Anders Breivik has been on my mind. His supreme confidence reflects his certainty in the rightness of his actions. It’s too easy to dismiss him as criminally insane, whether that’s a narcissistic personality disorder or a psychopath or anything else, but to do so is to miss the more nuanced parts of this nightmare.
Breivik talks about Knights Templar, Order 777, the EDL, networks of conspiracy, politics and foul-mouthed thugs so that it becomes difficult to tease reality from fantasy. Concentrating on the differences misses the point: you can present evidence to counter a conspiracy and the believer will demonstrate to you how your evidence ties in with the conspiracy or recognise you as a poor sap who knows nothing.
Conspiracy theories erupt in people and societies that feel powerless: “If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world.” 1 Humans have a tendency to see patterns in random assemblages and we tend to do this with information too, we perceive links, connections, meanings, relationships and arrangements where there are none. There’s some evidence to suggest that conspiracy theories are linked to projections, a defence mechanism for a person who denies his own thoughts and feelings, ascribing them to others. How many bible thumpers raving against the Gay Mafia ™ and sex outside of marriage are later found to be gay and/or having sex outside of their marriage. (Clue: lots)
Projection allows us to blame a defined group of people for a defined problem and every time the group that we blame is a group that we are not in. Almost all of us will claim state benefits at some point in our lives, from Child Benefit to a pension but it is the unemployed/ disabled/ immigrants who are responsible for the high welfare bill, not us. Perversely, we find reassurance in this: life is ordered, not chaotic, someone is in control or to blame, we are not totally helpless or subject to random events.
You have almost certainly been affected by a conspiracy theory, whether it’s the shooting of JFK, the death of Princess Diana, 9/11 or the spread of HIV. Researchers at Kent University found that after being exposed to conspiracy theories participants were able to judge how attitudes had changed in their peers but significantly underestimated how much their own had come into line. The exact mechanism isn’t yet understood but being told a story in a group setting that makes sense of disturbing events is very seductive. Being aware of how easy it is to be seduced we need to support each other in resisting seduction. Why should we care what other people believe? Ask the parents of a child who was killed on Utoya.
If we know that people who spin off into fantasy are likely to be isolated then we can ask what the causes of isolation are. If we know that powerlessness is a factor then we can ask why people feel powerless. We don’t have to personally reach out to isolated people or empower anyone but we can ask questions about the ways in which our societies empower and disempower, segregate and integrate. We might also ask how we isolate ourselves from opinions that are different from our own. White supremacists are vile but their message would not now be so influential if people who will never live in multicultural, overcrowded areas had given a damn about the people who do. We really are all interconnected as a car bomb in Oslo related to poverty in Afghanistan demonstrates.
We can also ask why, when every Muslim with a bomb is called a terrorist, Breivik is not.
The point of Breiviks’ trial is neither to decide his guilt or innocence nor particularly to discover what happened throughout the day he went hunting. It’s partly to discover how a man went from being a hard working taxpayer to a terrorist. In many ways it is to allow Breivik to say what he needs to say in broad daylight rather than in private surrounded by people who would re-enforce his worldview. Being made to see the faces of some of his victims, their families and friends and understand the impact he’s had on individual lives will also help him back to reality. I bet you a fiver that by the end of the trial he’s a lot less cocky than he is today.
The Norwegian people offer a demonstration of dignity that we can learn from. They're not baying for the death penalty, crackdowns on civil liberties or anything else. Instead, their Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg made their position clear: "The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation." Which is, of course, precisely the way to avoid atrocities.
1. Cohen, Roger (December 20, 2010). "The Captive Arab Mind". The New York Times.
2. Douglas, Karen; Sutton, Robbie (2008). "The hidden impact of conspiracy theories: Perceived and actual influence of theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana". Journal of Social Psychology 148 (2): 210–222.doi:10.3200/SOCP.148.2.210-222.
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