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Man's eyes, view through open blinds, close-up____Do Not Archive (Jed Share/Getty Images)
Man's eyes, view through open blinds, close-up____Do Not Archive (Jed Share/Getty Images)

Irshad Manji

The paranoid can't handle the truth Add to ...

The conspiracy-mongering of our time takes my breath away. Maybe humanity has always been this paranoid, but the advent of 24/7 media rubs it in. When I probed members of my Facebook community for their reactions to Osama bin Laden's death, the second response echoed many more: "hoax."

It's as if the angrier you are, the more right you must be. That's the abyss into which I see rising numbers of us descending - Canadians included.

As Margaret Wente wrote after the election, it's not uncommon to find a paranoid streak about Prime Minister Stephen Harper "in the smarter salons in Ottawa and Toronto. Strange to say, it reminds me of those Republican wing-nuts who believe Barack Obama really isn't American."

Ms. Wente is referring to steroidal skeptics known as the "birthers." And for them, as for most of their neurotic ilk, one conspiracy isn't enough. No sooner did Mr. Obama release his long-form birth certificate than Donald Trump alleged that the President couldn't have entered Harvard University on his academic merits. "Let him show his records," Mr. Trump sneered.

Days later, the White House announced Mr. bin Laden's assassination, followed by DNA testing that verified his identity. The online demands proliferated: Let them show the photos to "prove" that al-Qaeda's top terrorist is gone. No pictures? No cred.

Please. Photos would never appease the cynics. They'd only declare that the pictures had been doctored, just as some cried "Forgery!" about Mr. Obama's birth certificate. It's back to square one - and yet another conspiracy, this time about how and why the White House airbrushed Mr. bin Laden's image.

Routine, reactionary denial is a dead end. When conspiracy-peddling persists, what can ever be true? Indeed, the very idea of truth loses meaning. Which is why I can't ascribe the popular label "truthers" to those who claim that 9/11 was itself an inside job.

It's easy to dismiss the hyperventilating as simple nuttiness. But the nutters have an outsized impact on shared values, a crucial aspect of the glue that holds societies together. The decibel level of conspiracy merchants, amplified by the explosion of media platforms through which to express themselves, infects our very capacity for common purpose - and our human need for hope.

Is there a solution? I'd argue that students should be taught to think not just critically, but also "generatively," so they can rationally reassemble the pieces of what they've just ripped apart. Thinking critically enables us to question the information we're being fed, and that's a good thing. But what then? Unless we can reason our way to factual accuracy, critical thinking easily degenerates into emotionalism - conflating emotion with evidence. Not a good thing.

Equipping young people to transcend raw emotion might be a pipe dream. Still, it has to be tried, because some of the conspiracies floating among mainstream folks are frightening on more than one level.

A well-connected colleague tells me of two rich, seemingly educated individuals who contribute to U.S. political campaigns. They recently stopped giving to a candidate who just didn't "get" that "President Obama wants to open the border with Mexico so he can flood the United States with Muslims." The sheer ignorance of this suspicion is matched by its ignobility.

But ugly neuroses can be undermined. The late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz challenged a friend who insisted in the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Arab culture. "Well then," Mr. Mahfouz solemnly said, "I advise you to die."

The supple genius of this response left the friend reeling. If he did himself in, would he be caving to the Jewish juggernaut? Or would he be snatching a victory from it? Either way, Mr. Mahfouz conveyed that by obsessing over the Jews, his fellow Egyptians were conspiring only against themselves.

With Arabs beginning to tackle their paranoia, more of us can too. Americans, for starters, should ask at what point Ronald Reagan's adage of "trust but verify" encounters its corollary - "verified, now trust."

Without insisting on each of these halves, citizens in any society can't achieve a consensus that's whole enough to move on to new challenges. Blowhards will keep poking holes in old news, falling through those holes and toward a pit where believing in nothing becomes the hallmark of truth. Sounds to me like a lie.

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