“This Secret Message Could Change Your Life!”: Wellness Culture, Jesus, and QAnon
I’ve spent my life in various conspiracy circles, from evangelicalism to veganism to the Internet. How do we get hooked on conspiracies? And how do we get out?
Longtime researchers into QAnon were reporting the same thing I had been picking up in the summer of 2020: Q had lost contain. It was starting to show up in unexpected places. Instead of ugly MSPaint Art and screencaps from message boards, it was getting cleaned up, repackaged, and posted by our friends. Our real friends, from school or work. People who formerly were just sharing photos of their families, their progress on a yoga pose, or their latest meals — people who were aggressively pleasant in their timelines — were beginning to talk about child-trafficking and sexual abuse. People who had refused to post about politics were beginning to engage, and in the weirdest possible way.
I was struggling to describe this wave of converts, a way to signal the rise in QAnon among my own friends and acquaintances who have recently been pilled. It all clicked when I stumbled across Marc-Andre Argentino’s neologism: “Pastel QAnon.” While we often group such people under the “wellness” label, the gauzy and healing tones of an Instagram post are a better shorthand, one that most of us can instantly recognize. Within the group are mommy bloggers, diet promoters, alternative healing advocates, fitness inspo, and general promoters of lifestyle change, and while there are men within these circles, this is an overwhelmingly feminine community.
By now, most of us have read a well-researched article or two on the rise of Pastel Qanon — they are exhaustive in outlining the softening details of individuals who fall into Q, and appropriately cite social media researchers who are tracking the phenomenon. Little has been written, however, about why these lifestyle bloggers and online moms were converted, or the particular emotional dynamics at play in bringing a person into QAnon. If there is any attempt to connect the communities, it’s a mystical answer, with references to leaps of faith and modes of meaning-making, rather than material forces.
“The ease with which growing numbers of wellness adherents have seamlessly incorporated QAnon into their worldview illustrates a broader point — that QAnon, far from a new phenomenon, is scaffolding onto a strand of conspiratorial thinking that has always been part of our DNA. As many have pointed out, including my former Jezebel colleague Anna Merlan in her book Republic of Lies, there is a sort of twisted logic to conspiracy theories, built as they are on half-truths. In an increasingly chaotic world, many of us are searching for meaning; many of us are looking for someone easy to blame; many of us feel disempowered, feel helpless, distrust our government, and the institutions that shape our lives. Seen from this angle, the tenets of both QAnon and the wellness world are remarkably alike — it’s a shorter leap than one might assume from believing that Big Pharma is pushing dangerous vaccines onto an unsuspecting public to believing that Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and Bill Gates are part of a global network of Satanists who kidnap children and drink their blood.”
Having spent time campaigning for animal welfare, I’m familiar with the way corporate machines align against people fighting for the truth. As an ex-evangelical, I’m very familiar with cranky people finding evidence of Satan in every corner of public life. And as someone who has spent too much time online for much of the 21st century, I’m aware of all the ways that late-night searches for meaning in forums and subreddits can be a source of comfort. Even though I don’t believe in QAnon, it’s easy for me to see why the idea took hold, why it has drawn so many new people into the anxious and obsessed world of conspiracy.
There are several difficulties that can embarrass any conversation about conspiracy theories, and how we all understand them. Reporting on conspiracy theorists often perpetuates two errors: (i) journalists write as if they don’t themselves believe in conspiracy, when most do, and (ii) they write as if the followers of a conspiracy aren’t in the room, aren’t reading the article about them. It’s a stale habit of the media that others people, and paradoxically fuels the feeling of stigmatism among conspiracists that they are on the outside, a rebel force. It also lets the supposed nonconspiracist off the hook, and establishes the Official Explanation as the majority opinion (when in fact the vast majority of people believe in at least one conspiracy theory). Part of why I am writing this is that, like many of us, I know several people who are ardent believers in Q — I know that there is no “them” of people out there, only us. Hello, everyone, believers and nonbelievers alike. All of these issues aren’t elsewhere, they are here.
Another problem in writing about conspiracies is there isn’t a consensus definition of what a conspiracy theory is, and the subsequent squabbling about what is/isn’t a conspiracy theory is (i) the absolute worst, and (ii) a distraction. For the purposes of this essay, I am going use the term to mean “a theory that explains an event or circumstances, often involving a secret agreement between powerful actors.”
