Coronavirus and Conspiracies – The Role of the ‘Enemy’

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As of today, there are over 5 million coronavirus (COVID-19) cases across the globe. This number will surely swelter over the coming months. Governments in every continent have taken various measures to thwart the pandemic. Apace with the pervasiveness of COVID-19, there have many articles speculating how the virus spread to humans. 

The conspiracy theory video “Plandemic” recently went viral. Although it was removed from YouTube and Facebook, it has been viewed millions of times. Judy Mikovits is the star of the video. A disgraced ex-virology researcher, Mikovits argues that COVID-19 has emerged from a wily motivation to sell vaccinations. Replete with obfuscation and conspiracy theories, many reputable outlets such as FactCheck and Science have exposed its spurious claims.

Conspiracy theories abound, there is a natural inclination to unravel the psychology of this strange phenomena. Interesting, of course, since there are various common traits that scholars point out when understanding conspiratorial thinking. In their recent Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking, Cook, Van der Linden, Lewandowsky, and Ecker point out seven distinctive traits:

  1. Contradictory beliefs
  2. Overriding suspicion
  3. Nefarious intent
  4. Conviction something’s wrong
  5. Persecuted victim
  6. Immunity to evidence
  7. Reinterpreting randomness 

While these distinctive traits are undoubtedly veridical, it certainly does not provide a sound explanation. Another psychological manifestation underpinning this has been circulating in the crevasses of scholarly debate: the forging of enemies. 

The ‘enemy’

Jesse Walker, the editor of Reason magazine and writer of famed conspiracy exposé The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, identifies 5 central kinds of conspiracy theorists: 

  • The “Enemy Outside” refers to theories based on figures alleged to be scheming against a community from without.
  • The “Enemy Within” finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens.
  • The “Enemy Above” involves powerful people manipulating events for their own gain.
  • The “Enemy Below” features the lower classes working to overturn the social order.
  • The “Benevolent Conspiracies” are angelic forces that work behind the scenes to improve the world and help people.

As documented, the role of the ‘enemy’ is quite protrusive in conspiratorial thinking. However, it is not limited to the conspiratorial thinking amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. A bizarre offshoot of the inflicted damaged caused by COVID-19 is that it has brought people together. Ironic, of course, since social distancing has become so universal in the attempt to curtail the spread of the virus.

A bizarre offshoot of the inflicted damaged caused by COVID-19 is that it has brought people together

Steve Rathje opined that COVID-19 is a sort of “common enemy” and, “it is often said that common enemies bring us together.” He goes further, speculating reasons why Trump recently framed this issue as a “war with a hidden enemy.”

With Walker and Rathje offering different accounts of what role enemy-forging is playing in our responses to COVID-19 and conspiratorial thinking more broadly, what common mechanisms could be at play? Put differently, why is enemy-forging so pervasive? 

The mechanisms at play

Famed philosopher and novelist, Umberto Eco, perspicuously noted in his Inventing the Enemy four psychological mechanisms at play in “enemy rhetoric”. First, having an enemy is important in defining our identity. We require an enemy to fathom who we are and, perhaps just as important, who we are not. Second, having an enemy provides us with an obstacle against which we can measure our system of values. Third, in seeking to overcome such obstacles, we thereby demonstrate our worth to ourselves. Last, understanding who we are and who they are is crucial for both our self-approval and self-esteem. 

COVID-19, being a common enemy to all, stands as an evocation of self-approval and self-esteem across – and thus bridging – our natural social bubbles. Worryingly, the same is true in conspiratorial thinking. We just need to think of the way global elites like Bill Gates and Dr Anthony Fauci Plandemic are chided as to blame for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of course, foreboding when COVID-19 may prey upon us and grieving when our loved ones have been victimised by it stand as rather plain grounds for making an enemy – the coronavirus. Naturally, it may sound rather malignant to think that people might be psychologically gaining from the coronavirus pandemic. Shouldn’t we all just be falling into two camps: the immiserated and the watchful? The fact of the matter is that conspiratorial thinking and finding a common enemy stand as psychologically profitable. The key difference is this: one form of profit turns us against each other while the other one brings us together. 

Coronavirus and the enemy: moving forward

The possibility of consolidation gestures toward an important point. Indeed, taking what is typically primaeval – making enemies – could play a decisive role in mustering the necessary courage and determination to get out of this deadly situation. An “excellent man” is surplus to requirements, as Oscar Wilde rightly noted, for “he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him.”  

What the tabloids have coined ‘Covidiots’ are those who rebuff the advice of the government. Instead of social isolating, they prefer to prolong their modus operandi and are quick to quibble about attempts to stop what they’re doing. Taking a more invidious approach – making an enemy – could be the turning point for them. Indeed, it could well result in them adhering to adequate social distancing protocols. After all, few things are more powerful than devising – and overcoming – a profitable obstacle against which we can measure our system of values. The long-term award for contriving a common enemy will be, we can hope, the emergence of a vaccine. Remaining resolute as a species, we will demonstrate our worth like never before. 

Perhaps it’s time we use what is all-too-human to our advantage. Of course, it’s easy to succumb to conspiratorial thinking. However, if, deep down, we need to forge enemies, we need to be reflective enough. Let’s mutate our inclination as an audacious ‘fuck-you’ to Coronavirus, showing it how real mutation comes to pass. Let’s remember Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose pithy statement rings no more true than now: “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.” 

BENJAMIN DAVID is a philosophy postgraduate at The University of Amsterdam, essayist, and Editor of Topical Magazine.


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