This essay was originally published at certaintyofuncertainty.com
The violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 is the consequence of many things, but at its heart is the need for absolute certainty.
On January 6, a crowd of rioters stormed the United States Capitol, intent on disrupting the ceremonial tally of Electoral College votes by a Joint Session of Congress. They were fueled in large measure by a misguided belief in claims of widespread electoral fraud—claims that have been repeatedly debunked—as well as by White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and a healthy dose of conspiracy theories, in particular the QAnon conspiracy theory. How is it that so many people can commit themselves to a cause whose foundations are easily falsified and whose basic ideology has long been discredited?
It turns out that more than truth, more than accuracy, we crave certainty—even if we’re wrong about the things we’re certain of.
Why We Crave Certainty
But why should this be? Why should we seek certainties over facts and truth?
In The Certainty of Uncertainty, I explore why it is that people crave certainty. There are a number of reasons—it’s easier on the brain, we’re inclined to imagine we know more than we do, and so on—but there is one reason that looms largest: the need to make sense of a life that can feel meaningless.
One of the things that differentiates us from the animals is that we are aware of our own mortality. We know that we will cease to exist some day. We know that we live and will die, but we don’t know what it all means. This leads to a great amount of existential dread and a fair amount of anxiety, especially since we do not know when or how we will die.
Some psychologists argue that this fear of death and our existential anxiety drive everything we do. This theory is known as terror management theory1 Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. “Terror Management Theory of Self-Esteem and Cultural Worldviews: Empirical Assessments and Conceptual Refinements,” 1997, and it argues that much of what we do is driven by the desire to mitigate the terror we feel of our eventual deaths.
Coping with the Terror
This terror can only be mitigated in two ways. First, we mitigate the terror with self-esteem—the belief that each of us is an object of primary value in a meaningful universe. This is not so much the simple affirmation that human life has a basic dignity and is worthy of respect; it is the belief that we are the protagonists of the story. We are meaningful figures in the drama of history.
Second, we mitigate our terror by placing a great deal of faith in a cultural worldview. Doing so gives us a sense of calm amidst the dread. Having an understanding of the world helps us to feel safe and secure in the face of our looming mortality. We lack certainty about the world, about ourselves, about when and how we will die, but, by God, we know what it all means! We understand the context.
This is why sweeping ideologies, religions, and conspiracy theories are attractive: each of them purports to provide a context for why things are happening. Each of them purports to explain the world we find ourselves in. From religion’s (frequently problematic) assurance that God has a plan, to certain political ideologies’ confidence in the direction of history, to the vast conspiracy that explains a tragedy—each provides a comforting explanation and context to a chaotic world. And in that context, we find comfort. Our worldviews keep us feeling safe.
Defending the Worldview
Which is why those worldviews need to be defended at all costs.
When there is a challenge to our understanding of the world, when we encounter facts or events that undermine our confidence in the overarching narrative we have given ourselves—a narrative that helps us stave off existential dread—we defend the worldview. It turns out that the more we are confronted with the uncertainties of our lives and the more we contemplate death, the more invested we become in defending those worldviews.
It seems that one of our preferred methods of defending our worldviews and fending off this core terror is the attempt to establish as many certainties as possible, to know that there is something we can be certain of. In an effort to deny our mortality and the recognition that we are not ultimately in control of our own destinies, we try to control our world and one another and we seek to cling to as many certain truths as we can along the way. And when reality conflicts with our certainty, it’s reality that has to yield.
QANON and the Conspiracy
We see this clearly in the response to the QAnon conspiracy theory. This conspiracy theory maintains that Donald Trump is leading an effort to destroy an international network of pedophilia rings, Satanic worship, and secret judicial proceedings. Information pertinent to this conspiracy is dropped on the internet by an anonymous figure identified only as “Q” who claims to be a high-level government operative with insider knowledge. QAnon believers expect a “Great Awakening” when the general public becomes aware of this network, which will be followed by the “Storm,” when thousands of wrongdoers face justice.
The QAnon conspiracy places a great deal of faith in “the Plan,” a never-defined, always hoped-for plan of action that Trump is in the process of effecting to accomplish his purposes and vindicate his supporters.
QAnon conspiracy theorists see Trump’s electoral defeat not as fact, but as part of the “deep state” conspiracy they believe Trump is fighting against. They support the lie that the election is illegitimate and many adherents played a role in the organization and execution of the Capitol insurrection to overturn the election, in some cases, being among the most visible of those taking action that day.
Defending the Conspiracy
A curious thing happens whenever this conspiracy is challenged by reality: its believers defend the conspiracy and deny the facts. This is true of any conspiracy theory, including QAnon’s precursor theory: Pizzagate. In 2016, a gunman went to Comet Ping Pong in DC, a pizza shop where it was alleged that a child-trafficking ring involving Democratic leadership was taking place in the basement. The gunman was bewildered to discover Comet pizza has no basement. But this fact, his arrest, and his subsequent recantation did nothing to stop the pizzagate conspiracy.