Yet another challenge in any conversation about conspiracies is the gravitational pull towards pedantry, towards arguing over facts and experts. One trait that followers of evangelical Christianity, alternative health, and QAnon have in common is an evangelical mindset — everyone writes as if they have the true message to get out to the people, that their Idea of the World, if properly promoted, will triumph in the arena and bring meaning to individual lives. I’d like to avoid those arguments about facts or theories, and focus more on the emotional reasoning behind conspiracies. Not as much about what we find when we “do the research”, as much as how “doing the research” makes us feel, and what thoughts stick with us. I think if we can start tracing the emotions that make certain theories stick, and see how they are used to persuade us, we can untangle the mess many of us have found ourselves in. No conspiracy should drive a person to self-harm, no theory is worth killing or dying over. [Ed. — While I wrote this in the summer of 2020, we all now are familiar with Ashli Babbit, USAF vet and follower of Q, killed by Capitol police while storming Congress]
I also believe that there are many good-faith people who have fallen into Q who sincerely wish to stop abuse and protect victims, but who are caught up in the labyrinth of manipulation. As I describe below, my experience suggests that, if we can address the underlying emotional questions, and bring people back into relationship, many of them will naturally return to constructive lives based in reality.
Belief and Suspicion
In the ‘90s evangelical Christian culture of Dallas, TX, there were always conspiracies to sample. Given that the term “conspiracy theory” arose as a concept in the wake of the Warren Commission, it can be argued that Dallas is in fact the birthplace of the modern conspiracy. My family would drive past the Texas School Book Depository museum on our way to a summer church camp where we’d play “Communists vs Christians” instead of capture-the-flag, learn that Planned Parenthoods were full of severed baby parts, and that Bill Clinton, the UN, and credit card companies (under the guise of convenient payments) were conspiring to force every human to have a barcode tattooed or a chip implanted in their arms, the very Mark Of The Beast as foretold in Revelation.
I’d go to sleepovers, and among the bookshelves were pamphlets and tracts explaining the sexual witchcraft in MTV or Disney shows. Frank Peretti’s books, including This Present Darkness, The Oath, and his teen-focused Veritas Project series introduced me to the idea of demonic powers behind shadowy groups and government institutions. All of the symbolism and poetic language of Ephesians: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” a grand rhetoric, had been reduced to a quasi-literalist image and applied to everything from education materials to public television to anything liked by a Democrat.
Whereas my non-evangelical peers at the time were primarily into the theory that “Yellow #5 shrinks your junk,” my elementary school took a field trip out to rural Texas to learn about bigger conspiracies that concerned the entire galaxy. We visited a ranch run by a creationist “scientist,” who taught us about the atmospheric conditions of the pre-Biblical Flood Earth, and we observed his attempts to recreate the conditions in an above-ground septic tank, where he planned to raise some common lizards into modern dinosaurs (as all dinosaur bones were simply proof of pre-flood lizardom). This science “that they don’t want you to know about” was seamlessly presented alongside white-centric histories of Texas and the United States, math, and P.E.
In high school, my youth pastor in Colorado handed me a book, The South Was Right, explaining that it would help clear up some “inconsistencies” I had in my American History. I was too busy at the time reading important serious works, like the Left Behind books (where the Antichrist is a UN official from Eastern Europe) or the early books of Hugh Hewitt and Dinesh D’Souza, to waste my time learning why the Civil War was a grand lie, how the antebellum South was a place of peace and Christian kindness. Meanwhile, The Matrix was one of the only parent-approved R-rated films we were allowed to watch when we slept over with friends. Not all theories were allowed, however: the works of Dan Brown, in particular The Da Vinci Code, were dangerous heresies. Even years later, in college, my Campus Crusade student group pamphleted against the dangers of the Tom Hanks blockbuster coming to theaters.
