Going full canary: conspiracy theories are the way we understand inequalities

If the main voices in our public discourse are to be believed, tin foil sales have gone through the roof. To use their own phrase, many people have ‘gone full Canary’: and are expressing opinions that can be dismissed as them being willing to believe in conspiracies behind not only how society works but how it’s presented to them through the media.

The Canary, a left-leaning, clickbaity web publication, is having a moment in the sun — or at least Newsnight — and is the target of the ire, ‘well meaning despair’ and laughter of much of the journalism profession. It seems unafraid to push stories that other publications won’t touch, either because they aren’t verifiable or because they are otherwise uninteresting to Buzzfeed or the Guardian. They have become a shorthand for conspiracy, or things about which it can be said “the MSM (main-stream media) won’t cover this”.

But think about it calmly, the commentariat would say, there’s nothing going on behind the curtain.  And that may be right: the world is too complex, and people too fallible and factionate to think that there are often huge co-ordinated conspiracies. That does not mean, however, that all is fair and that motives are honest.

Corporations act in the legal best interests (financial) of the shareholder, in effect as individuals themselves. They have passed the corporate singularity.

Individuals display conscious and unconscious prejudices: to themselves, to their friends and contacts, to ‘people like them, and even to their received ideas of cultural and societal norms.

Societies laws, rules, norms and institutions are built by those who have historical power, and as such reflect those conscious and unconscious prejudices – even when assembled with the best of intentions.  This is why you can have ‘institutionally racist’ police forces, and after 40 years of legal equal pay women are still paid less than men. It’s why poor people do not form the media.

So if you are not of the historically privileged, then even if there are no conspiracies the in-built systemic bias in almost every system will act as if there is.

It’s an innate characteristic that we assume human control in actions, it stops us feeling that the world is nothing but a set of electrochemical reactions. It helps us deal with our lack of control. The idea that bankers, or people like Philip Green, can be changed or punished for their actions is right and fitting, but it will not change the system. Thinking that people or groups of them acting conspiratorially just need to be caught and stopped is what’s known as a ‘personalized’ or ‘truncated’ critique: this is the danger in believing in conspiracies, that by not expanding the view to forces outside people we miss the real problems. These truncated critiques are often open to developing into racism or other prejudices, most notably the anti-semitic ones about control of global finance and much else.

There’s no mainstream media conspiracy: but there is a system that is loaded with the interests of certain types and classes of people, staffed by those that have similar outlooks and are directed by similar forces (both editorial and commercial).

Numerous good journalists, such as Jim Waterson (political editor at Buzzfeed) will use the phrase “MSM” as if its unironic use was a shibboleth for groupthink or madness. Martin Belam, a great thinker on journalism and the internet and Guardian new features editor, will exasperatedly tweet about the ‘real reasons’ why news about a particular issue isn’t covered more widely — essentially, and circularly,  because ‘people’ won’t read about it — the implication being that anyone who mentions lack of media interest is just not living in the real world. The real world of course being one of commercial pressures to get views, editorial ones to produce what bosses thing the outlet needs, and societal ones to essentially ‘fit in’ with the creator’s social position.

All these journalists know more about how the media — and one would assume the inside of politics — works than the average person. But that knowledge and access comes from being inculcated into not only understanding the system, but a blindness to some of its faults. None of those journalists wouldn’t challenge the existence or racism, and they would be vocal against instances of sexism, but is their awareness of the systemic pressures on media creation matched with a critical eye about how it really works? They are good people to whom the media system has always seemed pretty fair, and is full of people doing their best.

Step outside it, and talk about a the system itself, and even a respected journalist will be dismissed and ridiculed. One of the main paths to criticisms of Paul Mason, one of the most experienced journalists and thinkers about politics and economics, is that he has ‘gone full canary’ — the arguments aren’t countered, there is is just ridicule.

George Orwell wrote a long essay about Dickens, he loved the prose, but noted the lack of ideas – a revolutionary position – on how the unfair society he described could change. Dickens, wrote Orwell, “has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, ‘behave decently’”.

Orwell said that Charles Dickens “was not a revolutionary writer”. He didn’t mean that Dickens wasn’t capable of or responsible for revolutions in prose, but that despite the image as a champion of the downtrodden he didn’t wish for systemic revolution – everything would be better, Dickens thought, if people were nicer. That is the problem with the most forms of ‘tempering’ the excesses of capitalism: you can punish or coerce individuals but society (or the system that pervades it) is to blame. And most journalists cannot see the problems in the system.

The usually insightful Zoe Williams was incredulous that most Labour members would not chose what she sees as an incremental improvement as leader — Owen Smith — revealing I think a lack of understanding of the anger and worry about a situation that takes away what those Corybn-voting members thought of as finally having some control over the direction of their party. Deep in that is an assumption that the system is fair and most people are honest.

But the danger in dismissing people as conspiracy theorists is that they are identifying real problems.

In many ways it doesn’t matter whether or not god(s) exist, because enough people act as if they do – the effects are the same. Likewise, if conspiracies don’t exist – and some may do – then it doesn’t matter, to those affected the result is the same: but not because people believe in them, but because it’s purely a rationalisation of the consequences of structural inequalities.

As George Calin said, “You don’t need a formal conspiracy when interests converge. These people went to the same universities and fraternities, they’re on the same boards of directors, they’re on the same country clubs, they have like-interests. They don’t need to call a meeting; they know what is good for THEM.” And it doesn’t even have to be conscious, social context is control enough.

When we talk about listening to legitimate concerns, we need to listen to people who have misdirected their anger. Not to give weight to their ideas about what’s wrong, but to identify the problems that cause them to be angry. If an argument sounds sounds racist, or wrong and distasteful, or even just doesn’t fit with your ideas of a media you are closer to the workings of – then it’s still not to be dismissed, for it may have identified a real problem.

The ‘MSM’ journalist view, also spread by those who want also to seem above the fray, is to not take these concerns seriously. This is more cock up than conspiracy, but it is an almighty cock-up — and that’s why, in the cracks of a ‘MSM’ that isn’t able to be aware of its limitations a thousand canary yellow flowers will bloom.


Author: Jon Bounds

14th Most Influential Person in the West Midlands 2008, subsequently not placed. His new book about visiting every seaside pier in England and Wales — Pier Review — has been described as “On the Road meets On the Buses”, it's out now. Jon wrote and directed the first ever piece of drama to be performed on Twitter and founded the famous blog Birmingham: It's Not Shit.

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