By Kinga Połyńczuk-Alenius and Tero Toivanen
In democracy, contrarian epistemologies – such as conspiracy theories, scepticism and, perhaps to a lesser degree, denialism – float near the epistemic centre. Tentatively defined as relational epistemologies founded on the deep-seated distrust of power-wielding authorities and knowledge-producing institutions, contrarian epistemologies have a long history. This alerts researchers to their longevity as a social phenomenon and the referentiality, rather than newness, of their content. While contrarian epistemologies are always present and available, their popularity peaks in crisis situations, such as the contemporary ‘polycrisis’, in which political, social, economic, environmental, security and health emergencies converge.
At least, these seem to be the key takeaways of the HCAS Symposium ‘Conspiracy theories, denialism and scepticism: Contrarian epistemologies between epistemic fringe and democratic core’.
Organised on 1–2 December 2022, the symposium consisted of a two-day academic programme, featuring an opening address, three keynotes and five panel sessions, as well as the public event organised at Oodi, the Helsinki Central Library. The event attracted over 100 participants from Finland and abroad.
While the symposium website, including the programme, can still be viewed online, in what follows we would like to build on all the excellent contributions and reflect on what can be learnt from the symposium as a whole, especially as regards the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies to democracy.
Our aim as organisers of the symposium was exploratory, as we posited the relationship between democracy and contrarian epistemologies as an empirical question. The answers given to this question by the symposium contributions appear to point to the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in democracy in at least three ways. Yet, this epistemic centrality renders contrarian epistemologies ripe for exploitation by actors whose motivations, goals and modi operandi run counter to democracy.
Contrarian epistemologies and knowledge infrastructures
The first way in which contrarian epistemologies remain near the epistemic heart of contemporary democracies is through their close relationship to mainstream knowledge and its infrastructures.
Indeed, as our symposium made plain, mainstream knowledge in its various guises is conventionally suffused with contrarian epistemologies. While conspiracy theories provide exciting plot structures for popular literature and conversational material for everyday talk on social media, scepticism propels scientific debates and underlies investigative journalism.
Although the imbrication of contrarian epistemologies and mainstream knowledge is inherent to democracy under the conditions of freedom of speech, it can also be exploited by undemocratic, or fiercely anti-democratic, actors who seek to colonise existing institutions or create their own.
In this manner, the regime of Viktor Orban in Hungary hijacked state media while changing the law to populate private media companies with its cronies. The international ‘anti-gender’ movement, in its turn, has levelled up from producing its own pseudoscientific literature to establishing universities (vide the Collegium Intermarium in Warsaw linked to the conservative, ‘anti-gender’ think-tank, Ordo Iuris).
Contrarian epistemologies and the status quo
The second way in which contrarian epistemologies are epistemically central in contemporary democracies is their broad usage by elite actors engaged in protecting the status quo and business as usual.
The most instructive example here is perhaps the climate crisis, which has not been properly addressed, despite overwhelming scientific evidence suggesting an impending catastrophe. The responses to such evidence range on the spectrum from wholesale denialism to scepticism towards its interpretations to the acceptance of evidence uncoupled from any meaningful action. Grouped together under the heading of ‘climate obstruction’, they can be understood as a contrarian epistemology of delay and inaction, which generates apathy rather than mobilisation while the planet rapidly warms; this epistemology has been promoted by fossil fuel companies, industries, neoliberal think tanks and contrarian scientists.
Similarly, conservative political and social actors bent on preserving their privilege and position do resort to contrarian epistemologies if their status is threatened. An apt empirical example is, again, the ‘anti-gender’ movement, which both denies the existence of gender by binding identity with biological sex and discredits those who pursue, for example, gender equality, sexual rights or reproductive justice as agents of one or another global conspiracy.
Contrarian epistemologies and political actors
The third way in which our symposium demonstrated the epistemic centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies was by showing that they can act as a springboard to the acquisition of power through democratic elections, as evidenced by the rise of populist politicians worldwide.
The compatibility between populism and contrarian epistemologies resides in that both are distrustful of institutions of power and knowledge controlled by the elite, who are always already corrupt and continuously scheming behind the scenes to secure their self-interest at the expense of the ‘people’. It is perhaps a curious feature of contrarian epistemologies that they can be used both by the elite actors to protect the status quo and by the populists to challenge that elite and, at least superficially, the status quo.
Going beyond the populist hype, our symposium also looked at the ‘usual suspects’ of contrarian epistemologies, who can hardly be mistaken for being committed to democracy, such as European far-right parties and ultranationalists in Russia. In their hands, contrarian epistemologies often take aim at the weak and marginalised as well as at democracy itself.
To drive home the point that contrarian epistemologies can aid the process of exploiting democratic politics to undemocratic ends, we also discussed the case of Nazi Germany, where the entire fascist project was built around the naturalised threat of the so-called Jewish cabal.
Contrarian epistemologies: A litmus test for democracy?
Our symposium showed the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies across the board. From popular culture and social media to journalism and the academia, and from the socioeconomic and political elites to the actors challenging those elites from the margins of democratic politics, the prevalence of contrarian epistemologies can be linked to the cherished democratic principles, such as freedom of speech. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that contrarian epistemologies are an indispensable element of any democracy.
Yet, they can also be used to propel reorientation away from democracy. As much as the centrality of contrarian epistemologies in contemporary democracies is an empirical question, so perhaps is their democratic character.
They can engender critical knowledge instrumental in alleviating inequalities but, taken to the extreme, they may also subordinate knowledge to the ideology predicated on those same inequalities. Similarly, contrarian epistemologies can both mobilise and impede collective actions geared towards the democratic common good. Finally, from the perspective on democracy as a system of political equality, contrarian epistemologies can be pro-democratic when they target the elite and anti-democratic when they are turned against the weak and marginalised.
At the current conjuncture, we know that our democracy is in crisis but we cannot really gauge the direction in which it is moving or grasp how far it has already gone. Under such circumstances, maybe we can turn to contrarian epistemologies – their content, prevalence and function – as a litmus test.
We know that 21st-century authoritarianism and fascism do not come marching, clad in brown shirts. Instead, they may be creeping in on us through institutions of ideological indoctrination that disguise themselves as places of research and learning, through ‘petromasculinities’ that masquerade as objective economic realities, and through political actors that pretend to challenge the ‘elite’, all the while pitting the ‘people’ against other people. More research on contrarian epistemologies may be just what is needed to make sense of what is happening to contemporary democracies and to take stock of the extent to which they are still democracies at all.