Running through all of these schools and churches was an open encouragement of suspicion: in elites, in government, and official explanations. On the other side of a faith in an unseen and all-powerful Father stood a fear in the invisible and all-ranging foe. While I can now see the evangelical community’s fears about the United Nations to be parochial and embarrassing, I can remember the vividness and excitement that suffused evangelical life, how it brought a visceral meaning to every day’s events. Today, QAnon is running rampant through evangelical circles, both in the US and abroad. It’s not really that surprising, Q is playing all the hits of my youth: citing Bible verses to exhort adherents to stand firm against dark elites, one of oldest songs in modern evangelical canon. We were raised with visions of resolute martyrs and courageous believers like Elisabeth Eliot or Corrie Ten Boom. In comparison to non-believers, an evangelical can live the thrilling life of an undercover agent, a member of the divine resistance, like The Americans but for Christ.
Far from providing a new view of the world, Q sounds like so many Sunday School and Christian schoolteachers I’ve had: “the greater world is full of all kinds of unseen evil and carnal villainy, let us pray for the coming salvation, and don’t trust the media.” Throw in some crankiness about the Democratic Party, and I cannot be the only ex-evangelical who is embarrassed to see so many people being persuaded by the musty fears we were raised on.
It borders on the mundane to observe that in 2020 the majority of food in the United States is produced for the consumer from a functional black box. Our food systems are designed to be occlusive and convenient: we aren’t asked to consider the full scope of the costs of our meals, or really encouraged to see how it gets made. When you add in that many people are made sick by the food and water (or lack thereof) they are told to consume, it is only natural that alternative explanations would arise. Not all of these alternative explanations are bad.
For example: US agriculture conglomerates have spent decades fighting to keep the activity in slaughterhouses and industrial dairies out of the public eye, and animal rights activists have successfully broken apart the old consensus that our meat and dairy come from sustainable and ethical practices. For several years I pamphleted college campuses for animal welfare and advocated for a vegetarian/vegan diet. One of the events we would run would offer students $5 to watch a short video that would show the reality of modern animal agriculture. It is a well-worn tactic of activists to pay passers-by hard cash to watch short videos of cruelty, because it is highly effective. It’s for the same reason why, I believe, QAnon and PizzaGate are on the rise — triggering an emotional reaction of disgust is one of the most powerful tactics in a person’s toolkit, especially if they want to change another person.
Even beyond the issue of animal cruelty and industry cover-up, however, the alternative discourse in the US around food has been soaked in myths, disinformation, paranoia and conspiracies for decades. In the vacuum of a medical consensus on nutrition, entire industries arose to address people’s dissatisfaction with institutional explanations. Pastel QAnon’s gateway to conspiracies lies there.
In the early part of the ‘10s I worked in Customer Service for Whole Foods Market, which is one of the chief breeding grounds of Pastel QAnon. Few companies have done more to further alternative theories of nutrition in the American discourse (both good and bad, imo) than Whole Foods. Inherent to the company, however, is fostering a paranoia of the US food and medical system, government, and overall regulation. The libertarian crank culture of ‘80s and ‘90s Austin, TX — — the crunchy suspicion of corporations married with the vice-grip control of a doomsday prepper — also looms large in natural foods. While many of the early hippie wellness people were of the peaceful/cottage-core variety, John Mackey (founder of Whole Foods and UT Austin philosophy major) was able to bring the world of organic foods and natural remedies to the gun-rack crowd. Hardly ever considered together, Mackey and conspiracist Alex Jones are both Austin-based purveyors of wares that promise to help you “take back your health,” itself a particularly propertied and individualistic framing of a person’s well-being. The mix of anti-government suspicion, personal autonomy, and wealth that has evolved around the natural foods industry owes a massive debt to the rise of Whole Foods, and so does Q. The InfoWars husband and the juice-cleanse wife are a common sight in many stores, and many of the online “Maps of Q” bear a striking resemblance to the Dr. Bronner’s soap label.
For many people who would never otherwise read a conspiracy theory, an alternative diet book from a natural foods store or wellness adherent could be their first exposure to a paranoid worldview, and the first that they internalize. Most modern food diet books, from vegan to low-carb to paleo to raw, emanate from a perspective that the Authoritative Food Recommendations are a lie perpetrated by industry and government, that in fact following the Recommended Plan as suggested by the authorities has been a longtime source of public and private disease. There are grains of truth in the point that the authorities haven’t had our health in mind when setting government policies: politicians, fueled by corporate donors, have rallied to ensure that pizza sauce is considered a vegetable in public school lunches, as one example. At the risk of saying something obvious: most of us understand that money has disfigured the conversation on what is good to consume.
