The labeling of certain ideas as “conspiracy theories” has long been a contentious issue, with many arguing that it is a form of censorship designed to silence dissenting voices and protect the interests of the powerful. In this essay, I will argue that the use of this label is itself a form of conspiracy thinking, and that it bears striking similarities to the way in which witches were labeled and persecuted in the 16th century.
First, it is important to define what is meant by the term “conspiracy theory.” While it is commonly used to refer to any belief that conflicts with the official narrative, a more precise definition is any explanation of events or circumstances that invokes a conspiracy – that is, a secret plan or agreement between individuals or groups to achieve a specific goal. This definition is important because it highlights the fact that conspiracy theories are not simply wild guesses or baseless speculations, but are instead explanations that are based on certain assumptions about the way the world works.
One of the key characteristics of conspiracy thinking is the belief that there are hidden forces at work behind the scenes, pulling the strings and manipulating events for their own gain. This is a belief that has existed throughout history, and can be seen in many different cultures and time periods. In the 16th century, for example, the idea of witches – individuals who were believed to possess supernatural powers and use them for evil purposes – was widespread. These individuals were seen as part of a hidden network of evil-doers, conspiring together to bring harm to innocent people.
The way in which witches were labeled and persecuted bears striking similarities to the way in which conspiracy theories are labeled and dismissed today. In both cases, there is a tendency to dismiss the beliefs of those who hold them, and to label them as irrational or misguided. This is often done without any real examination of the evidence or arguments put forward by the believers themselves, and instead relies on stereotypes and preconceived notions about the kind of people who hold these beliefs.
One of the most striking similarities between the way in which witches were labeled and the way in which conspiracy theories are labeled is the use of the term “heresy.” In the 16th century, heresy was a term used to refer to any belief that was deemed to be in conflict with the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. This could include beliefs about the nature of God, the interpretation of scripture, or the nature of the afterlife, among other things. Those who were accused of heresy were often labeled as “heretics,” and were subject to severe punishment, including imprisonment, torture, and even execution.
Today, the term “heresy” has largely fallen out of use, but the idea that certain beliefs are unacceptable and should be suppressed remains. In the case of conspiracy theories, the term “conspiracy theory” itself has taken on a similar role, with those who hold such beliefs being labeled as “conspiracy theorists” and subject to ridicule and dismissal. This is particularly evident in the way in which the mainstream media often covers conspiracy theories, with news outlets frequently using the term to dismiss certain beliefs without any real examination of the evidence behind them.
Another striking similarity between the persecution of witches in the 16th century and the dismissal of conspiracy theories today is the use of fear and paranoia to justify the suppression of dissenting voices. In the case of witches, the fear of their supposed evil powers was used to justify the harsh treatment of those accused of being witches. This fear was often fueled by stories and legends about the powers of witches, as well as by the testimony of those who claimed to have been victims of their evil deeds. In the same way, the fear of conspiracy theories – the belief that they are dangerous and potentially harmful – is often used to justify their dismissal and marginalization.
A ‘conspiracy theorists model’ can be seen as a modern form of witchhunt because it involves the same type of fear and suspicion of individuals or groups who are seen as a threat to society. In both cases, there is a lack of concrete evidence to support the accusations, and the individuals being targeted are often marginalized or socially ostracized.
Martijn Benders, Mierlo, 10-12-2022