EVER since the residents of the ancient city of Troy made the belated discovery that their lovely wooden horse statue contained a surprise inside, people have perpetrated hoaxes and have also been paranoid about becoming the victim of a prank.
April 1, or April Fool’s Day, is coming up and while it is typically just a day for kids to tell parents their shoelaces are open, there are plenty of people out there who believe there are sinister, super- intelligent powers controlling things from behind the scenes.
Feeling a bit under the weather? Could it be the fluoride in your water? Maybe it’s those vaccines you got? Perhaps you’ve unwittingly eaten too much horse-meat?
Were you in school with someone who had rocks in their head but now they’re a chauffeur-driven boss of a major company and you’re taking the bus to your job in a cubicle? Maybe they’re a front for dodgy business or maybe they stumbled onto some secret and are being paid off.
So are you paranoid or are you really being fooled all the time?
US satirical writer William S Burroughs once said: “Sometimes paranoia’s just having all the facts.”
And there have been plenty cases where it has eventually emerged that sinister groups, government agents or companies have covered up for lethal incompetence or actual malevolence.
The Tuskegee Syphilis Study was an infamous clinical study carried out in the US between 1932 and 1972 by the American public health service. Scientists studied the natural progression of untreated syphilis in impoverished rural black men who thought they were receiving free health care from the US government. The men in the study were not deliberately infected with the disease but were never told they had syphilis and were never treated for it. Many died from the treatable disease. This appalling case led many people to rightly or wrongly believe that governments and drug corporations worldwide routinely use and abuse people for research and profit.
As those poor Trojans realised too late, the motivation of the person bearing a ‘gift’ isn’t always pure.
This is worth remembering when being offered ‘free gifts’. Gifts, by definition, are free, so there’s your first clue. If you’re not paying then there’s a good chance that you’re being bought and sold. Anyone from a farming family on a remote Irish peninsula who knows their grandparents never went much further than the local mart should realise there’s a strong likelihood they are not the lost niece of an African prince who has died, leaving an inheritance of billions — if only you can send a few euro to help speed up the inheritance process.
But isn’t there a world of difference between some email scammer and the government’s health department offering jabs to prevent a dangerous illness? Not always, according to some people. Vaccines and other medications have been credited with saving or improving millions of lives but they have also been blamed for causing anything from autism to paralysis to narcolepsy or even death. In situations like this, some people conclude that because one drug had a dire outcome, such as thalidomide, then all others must also be bad. Autism has never been proven to have a genetic or environmental cause. It may be a mix of both or it may be something as yet unconsidered. More people then ever are diagnosed with autism. More people then ever are being vaccinated. These are two facts. We so far lack, and may never find, a definite link between these two facts. There may simply be more people with autism because we are better at diagnosing it.
For many people it all comes down to a level of acceptable risk. We are told that only one in 20 million will suffer while the other nineteen million nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand and nine hundred and ninety-nine will benefit and we consider the chances of being that one and proceed or opt out.
Whether people are genuinely the victims of hoaxes or plots or whether they just feel left out of a wider picture, they often find a form of security in numbers and band together in societies, support groups or online chat-rooms.
It’s online that some of these more elaborate conspiracy theorists really come into their own. You could lose yourself in the reams of “documented evidence” that the moon landing was faked or that President Kennedy was targeted by a high-level team of assassins.
More recently there are thousands of pages devoted to ‘proving’ that the massacre of children and teachers at Sandy Hook in the US was faked. Claims range from alleged evidence that charities for the victims were set up before the actual massacre, to theories that the killings were foretold in the most recent Batman movie. It’s notions such as these that make it more difficult for people to get credence for genuine claims.
For every crusader such as Erin Brockovich there are dozens of tinfoil-hat-wearing loons who think the government has planted tracking-devices in our teeth.
The Children’s Referendum held last year was one example of how difficult it can be to sift through conflicting claims. The majority of us agree that children should have nice lives with nourishing food, education and stability at home. But it was sometimes hard to figure out which side best supported that. One commentator claimed that the ‘wrong’ vote would see children snatched from parents by the State if the family exceeded some quota of trips to A&E, regardless of whether those trips involved an awkward fall at sports camp, a high temperature another day and a kid running with a lolly in their mouth a year later.
People do seem to have a growing fascination with conspiracies. Just look at the success of books and movies such as The Da Vinci Code or TV series such as Lost or X-Files.
Alien landings at Roswell; horse-meat in our beef; Aids as a tool to control certain sectors of society — how are we supposed to even find out about all the theories, never mind examine them and come to a considered conclusion? Psychologists have noted that as people struggle with life in large cities, commuting to and from a place where they don’t know their neighbours and are isolated from families, they can often develop a belief that someone — somewhere — is in charge.
The alternative is to realise that we are all vulnerable to forces beyond our control — that even princesses and presidents aren’t always protected from ‘regular’ tragedies such as road accidents or random acts of violence.
So, next Monday when you’re reading about spaghetti trees, a left-handed burger, or dashing about trying to purchase a glass hammer, don’t be too paranoid about being an April Fool.
The last word on paranoia goes to comedian Emo Philips: “I was walking home one night and a guy hammering on a roof called me a paranoid little weirdo. In morse code.”