It is in that collective confused space these alternative diets appear, proclaiming that The Truth is different, and, if you do your research (or, more accurately, trust the book in your hand’s “research”) and try the diet, you will see a transformative difference in your daily life, and you will be better aligned with Reality. Any child raised in religion can tell you what such a book is called. It’s an arresting method of rhetoric, and has proven to be very effective. This form of persuasion is so pervasive, it’s even spread to the mainstream, a curious paradox of authority using the language of suspicion to persuade us. We all laugh at the con-men peddling “Remedies THEY Don’t Want You To Know About”, but less mockable is going to YouTube and finding TedTalk conference presentations titled “Reversing Type 2 Diabetes Starts With Ignoring The Guidelines.”
Perhaps no food myth or phobia better exemplifies the marriage of wellness culture with conspiracy theories and the Alt-Right as the rise in about soy. Soy has been blamed for an enormous number of maladies, with scant evidence to show for any of its alleged crimes. (To be clear: I’m not your doctor, and yes, I know about Hashimoto’s and thyroid disease). Among the supposed dangers, soy is blamed for cancer, for effeminizing men, and for inflammation, but the research suggests the contrary. While the alt-right and Mike Cernovich types only began talking about the effeminizing effects of soy in 2017, it has been a long-time bogeyman of wellness influencers and broader healthy-eating culture. The term “soyboys” — whether the sentiment is uttered by an old woman into crystals, by a bro who thinks chomping on a turkey leg after squats day is proof of concept, or by an online edgelord — plays on the fears around the word “estrogen” and the misunderstandings of nutrition.
One way that Pastel QAnon is distinct from traditional conspiracies: it has far more results to speak for it. I don’t want to weigh in on a particular solution to a problem, but many folks have found tangible results from following certain lifestyle changes, whether it be a better weight or a clearer complexion. This is mostly due to mundane facts like (i) green tea is good for people, (ii) eating less processed foods is good for the body, and (iii) setting up structures and relationships that encourage healthy levels of activity is the surest way to sustainable improvement. It has very little to do with breaking free from tyranny, or “reclaiming” your body, but good luck arguing against the results that come from plans and books that frame it in such terms. It doesn’t surprise me, then, that Pastel QAnon acts with the zeal of the converted, especially compared to old-school online conspiracists (who were almost all edgelords that rarely even liked leaving their computer, let alone tending to their own health), or the standard Facebook/MAGA crowd. Both the edgelords and MAGA folks have, from my perspective, less trust in alternate theories than wellness people do, since for many of them, it’s only as true as their computer — everything else (the parts that require daily commitment and effort, and reveals meaningful results to determine the veracity of the theory) is hypothetical. The willingness of the wellness community merging with the totalizing schemas of QAnon is new, and frightening to behold.
For several years I lived in an Oxford House, a model of zero-tolerance sober living in residential homes democratically run by its members, often between 6–10 people. Most of the men who moved into my home were coming from places of strong institutional distrust (significant exposure to US law enforcement, prison, or mental health services will tend to do that to a person, but since this was the first Obama term we also had plenty of men who were roughnecks from the Bakken fields who got into too much cocaine from their breakneck pace of work), so the amount of conspiracy theories circulating in the house was always high. These were often men who had been isolated from networks of care and mistreated by authority figures, and therefore found explanations for their unruly lives in the theories of hidden world orders and shadow actors.
Two roommates, Mark and Dane*, would highlight different approaches to the theories. Mark was in his late 40’s, a small New Yorker who’d come out west back in the 90s, who was early on in his fifth or sixth attempt at living sober. He was generally quiet, and hated conflict, but if he was provoked a loud and violent anger could blast out of him, shocking even the hard ex-cons he lived with. That makes him sound more dangerous than he was, however — Mark was absolutely sweet with kids, would cry reading some passage of the Bible, and most of the time we just bonded through a love of Tom Waits.
