Chrissy and Thomas as idiots.
They are acting skeptical, they’ve noticed patterns, and this type of thinking should be encouraged. Aristotle claimed that wisdom is knowing the why of a thing rather than the what. The what is all they have now, and we should point their skepticism in the right direction toward the why. Instead of making fun of Thomas for his cherry-picking of musician deaths, perhaps a more directed conversation about the other thing those people all have in common: thrust into the limelight at a young age, with few boundaries, and easy access to drugs. The dialogue should be about youth, drugs, fame, and how dangerous a combination that seems to be. Rather than rolling our eyes at Chrissy when she asks how the son of an illiterate glove maker understands the legal system of various Italian city-states enough to set half of his plays there, we should instead ask her if he does have the legal systems of those settings correct. We should ask her how many television series and movies portray the legal system correctly, or do they settle on correct enough? How medically accurate is House M.D.? or any medical show? When writing for a mass audience, does our modern culture just give us enough of a veneer to set up the plot?
The smallest of conspiracy theories can lead to full-blown conspiracism if we’re not careful. Unless the person is aware that the silly thing they believe in is a conspiracy theory, thus unsupported and likely not true, they can be on a road to which there is little hope for return.