Constructing and using delegitimizing labels: “conspiracy theories” and “stereotypes”

Are all claims that two (or more) people worked together to commit a crime conspiracy theories? What about this claim? “Multiple members of the Reagan administration violated the law to sell arms to Iran and used the proceeds to illegally give funds to the Contras in Nicaragua.”

–Is this a conspiracy theory or just a claim that people conspired?

Are all claims that two groups manifest differences, on average, on some trait, stereotypes? What about this claim? “Men are, on average, physically stronger than women.”

–Is this a stereotype? Or, just a claim about group differences?

More generally, when is a people-conspired claim or a groups-differ claim just a claim? When do such claims constitute something specific, and, specifically…bad? Meriting special bad- or irrational-claim treatment? Or, to put it differently, when should we avoid engaging with the substance of a claim – and reflexively categorize them as irrational and beyond the pale? Do we really need special social practices regarding putatively dodgy people-conspired and groups-differ claims, so that this subset of claims, when they are voiced, can reliably be walled-off from interrogation and contestation?

The most casual review of public discourse confirms that we have routinized practices (associated with the labels “conspiracy theory” and “stereotype”) that reliably do precisely this walling-off work. Why? Where did these practices come from? How do they function? Are these collective short-cuts for responding to these claims making our public discourse more sound? Or, are they doing something destructive?

If you want these questions answered, I recommend reading this excellent 2007 paper [“Dangerous Machinery: “Conspiracy Theorist” as a Transpersonal Strategy of Exclusion.” Symbolic Interaction 30(2)] in which Boise State sociologists Ginna Husting and Martin Orr isolate and track how labels can function as discursive control tools. They examine how the conspiracy theory/ conspiracy theorist labels function, though much of their analysis applies well to other labels including, for example, stereotype.

Their analysis illuminates the process whereby labels are imbued with interactional or (what they call) micropolitical power. That is, they examine the process whereby the phrase conspiracy theory/theorist is ‘loaded’ with meaning such that, when linked to a claim, it will reliably nudge audiences toward perceiving the claim as inaccurate and the claimant as irrational. Their elaboration shows how discourse managers can construct labels that can be linked to a speaker or their speech to diminish their legitimacy. I’m persuaded that the label stereotype functions similarly. That is, when linked to a claim, it nudges audiences toward perceiving the claim as inaccurate, and the claimant as irrational if not bigoted. It is likely the ‘loading’ of the label stereotype was accomplished through very similar means to conspiracy theory.

While they don’t emphasize how labeling is implemented, their analysis nevertheless sheds light on how rhetorical devices such as labels can be developed and disseminated such that they can be utilized by a decentralized network of operatives to control discourse in a desired direction. Given that most contemporary censoring involves implementation by such operatives these insights are most welcome.

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