Can you imagine a world without conspiracy theories? I’ve tried and can’t quite get there. So pervasive is the human tendency to want a “meaning” behind events–even if that meaning is a contorted network of impossibilities–I can’t see any way to envision us without it. The conspiratorial urge is robust and infectious, with no known cure.
We see this evidenced in politics all the time (the neurotically persistent “birthers” and 9/11 conspiratorialists, for example) — but it’s just as true in other walks of life. Right now college football is experiencing a run-in with this shadow of human nature, and the game is getting ugly.
Quick overview for those who may not follow college football: in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), two teams remain undefeated, Alabama in the SEC West and Florida in the SEC East. They are also ranked #1 and #2 in the national college football polls. Last year, the same two teams played a grueling game in the SEC Championship, so hype about a rematch has been buzzing ever since last season. Halfway through this season, the rematch is becoming more and more likely, though not by any means inevitable.
So far, so good. Now, enter two peripheral variables: first– SEC officiating this season has been atrocious. In multiple games, SEC referees have made horrible calls, in some cases affecting the outcome of the game. I mentioned one example in a previous post and there’s been more since. It’s gotten so bad that one set of SEC refs has been suspended by the conference for making bad calls in back-to-back games. This is unfortunate, but sadly not uncommon. Conferences don’t typically suspend refs, but all conferences are plagued by bad calls–it’s the nature of a game officiated by imperfect humans. Even with instant replay, every call ultimately relies on human perception and interpretation, and we all share dramatic debits in both of those columns.
Enter the second variable: the conspiratorial instigator. Lane Kiffin, new coach of the Tennessee Volunteers, has nominated himself the Joe McCarthy of college football by accusing the league and the refs and anyone else involved of conspiring to keep Alabama and Florida undefeated, so that the much-hyped rematch will happen and big money will follow.
Kiffin’s team, you see, has lost to both of the undefeated SEC teams in question, and he’s a little bitter about that. But beyond bitterness, he’s also prone to conspiratorial paranoia. Before the season started he publicly accused Florida head coach Urban Meyer of “cheating” in an attempt to recruit a player who ultimately decided to play for Tennessee. His accusation was unfounded and the league made him apologize for his character defaming remarks.
After his team’s loss to Alabama last Saturday, Kiffin is back at it. He accused the SEC refs who called the game of intentionally not calling penalties on Alabama, with the strong implication that they did so because the conference wants Alabama to stay undefeated. To his credit, the SEC commissioner reprimanded Kiffen for his zanny remarks and threatened a coaching suspension if he makes one more.
The thing is, Kiffin’s conspiracy mania is spreading. College football message boards, blogs, and every other public venue are humming with agitation. “How could it possibly be a coincidence that SEC refs are screwing up so much this year AND Alabama and Florida remain undefeated heading toward a potential rematch?” the agitators ask. The SEC must be behind this–no, the whole damn NCAA must be behind this! It’s all about advertising dollars and publicity for the championship! Conspiracy!
It’s easy enough to identify the combustible elements of this insanity, and when you add a spark of bitterness-tinged paranoia from a guy like Kiffin, it’s easy to see how the insanity has exploded.
I tell you this not because I think anyone needs to pay special attention to college football, but rather to point out the underlying error that makes this and every other conspiracy viable. Some call it the fundamental attribution error, others call it correspondence bias — but whichever term you prefer, the result is the same: believing that the behavior of others occurs apart from any situational context.
If you think that, then you’re a short step away from ascribing secretive or sinister motives to their behavior. In fact, whatever your personal predisposition happens to be will likely guide your interpretation of others’ behavior, despite whatever situational context exists that makes your interpretation a steaming mound of horse shite. If my team loses, it’s not because we were beaten by a better team, it’s because we fell victim to the malevolent motivations of others – simple as that.
According to the “just-world hypothesis,” we can’t stomach the possibility that events may simply happen without a means to explain them in some larger, sensible way. Conspiracy theory provides a framework for making sense of the random — for trumping the contingencies of living in a contingency-ruled world. This isn’t really possible, but conspiracy theory makes it seem possible by giving us someone to blame.
Which is why conspiracy will always be with us — it’s another mental escape hatch from the tyranny of the random. Regrettably, it also feeds the worst part of our natures.