The Strength of a Friendship: How I Abandoned Conspiracy Theories

Diamond Dallas Page said, “Never underestimate the power of someone believing in you.” That hit me! Immediately I was reminded of my friendship with Tim. But, let me backtrack. Those of you who know a bit about me know that I was bullied as a kid, and know that, because of it, I walked around with a massive chip on my shoulder. I sincerely hated everyone, and spent most of my time trying to prove that I was superior to them. I perceived the world to be a hostile and reckless place, wherein people used one another to support themselves. So, I figured, I’d do the same, but I’d do it better.

To jump from the belief of “I’m better than you” to “I’m smarter and wiser than you” doesn’t require a leap. The lure of conspiracy theories, or rather one of its major attractions, is the procurement of secret knowledge, belonging to the highest of high. An angry, resentful kid is the perfect target. If you have the time and drive, learning about all sorts of bullshit, from why the Kennedy assassination was a cover-up to the controlled demolition of building seven of the World Trade Center, you can become a god among men, at least the message-board crowd. And by doing so, you’ve now become special, the ultimate “fuck you” to your tormentors.

So, here I am, this obnoxious kid, entering the last year of college. Being the amateur legal scholar that I was, I wanted to take one of my school’s most difficult law classes, even though I wasn’t an aspiring law student. So, I took ‘Ethics and Law’, which was taught by Dr. Timothy Stroup. Striding down the hallway with a confident smirk, I encountered an elderly man in a wheelchair, sitting outside of the classroom. He asked, “Are you going in there?” I nodded. He then asked if I could help him inside because he couldn’t wheel himself in. You know those moments that seem so trivial while you’re in them but end up changing your life? This was one of them for me. At the time, I obviously had no idea who this man was or how he would affect me.

Initially, Tim was my rival, although I was hardly his. I presented him with so much misinformation that, looking back, I can’t believe he didn’t consider it a complete waste of his time. I’d debate him in class, but refused to fully explore my beliefs. I’d present him evidence and then run away. I mean, pretty much what you’d expect from someone who knows deep down that he’s probably wrong. We’d laugh when we told others that we believed the other to be completely wrong about everything. And despite our disagreements, Tim continued our friendship and wrote recommendations on my behalf. I can’t know for sure why he maintained our relationship, but I’m so glad he did.

Finally, when I was willing to listen, he’d send me books from “the other side,” telling me that he thought it was important for me to have a balanced perspective. Tim didn’t necessarily want to change my views, but he wanted me to at least question them; at bottom, he wanted to teach me how to think. Tim sent me books on politics, the economy, and even psychology, information that I was ready to attempt to discredit. But, somewhere and at some point came a shift. I realized that he wasn’t my rival. More than anything, this man devoted his time, energy, and even money to me because he perceived my potential and sincerely wanted to help me. He didn’t want me to know how much smarter he was; he wanted to help me grow. Wow! This person who wasn’t a family member, and had no reason beyond his own will to befriend me, cared that much about me.

When we think of how to help people out of their dysfunctional thinking, we mostly focus on reason and argumentation, forgetting that the relationships matter as much as or more so than both. I wanted to impress Tim because he put so much into me; in some sense, he was the father I never had. He once said to me that he was impressed with my open-mindedness, but he should’ve been equally impressed with himself, for that victory was mostly his. My identity shifted from “truth-seeker” to truth-seeker, the distinction being that one attempts to bludgeon his opponents with the sharpness of intellect, while the other has an insatiable thirst for grasping the world. Tim helped me see that I already mattered, regardless of whether or not I was smarter than anyone else (and he obviously didn’t believe I was during my libertarian period).

Shifting my identity, earning respect for my willingness to learn and change my perspective, ripped me away from the truther movement, and shifting identity, in general, is the major factor contributing to ideological change, a point recently made by Lee McIntyre on The Michael Shermer Show. Tim challenged me and challenged my identity by essentially asking: If you’re such a truth seeker, then why do alternative views scare you so much? While I always considered myself to be open-minded, I also thought I was intellectually superior, which presented an unacknowledged contradiction. Luckily for me, however, Tim cared less about how much I knew and more about how much I wanted to know. His esteem stemmed from the latter and, now, so did my own self-conception, at least more so than before.

My life would have been a mess had a man in a wheelchair not asked me if I was going to enter a room. Maybe he wouldn’t have cared as much if I didn’t help him then. And maybe he would’ve remained my rival if he chose not to open his heart to me. That trivial moment, on some day in some building, set the course for the rest of my life.

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