Fight conspiracies with amnesty, not blame
Susan Walsh | AP photo
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks during a Capitol Hill news conference on Friday.
No one remembers the Affordable Care Act as H.R. 3590 or the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as H.R. 1. When Congress passes legislation, tradition demands a catchy title.
Now that House Democrats have prevailed in their effort to expel freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from two committees, H.Res. 72 is too dull a designation. If the removal resolution adopted Thursday needs a new name, call it the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Supporters say they voted to hold Greene accountable for peddling conspiracy theories and voicing violent rhetoric. But punishing her for past transgressions will only inflame tensions, widen the yawning partisan chasm on Capitol Hill and encourage deluded people to double down on baseless beliefs.
Greene, a Republican who won Georgia’s 14th Congressional District seat last fall, has a history of caustic commentary. She called for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be executed for treason. She suggested the Parkland school shooting was staged. She questioned whether a plane really struck the Pentagon on 9/11. She promoted the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracy theories.
Her recorded rants and cached social media posts are appalling. They’re also a little long in the tooth, with the best-known screeds sporting 2018 time stamps. Media outlets began unearthing the comments as Greene coasted to victory over a Democratic opponent who withdrew from the race. Scrutiny increased when she emerged as an unapologetic defender of former President Donald Trump.
As Greene learned the hard way, there’s no statute of limitations in the court of public opinion. Top Republicans including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Whip John Thune forcefully condemned her years-old statements, joining a chorus of Democrats in high dudgeon.
Facing the indignity of removal from the House Budget Committee and House Committee on Education and Labor, Greene recanted. In a Thursday floor speech, she disavowed QAnon and admitted that “school shootings are absolutely real,” adding moments later, “I also want to tell you 9/11 absolutely happened.”
Greene admitted falling for fringe conspiracies, but she stressed that her entry into mainstream Republican circles helped break the spell.
“I walked away from those things, and I decided I’m going to do what I’ve done all my life: I’m going to work hard, and I’m going to try to solve the problems that I’m upset about,” she said on the House floor. “So I started getting involved in politics.”
Critics weren’t satisfied, and 11 Republicans crossed the aisle to join Democrats in a 230-199 vote to strip Greene of her committee assignments.
Fighting misinformation is a moral imperative, but disaffected doubters should be treated more like prisoners of war than enemy combatants. Extensive research on deprogramming cult members and conspiracy theorists shows that blaming, shaming and “canceling” people is counterproductive.
A 2019 meta-analysis published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology links conspiracy beliefs with fear, anxiety and a low perception of control. Citing that study, psychologist John M. Grohol identified those symptoms as the basis for a proposed new condition called conspiracy theory disorder.
If anti-vaxxers, 9/11 deniers and QAnon adherents are mentally ill, they’re more victim than perpetrator. Converting conspiracy theorists requires engagement rather than ostracism. If deflating false narratives is the genuine goal, high-minded moralizing and shrill scolding won’t work.
“Every single person I spoke to said that without respect, compassion and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will listen,” journalist Tanya Basu wrote in an MIT Technology Review guide to debunking conspiracy theories.
Isolation reinforces spurious beliefs and leaves the truth-deficient entrenched.
“Never persecute someone paranoid, lest you justify his paranoia,” psychology professor and self-help author Jordan Peterson warns.
When Greene publicly renounced her past nonsense, opponents could have declared victory. But politics is blood sport, and they had to extract their pound of flesh.
Former QAnon followers who can’t escape social stigma have little incentive to reconcile their beliefs with reality. Darker and still more dangerous conspiracy theories beckon.
House Democrats may have won a battle against misinformation, but if they continue to employ take-no-prisoners tactics that turn penitents into permanent pariahs, they will lose the war.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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