NEW YORK — I am of the view that incompetence, random error and sheer complexity explain most of the mistakes and strange events in our world, and that we shouldn't readily jump to conspiracy theories. I'm pretty sure Neil Armstrong did walk on the moon, and still inclined to think (although not certain) that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, there is no Bigfoot and aliens have not recently visited humans on Earth.
This exercise is not merely to pile up arguments for what you believe, but also to consider how and where you might be wrong. I recently raised this question with a few friends: Which is the most underrated conspiracy theory? Even if you think conspiracy hypotheses are all likely to be false, which one is most plausible -- at least relative to the probabilities assigned by the intellectual and media mainstream.
To approach such an investigation, you might ask how much you believe improbable testimonies from witnesses who give every indication of being normal people. If you find sane witnesses persuasive, you might think there is some chance of UFO accounts being true (perhaps with a conspiracy-based coverup). There have been a variety of sober accounts of UFO visitations, most notably the story of Betty and Barney Hill.
Unfortunately for this nomination, psychological research on self-deception and the literature on the unreliability of witness testimony suggest that our minds can talk us into believing all sorts of things happened that actually didn't. So witnesses don't sway me much. I notice also that UFO claims have plummeted since the advent of mobile phones with cameras ("Oh, did you get a photo of them?"). And so I must look elsewhere for the most plausible conspiracy theory. The Bigfoot and Yeti tales take a tumble for similar reasons, and I don't think anyone actually saw Elvis or Jim Morrison walking around in the 1990s.
Another way to search for true conspiracies is to scour history for deathbed confessions. Did any Cuban or Soviet agents, shortly before dying, blurt out that they knew the true story of President John Kennedy's assassination? As far as I know, these admissions are hard to come by. That's another reason for not believing in most conspiracy theories.
After constant whispers of Paul's passing
We might instead look for a very improbable series of events and decide there might be a conspiracy behind them. When I read about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the accounts boggle my mind and I can't come up with a rational explanation of what happened. I am tempted to explore the notion of a conspiracy between the pilots and foreign powers, the likelihood of terrorists, or what cargo the plane was carrying, and so on. Still, improbable events only get me so far toward believing in an actual conspiracy. Precisely because the story of the flight is so complex, and the possible hypotheses so varied -- plus I know relatively little about most matters of aviation -- I don't budge very far from my basic agnosticism on the matter. A truly plausible conspiracy theory ought to be relatively straightforward.
That isn't much of a secret.
Another set of candidates are claims that a semi-secret group actually is controlling the world, such as the Trilateral Commission was once believed to do. Yet the most plausible versions of these views simply boil down to wealthy, well-connected people having a lot of influence. That just isn't much of a secret. There's no particular gain in plausibility from asserting that a specific cabalistic getaway, held on a particular weekend, is where the actual decisions are made.
So what then do I think is the most probable and most underrated conspiracy?
It's possible that the fixing of major sporting events might still be going on, and perhaps has been going on for a long time. If Volkswagen AG will doctor its emissions software, or Wells Fargo & Co. will create millions of phony accounts for profit, is it so implausible that a few major athletes -- or better yet referees -- throw games or at least influence the point spread, either for money or to neuter mob threats to their families?
We're learning all the time that insider trading and financial corruption are quite widespread. We've also learned how many athletes were willing to take steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, even when that is explicitly against the rules. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, arguably the greatest hitter and pitcher of their era in baseball, are at least reputed to have been steroid rules violators.
Is fixing sporting events such a complicated story? No. Does it have a clear motive? Yes. Would we expect many deathbed confessions from those athletes and gangsters who promulgated it? Probably not.
Now let me get back to listening to some Paul McCartney songs, because he is very much alive …
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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