In a recent post, I discussed the influential 1963 essay by Richard Hofstadter about the paranoid style in politics. The paranoid style in politics is not a clinical diagnosis of individuals but a style characterizing a certain kind of political thinking that may be held by ordinary people. In the case of a paranoid individual, they fear that sinister forces are targeting them personally. In the case of the paranoid style in politics, people do not think that they themselves are under attack as individuals but believe that their way of life, their values, even their nation, is under attack by evil forces. This gives them the sense that their desire to fight back vigorously against these shadowy and malign agents, however misdirected, even delusional, their fears might be, is a noble cause that must be fought to the finish.
The whole QAnon phenomenon is a contemporary example of the paranoid style. Q went silent soon after the 2020 election but has recently emerged to post cryptic messages once again.
“Q”, as the figurehead of the movement is known, published three cryptic posts on a message board on Friday night – the account’s first posts since December 2020.
“Shall we play a game once more?” the account posted on the far-right board 8kun. The post was signed: “Q”.
The account had a unique identifier, the New York Times reported, which had been used on previous Q posts.
When a user asked why Q had been absent, the account replied: “It had to be done this way.”
Later, the account posted: “Are you ready to serve your country again? Remember your oath.”
QAnon is an antisemitic internet conspiracy theory that swept the US right wing in 2017. Proponents claim that Trump was waging a secret battle against a cabal of pedophiles and its “deep state” collaborators.
Earlier this year two separate linguistic studies determined that Paul Furber, a South African software developer, was behind Q’s early posts, before Ron Watkins took over the account in 2018.
Watkins’ father, Jim Watkins, owns the 8kun site – previously called 8chan – where Q posted their drops, and Ron Watkins is a former administrator of the platform.
Watkins has denied any involvement with QAnon, and the account stopped posting after Trump’s defeat. However, the silence failed to dampen enthusiasm among the right for the conspiracy theory.
Q’s new posts come as Watkins is running as a Republican for a congressional seat in Arizona. He has raised little money and secured no notable endorsements, and pundits are widely expecting him to be eliminated from the race when the primary is held 2 August.
I have posted a lot of links to the videos of Jordan Klepper talking to QAnon followers and supporters of the Big Lie and they provide an almost perfect example of one aspect of the paranoid style. As Hofstadter says in his essay:
The plausibility the paranoid style has for those who find it plausible lies, in good measure, in this appearance of the most careful, conscientious, and seemingly coherent application to detail, the laborious accumulation of what can be taken as convincing evidence for the most fantastic conclusions, the careful preparation for the big leap from the undeniable to the unbelievable. The singular thing about all this laborious work is that the passion for factual evidence does not, as in most intellectual exchanges, have the effect of putting the paranoid spokesman into effective two-way communication with the world outside his group—least of all with those who doubt his views. He has little real hope that his evidence will convince a hostile world. His effort to amass it has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas. He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.
I am not as pessimistic as Hofstadter was about the inability to change other people’s minds. I do agree with him that most people (not just rightwing conspiracists) tend to resist changing their beliefs even when confronted with strong counter-evidence backed by logic, and build barriers in order to be able to do so. When I argue with such people, I never expect them to say “Aha! You were right and I was wrong.” I myself have very rarely said such a thing either, even when I later realized I was wrong. But over time, those opposing ideas do take root and I have changed my mind, even if I cannot, in retrospect, point to exactly when that happened.
Change of mind can happen, and have happened, with even those who have worked with Alex Jones. So do not think it is completely futile to debate such people and give up hope, even if they tend to use various defenses that you think are weak or even ridiculous. Just do not expect immediate results. It is also important to be able to recognize when you have reached the point of diminishing returns that makes further engagement largely a waste of time. You need to be able to walk away, allow them to have the last word, and wait for time to do its slow work of undermining their seemingly impenetrable defensive posture.
Pierce R. Butler says
Change of mind can happen, and have happened, with even those who have worked with Alex Jones.
Though not with Jones himself. Can those who have lost their minds change their minds?
Dago Red says
Is Hofstadter being pessimistic? Like you, i too rarely find myself in the moment changing my mind but have done so several times later on after deeper mental deliberations, but i also think this ability is not commonplace among humanity as a whole. Its an ability that only comes, I believe, from people who are trained professionally to think and oroblem-solve (i.e. academics, politicians, engineers,etc.) — and even then their training is still far from 100% effective. The vast majority of people have no such training and rarely, if ever, become aware of -- let alone learn to question — humanity’s strong evolutionary heuristics of motivated reasoning and confirmation bias — which are among the two most damaging instincts to human rational. Even when one is trained to recognize these shortcomings, our reasoning skills are still plagued by their effects. Call me a pessimist if you wish, but I strongly believe large scale sociological changes in how society thinks (like about religion or politics or Qanon) takes generational time to overcome.