[*- Names changed for anonymity]
Mark was also a passionate believer in David Icke, in the roles of lizard people in global affairs, and in the harvesting of humanity’s biochemicals by elites. He would spend hours at night on his old desktop Dell in his basement bedroom. The rest of the house would confront him about the habit (we required everyone to have a job and keep a steady recovery program, but there wasn’t a rule against Wasting Your Life Online At 3 AM Debating Queen Elizabeth’s Relative Lizardness). I primarily recall the intensity these topics would elicit from Mark, an urgency bordering on panic. The sheer scope and depth of the horror he was “researching,” it was enough to make him wonder why his roommates still had the energy to go out to movies or barbecue on a Saturday.
Dane was 22 years old, kicking an opiates addiction, and proudly identified as white trash. He was into underground hip hop, EDM, and loved trucks. His first job in recovery was at an auto parts store, and after a few months he’d saved enough money to buy an old gaming laptop, which he primarily used to blast Bassnectar as he dressed in the morning. Dane too was into conspiracy theories, but his were less about lizards and secret blood rituals, and more about a totalizing police state, corporate propaganda as mind control, and (of course) MKUltra. Dane wasn’t too worried about the implications of his ideas, he never seemed to care to dedicate more energy into learning about a theory than it would take for him to understand a reference in a hip-hop track. Whereas Mark would be haunted and spun-up by talking about conspiracy theories, often retreating back to his room, Dane could just laugh off the implications, close his computer, and get back to whatever was at hand.
Mark was much more strongly driven by disgust than Dane. He was sweeter in demeanor, more conscientious of his weekly chores. Mark eventually became a vegetarian after having a lot of talks with me, Dane never really cared enough to even have a conversation about animal suffering or what he could do to help them. Disgust is the hook that keeps people in, although it impacts us all differently.
To use Argentino’s taxonomy, my friends back in 2011 were predecessors to “raw QAnon” followers: mostly men, mostly isolated, overwhelmingly white, and addicted to the digital comfort of online messageboards and YouTube. Mark and Dane’s isolation was co-morbid with their belief in conspiracies: in order to encounter these theories, they had to be on the Internet at all times, they had to go to their rooms and dedicate their social lives to “doing the research” and talking in the forums. With the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, those lifestyle requirements are no longer necessary. Everyone is now online.
The pandemic has introduced the Conspiracy Theorist Lifestyle (isolation and too-much frozen food) to many people, but even before the lockdowns people were, through their phones and tablets, simmering in those conspiratorial spaces at all times of day. There is no real discussion of the rise of QAnon without centering the role that social media platforms have played in abetting their spread. It goes beyond an app or specific platform, however: the industry model of attention-seeking tech promotes the spread of Q. The heightened emotional states our tech uses to hook us — pleasure, fear, disgust — are the perfect playground for an insidious idea, one that would otherwise perish under a calmer and steadier gaze.
Some thoughts on disgust. First, for many people, disgust is incredibly powerful and totalizing. Although we’ve all learned to be more disgusted in recent years, some of us feel it far more vividly than others, and for those of us with quieter disgust instincts, it can be hard to understand how a revolting idea or image can capture a person’s entire being. On a cardiovascular and respiratory level, a disgusted person changes, and the desire to expel the offending item can overwhelm every other instinct. Secondly, disgust has some understated positive side effects: it can remove you from danger, it can remind you to practice good hygiene (wash your hands, y’all). Pregnant women will often be more sensitive to disgust because their immune systems are in flux.
People with strong disgust impulses tend to be more friendly, agreeable, and conscientious than the average person. Disgust makes you feel alive, it can be distracting or exhilarating. Disgust is novel. Disgusting things can demand your attention, even if you didn’t ask for them to intrude. Some of those might not sound like positive side effects, but compared to boredom or depression or loneliness, disgust can be an enlivening spark.
Disgust doesn’t last for long, at least not without some person or event re-animating the trigger, but it can completely erase whatever a person was previously thinking about. It can also be narcissistically thrilling, putting our own feelings in the center of attention: removing a disgusting object can be satisfying, fixing a problem can make a person feel heroic or grandly empowered. Since we often frame disgusting things in morally evil language, having a strong reaction against a perceived evil can give a person a sense of moral righteousness. Denying or invalidating a person’s disgust will often end poorly, but sharing in a person’s disgust can create a dark solidarity. It is easier to dismiss someone who does not share in your disgust as ignorant or inhumane, but meeting a stranger who agrees with you can feel like encountering a close friend. Something that disgusts you will hold a special kind of power, different than anything that makes you feel joy, or anger, or fear.
