KHIN MYINT, a Hilton local and Burmese-Australian writes about his thoughts on what’s driving the antivax mythology. He currently works as an academic at Curtin University in the humanities department.
SOME of my friends are spreading conspiracy theories about covid.
A few are from my backpacking days and others are from Freo. Their nationalities span the globe, but they have one thing in common apart from vaccine refusal: they are all invested in spiritual growth.
I teach research skills in the media department of a university so it’s natural for me to think about media literacy, expert consensus and the impact of online echo chambers. But I believe the unconscious plays an important role here so I want to talk about that instead.
I first saw conspiracism when backpacking around India. In the face of suffering and poverty, some backpackers sought refuge in conspiracy theories to make sense of the world’s inequity.
One of the strongest predictors of vaccine hesitancy is mythical thinking, or belief in conspiracy theories that researchers call conspiracism.
Believing that millions of experts across the globe are peddling dangerous vaccines is mythical thinking. Myths aren’t fake; they’re symbolic. They contain symbolic archetypes and good-versus-evil storylines. Myths offer a comprehensible enemy—a monster—and a hero who fights it.
Religions give us a window into the power of these kinds of stories. Their deep appeal unites communities and offers connection to a higher purpose in the world’s religions.
They only slip into dangerous territory when they are interpreted literally. Jungian scholars argue that literal interpretation of symbolic narratives is what creates religious fundamentalism.
Conspiracy-minded antivaxxers and religious fundamentalists both transform the monsters in their good-versus-evil stories into literal things that must be fought
in the external world. It is a mixture of spiritual heroism and unconscious avoidance. Fighting for the greater good is a positive thing but avoiding the monster within is denial.
Jungian psychoanalysts call our inner monster our shadow. It is the darker part of our psyche: destructiveness, and our potential for cruelty and greed. Society has a collective shadow—brutality and selfishness that’s bound up in our cultural outlook. Selfishness and the potential for brutality are just part of what makes us human.
They’re not all we are, but they’re not avoidable either. Consider Perth’s COVID-caused rental crisis. Some landlords are exploiting renters whose wages have gone down.
Yet, it’s telling that instead of protesting the economic system and political policies that allow such exploitation, rent-squeezed hippies are joining up with right wing nationalists to protest vaccines that could save their lives.
This is called system justification and it’s when people try to protect the reputation of the systems failing them. It’s a paradox—we avoid the thing actually hurting us, our shadow, or in this case society’s shadow. Rather than facing our emotions about such a banal, familiar and seemingly intractable enemy, we manufacture a more tangible enemy against which to articulate our heroism.
Just like a partner who returns to an abusive lover, we protect what is actually harming us by refusing to truly examine them.
British social scientists studying links between system justification and belief in conspiracy theories gave some participants in a study fake news reports claiming that most Brits were losing faith the country’s social and economic systems.
These participants predictably became more susceptible to conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories offered an alternative way of understanding systemic failures without confronting the dark possibility that something familiar is turning on us.
Religion a crutch
More than ever, many are reaching for religion as a crutch, but it is non-religious Australians who are being drawn to conspiracy narratives.
Conspiracism mimics the worst religious tendencies many lefties reject in organised religion: literal interpretation, preachiness, and fundamentalism.
Religions help followers interpret powerfully appealing mythic narratives as symbolic truths to inspire introspection.
As a result, followers enjoy a tight knit community of believers and insight into life’s conundrums. Conspiracism doesn’t do the latter. Understanding why conspiracism grips so many in the counterculture requires us to realise that it’s happening.
A positive spiritual urge has led to avoiding one’s own shadow, to avoiding society’s shadow. Denial only works when we are not aware we are doing it, therefore rational argument won’t work against it.
Our best hope is to help friends captured by conspiracism to realise that their strong emotional attachment to the mythic story is a potentially positive thing.
A desire to be heroic is driving them, but they have been tricked into a destructive way of expressing it.
If we can tap into their sense of alienation, it could be channelled into protesting the things that are actually hurting them, and us.