Nor do facts seem to stop QAnon. When Trump lost the election, they continued in their belief in Trump as victor and in The Plan. When Trump’s lawsuits all failed, QAnon persisted. When the states certified the election results, they maintained faith. When the Electoral College voted, they kept faith. And then, when it was becoming clear that Congress was about to tally the results the election and announce Joe Biden as the next president, they took to violent action to defend what they knew had to be true.
Even when that insurrection failed and the country recoiled in horror for what had been wrought, still some conspiracists held on, acknowledging the consequences of their beliefs but unable to let go:
- “My daughter was supposed to fly home today and said she was canceling her flight bc of me and this ‘Q shit’.” — Tracy
- “My wife and her family believe I’m in a cult so we are separated right now not sure if we will get back together or not she’s gone crazy. She always brings it up. Gave me an ultimatum her or Q!” — Neo
- “The pain is so deep. My daughter gave me ultimatum Trump and Q or me […] she left, disowned me don’t know if she’s dead or alive.” —Catharenne
- “My wife gave me an ultimatum this morning. Stop with this Q shit or leave. 4 years has taken its toll. More and more people who have given everything have nothing left to give. It needs to happen, and soon.” — John Connor
- “…my heart is broken by the fight. I’ve lost the excitement about being right and just want my life back… my kids back… and my friends. Been home since March staring at my phone.” — eyesopen
- “I certainly hope this all starts coming out soon because anyone I know thinks I’m crazy…… I’ve had to completely cut myself off from people.” — Liz O
- “I’ve lost relationships that meant so much to me because of this election. Ive cried myself to sleep […] It’s hard to be alone. My kids don’t talk to me n hate me.” — Donna M Holmes
- “Please send some sign? Or just a crumb to keep us going? People are falling apart here. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I need to constantly convince myself I’m not going crazy […] but this is so wild, that even my brain battles.” — Dutch
- “My daughters have stopped talking to me for two years now. They think I have fallen into a conspiracy cult. It makes me very sad, but I won’t stop now.” —Cynthia Ann Schneider
The commitment to the QAnon worldview is total. Not the loss of family, not the loss of friends, not even the obvious reality that there is no “plan” dissuades the true believer. Rather than admit the obvious, the true believer doubles down. Rather than acknowledge that you might have been wrong, that Trump might not have been the savior after all, you show up to DC prepared to do mayhem, prepared to instill your version of reality.
In this matter, as in so many, being certain is more important than being accurate.
Rejecting Absolute Certainty
The desire for certainty is borne out of a feeling of powerlessness. We live in a time of increasing alienation and an increasing sense of disenfranchisement. As a result of technology and an ever more interconnected world, the world that people knew growing up is rapidly disappearing: the homogenous, ethnically privileged, culturally distinct society that many people knew is yielding to a diverse, multiethnic, multicultural society that no longer operates on the same assumptions as its predecessor. In addition, a predominantly rural way of life is yielding to a predominantly urban one. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these changes but they can be unnerving to many. And many who find global changes terrifying feel powerless and out of control in their ability to stop them or at least to slow them to a comfortable pace. Being in command of the truth is at least being in command of something.
But there are consequences to this fealty to absolute certainty. And much to be gained from letting go and embracing uncertainty and doubt.
It is rare that people who are unsure or who brook a fair amount of doubt are the first ones off on the crusade. Skeptics rarely lead the Inquisition or attempt to set up the caliphate. Mystics rarely are the ones calling for the purging of the heretics and the excommunication of those who express unorthodox views. Those who embrace unknowing are unlikely to storm the Capitol in a violent insurrection and insist that the candidate who lost the election actually won. No, those are the acts of the certain. These are the acts of those who long to know for sure.
We all crave certainty. We all desire to know for sure. Certainty about our environment and our surroundings is a survival mechanism. Certainty about our worldviews helps us to feel calm in a world that, like it or not, is inherently uncertain.
The solution to the madness wrought by those wielding absolute certainty is not to respond with competing certainties, but to embrace uncertainty and doubt.
By this I do not mean that we should embrace nihilism or extreme skepticism, or doubt things that are objectively true (the sky is blue, 2+2=4, 306 votes is more than 232), but that we temper those things about which we profess belief and faith with a healthy dose of doubt. There is a world of difference between storming the barricades convicted of one’s absolute correctness and taking a principled stand in conviction, acknowledging the very real possibility that one might be wrong. The former is an act of zealotry and obsession, the latter an act of faith.
But to do this, we need to create spaces where uncertainty and doubt are affirmed and welcomed. Houses of worship where admitting that you’re unsure about a tenet of faith is welcomed rather than demonized and rejected as faithless. Political climates where acknowledging that your political opponent might have a good idea every now and then is not tantamount to treason. Social spaces where admitting unknowing is understood not as a weakness, but as a strength.
Until we can create spaces where uncertainty and doubt are welcome, we will continue to drive people deeper into the refuges of absolute certainty and will reap the violent harvest of their convictions.