Most of life is not disgusting, but if you spend time on certain parts of the Internet, it can seem like everything has to be. If you were to ask anyone who came of age on the Internet when Rotten dot com and early file-sharing were at their peak, the Internet is a magical box of perpetual disgust, a cornucopia of gore, injustice, horror, and outrage. Today, in the time of doomscrolling, it seems like the wider world has discovered that same Internet, and lots of people are hooked. Reading about a politician who disgusts you will cause a quick share among friends. Seeing shocking videos of violence on a timeline will disgust us, but yet cause us to click through, see more. You can even see the shadows of disgustwork in the AI-designed clickbait ads we all see on the margins of our browsers, where some gross medical problem (or solution!) is splashed suddenly at the bottom of a food blog, probably with some weird clip art showing an open scalp wound (or mealy bugs, or a skin condition). It’s a brief flash of a revolting image, designed to draw the user in.
Another important point: not all disgust is valid, and some of our disgust reactions can be re-molded over time. Foods that we once found disgusting can become favorite treats — I used to find mushrooms to be revolting, and now I am an ardent mycophile. Natural processes like birth and death* can be horrifying at first glance, but with time and a quiet mind, they can become important rituals to participate in. In other words, don’t trust all the supposed wisdom your disgust is selling, be a savvy customer. Reeducating ourselves can turn disgusting items into sources of information that help us, rather than perpetually drive us away. I’m not suggesting that we teach ourselves to no longer be disgusted by anything, to misuse exposure therapy to make us dull to the world. Refusing to be disgusted is more dangerous than continuous disgust. I’m only suggesting that we stop relying on disgust to make decisions, that we let it say its piece, and then listen to other voices in the room.
[*- Speaking of birth and death: many, many parts of our world that are traditionally feminine have been labeled as disgusting by patriarchy and The Authorities.]
It should be noted: disgust is one of the primary languages of modern advocacy — Environmental activists with climate change, animal rights activists with slaughterhouses, anti-smoking groups with lung biopsies, Black Lives Matter activists with police brutality, Christians with sin, white supremacists with interracial couples, another almost-infinite list — all of them (at least partly) built on taking advantage of the emotional flare-up of disgust in a person. Disgust brings people to a persuadable place, where anything offered solution to the trigger will be more readily received. You can see it in the large swaths of advertising, where messages are designed around provoking and relieving disgust. We are taught to be disgusted by our bodies, then offered products to fix it. We are encouraged to be disgusted by our enemies, and assuaged by our own correctness.
Donald Trump is man of disgust. He is perpetually disgusted: foods, nations, germs, his opponents, his supporters, all of them disgust him. More than most, Trump is proud of his disgust at the world, and he often relies on it to attract people to his side. If a shared disgust is a dark solidarity, Donald Trump is the center of so many networks. His disgusted affect has meandered down into all of us: Trump is not just disgusted, but disgusting. His politics are designed to antagonize and repulse, and in this concern, are incredibly successful at grabbing attention. So many of us are disgusted these days. Disgusted by things we read on our phones and laptops (yet oddly we never seem disgusted enough to put down the technology), offended by craven politicians, sickened by violence and lies — it’s the defining emotion of our time. We’ve all been ensnared in the web.
A survey of the common elicitors of disgust is like seeing a prism for all of Pastel QAnon, for the intersection of wellness and conspiracy theories. In wellness, disgust about body fat, cholesterol, aging, disease, and other issues of body purity animate our shopping and lifestyles, and lead us to fetishize “clean eating.” Body products like shit and piss and blood and organs are commonly found to be disgusting, so it would be understandable that folks would find the idea of elites harvesting chemical compounds in our brains to be a far more riveting than the actual harvesting of our time, peace, and wages. Food and hygiene are traditional fields of disgust, so fears around genetic modification or chemically treated food will hold their attention far more than food deserts or general hunger. Vaccines, when viewed through a prism of body horror, will be a perpetual source of disgust for some people, especially among the pregnant and early parents. Disgust for the feminine is another common thread: soy is a vehicle of feminine chemicals (the dreaded estrogen), ready to wreck our natural balances. Even the evangelical opposition to The Da Vinci Code is rooted in the disgust at the idea of Mary or Jesus as sexually active people.
Yet disgust blinds us to reality, distracts us from real problems. An example of how disgust can drive people away from reality and into useless theories is the famed and dreaded idea of mandatory microchip implantation. For all of the fear, the threat of microchip totalitarianism is miniscule, especially considering the far more grave threats posed by facial-recognition software and the modern surveillance state. It’s obvious to the non-disgusted mind: why would any elite group go to the effort to try and put something inside our bodies if we’re all already addicted to our smartphones and posting? We can’t give up our phones and smartwatches if we wanted to, why would they waste time on hooking us up with anything else? [Ed.- Again, I wrote this in the summer, but by now we have all seen Q fans raiding the U.S. Capitol while proudly broadcasting them on their phones, much to the delight of federal prosecutors.] The crux of why this conspiracy remains potent is because of the disgust that is provoked by the idea of violating a person’s body envelope (similar to disgust over gore or other intrusive instruments in a body). Even though the threat is far less real, the disgust provoked isn’t, which is why the idea remains so powerful. Incidentally, I read a rumor recently that even David Icke was starting to realize that microchips were a dumb idea, and he would start pivoting towards stirring up fear around facial recognition pretty soon. Color me skeptical of that idea taking hold with his followers. Facial recognition, while a real threat, isn’t vivid enough and is too non-disgusting to hold much sway with people hooked on conspiracies.
Before I lived in that Oxford House, I spent 30 days’ in an in-patient treatment center for alcohol and drug abuse. If someone wants to hear the granular details of how there are invisible networks of child abuse in this country, I can think of few places better than a rehab center. There are some people who come in with a genetic predisposition to addictive behavior, but the majority of people in that in-patient center had heart-wrenching stories of surviving physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. To witness the stories of people in recovery is to see the darkest shadow of our society, the all-but-invisible crimes of domestic violence and child abuse.
Of course, there is no organized cabal behind these abusers: the trusted authorities who preyed on these people didn’t know each other, there is no internal coherence of targeted oppression, and there is most assuredly no profit to be made from this suffering. Q’s claim of a shadowy network of child abuse, however, resonates so strongly because it echoes this part of our reality that many people wish to dismiss. There are networks of child abuse in this country- they are called religious and youth-centered institutions: the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, Independent Baptists, Kundalini Yoga-centered 3HO, Shambhala Buddhism, Boy Scouts of America, college football programs, USA Gymnastics, high school sports, police departments, and U.S. federal agencies have all had verified child sexual abuse scandals. Beyond these scandals are countless others at state and local levels. It is not surprising, then, that the subconscious experience of many people is that there are forces who have preyed upon the vulnerable. 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls will be sexually abused before 18, we are all but one or two degrees of separation from a victim. It is understandable that people want to put a specific name to this, to have a way to explain this silent suffering, and QAnon has stepped into that void with an answer that connects the dots, no matter how nonsensical it may be.
There are non-disgust reasons to address all of the concerns we have in this world. Once the disgust has subsided, there are good and valid reasons to eat a vegan diet, to work to stop child trafficking, to hold politicians to account, to make the world a safer place. We don’t need disgust to provoke us to action or drive our responses. Perpetual disgust isn’t possible, and furthermore, it saps strength from the very cause you claim to care about. Like all emotions, it is a natural and inherent to us, and it is a valid emotional response to observing abuse. There’s really no point in arguing with disgust, and I believe there’s real damage in quashing or stifling the emotion. The point is to let it ride out, not to unnecessarily restimulate it, or rely on it. Disgust is a bit of a mind-eraser, in my experience, and in particular it tends to increase susceptibility to bullshit. It can be humbling to realize that someone has taken advantage of my disgust, but the lesson is a good one to learn.
Listen to victims. A very subtle trick that QAnon and its followers participate in is the erasure of victims. They don’t claim to erase victims, of course, they claim to be all about victims of child sex trafficking. The erasure I’m talking about is that they act as if victims of trafficking aren’t still around us, aren’t still alive and in need of care and support. There are woefully underfunded victim services in nearly every US city, meanwhile Q followers will obsess over hypothetical children (who seem to mostly be very conveniently dead or forever gone). Millions of people are in need of trauma-informed care, and there is an epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women on the planet, and their communities’ cries are simply scrolled by and unheeded. ICE is disappearing people, flying prisoners around the country under cover of darkness, and few seem to raise even an eyebrow.
Why do none of these facts of oppression and violence fail to spark interest in the average QAnon follower? Because Q plays to a person’s narcissism, and seductively centers their’s own felt sense of disgust and anger, and pushes aside the lives and needs of victims. For all of the hashtag activism and citizen research being shared, for all of the theorizing about Jeffrey Epstein, and networks of rape and abuse, there remains a hard fact: victims of abuse have names, are alive, and have stories. There are communities of care already doing the work, and they need material support. Anyone who has done real concrete work with supporting victims will tell you that your disgust is the most selfish thing you could give those people.
A happy coda to the stories of Mark and Dane, one that perhaps sheds a little light onto a way out of the mess: both of them eventually fell away from die-hard conspiracies. I wouldn’t say that they were fully normalized, where they credulously took in the official explanation for everything, but they stopped talking about theories, started focusing on other, more pressing matters. The solution to the conspiracy obsession is simple: work and connection.
Dane soon got a job in construction, putting in 10 hour days on site, where he was so drained by the end of the day that he’d crash into sleep at 7 pm. Soon he had a girlfriend, and some responsibilities, and some co-workers, and found out that Reality is far more complex, frustrating, funny, and interesting than a conspiracy theory. Exposure to the varieties of work in the world will pop any grand theory, lessen one’s narcissism, and re-engage a person with the project of meaning-making and living for one another. I don’t know of any explanation or debunking that can change the mind of an isolated and unproductive person — the brain seems hard-wired against simple rational arguments. Mark, who was unable to do heavy work due to medical disability, found his way out of the theories by volunteering at a food bank, 12 Step meetings, and a church’s homeless services. After spending a day bagging groceries, encouraging folks, learning about others, and plugging back in, Mark didn’t find the posters on his forums to be as convincing. He could sense the sadness and desperation in those chatrooms, and it didn’t hold the same sway over him. Life was simply more than those theories could ever claim, and behind every voice yelling about the Illuminati was a person in distress, or depression, or loneliness.
I would submit to you that the term “plugging back in” to society is not just a flip metaphor from The Matrix, that it in fact reveals a deep truth of how, in our reality, we all are connected, and how we heal ourselves — we rediscover our interdependence, see ourselves in relation to other people, see where we can help, and our lives become charged with the energy to provide care. While I mentioned earlier that there weren’t many effective ways to repress disgust, and that it was best to let the disgust ride out unstimulated, I neglected to mention the one effective antidote: empathy. When we care for a person, perhaps a loved one, we can overwhelm our disgust and tend to their wounds, or their dying. When we stop feeling disgust on behalf of a victim and instead start offering empathy when we look at the news, doomscrolling doesn’t work quite as well. The genius of empathy is that it doesn’t dismiss or deny disgust, and it doesn’t deny the horrors of reality — it’s smarter and more refined than those primal emotions, and cleverly redirects the energy from “how I feel” to “what I can do to help.” Empathy is an emotion that can be developed, even after years of atrophying, and is the most sure path towards helpful action. As the director for the Hygiene Center at the London School of Hygiene so neatly puts it: what we do ultimately “depends on the strength of your disgust and the strength of your desire to care.”
One thing you learn when you spend a lifetime in conspiracies and apocalypse, if only by the mere force of time, is that the Great Moment of Reveal never comes, the bad guys are never captured, and the world never ends. Even as I am writing this, QAnon’s energy is beginning to unravel. The chans are going to go down at some point, the lulz have been had. It wouldn’t surprise me if we forget about the dumb website that started it all. But the theories will march on in new forms. I’ve seen countless attempts to rationally debunk an idea that hooks a person, and they almost never work for any party’s satisfaction. It is my sincere hope that this essay will help people, but I’m not suggesting that noticing one’s own emotions and practicing empathy is a perfect answer to everyone who is obsessed with conspiracies. If we learn to move through our disgust, however, and reengage with this frustrating reality, and do helpful work, we can regain some calm and effectiveness, and stop feeding the beast that preys on so many of our minds.