“Can you help me, I just don’t know what to believe any more?”
Couples Counselling Calgary: When Toxic Conflict Comes for Dinner
What do you do when toxic conflict and conspiracy theories sit down at your Thanksgiving dinner table?
Over the last year or so, we’ve noticed a sharp change in the issues our Couples Counselling Calgary clients are bringing to us. In the past, most issues were about bog-standard communications problems or conflict resolution skill deficits mainly relating to sex and finances.
Times have changed…
In the last year, a substantial minority of those Calgary couples counselling sessions have been booked to address issues related to how drastically our social and informational landscape has changed here in North America. Those emotionally charged and often fever-pitched offline and online couples therapy sessions are increasingly focused on just a few questions that seem very similar to each other:
- My mother is sending daily rants about how the COVID-19 vaccine is going to render me infertile. How do I make her quit?
- My brother is refusing to wear a mask around my children. Do I have to let him see them?
- My dad thinks the government is trying to track everyone from space and bring in a one-world socialist government. How do I take any more of this?
- My husband/wife is so far down some rabbit hole of conspiracy theories we don’t have a relationship anymore. Do I need to leave my marriage?
As much as this sort of emotionally focused marriage counselling is about helping couples heal, it’s much more about one of the most divisive and growing problems our world is facing: Ideologically driven toxic conflict.
Couples Counselling Calgary: Understanding Toxic Conflict:
Almost a month ago, I was nearing the completion of our last article. This article, entitled: The Fight For Truth, is a 4500-word guide to researching truth for yourself in some of the most serious areas of your life. (If you have not yet read it, please do!) As my older daughter and I were discussing the content over the dinner table, she commented that this material not only needed to be “out there,” but that we really needed to find a way to directly get it into the hands of those who were the most in need of it: Those who were lost in and spreading conspiracy theories.
We began to hatch a mildly evil plan, putting together her marketing training and my skills with the GPT-3 algorithm. That plan changed nothing of the article’s content; instead, we changed the targeting of it. We selected a provocative though ambiguous image similar to those used by the COVID denialist/anti-vax community. We used the GPT-3 algorithm to generate key phrases and words this community uses, choosing two that were as neutral as possible (but still appeared to sell the same set of lies.) We then paired all three of them with FaceBook’s AI-based targeting system and $200 to pump this article directly into conspiracy theory-focused communities.
(Yes, the targeting system they lied to Congress about, claiming it couldn’t target conspiracy theorists.)
And, the fun/mayhem/heartbreak began, eventually involving an astonishing number of people.
We quickly observed a pattern:
- Google Analytics would record no views of the article from social media for some time.
- In the middle of that period, one of the conspiracy theory community’s “Gate Keepers,” having never read the article, would forward it into their isolated silo of a community.
- Google Analytics would then record a sudden burst of views of the article – all coming from social media.
- We would receive an angry email or two from a “True Believer” who was infuriated by reading an article that clearly violated everything they believed.
- We would then receive a slow trickle of heartbreaking emails from conspiracy theory community members.
The Gate Keepers and True Believer types are so hostile and irrational they are likely beyond any redemption – so much so that I blocked more comments in two weeks than I have in my entire life. But, they remain a tiny minority.
However, the remaining emails told a completely different story: A story of fractured lives and shattered relationships. People who had lost jobs and families due to these theories. People who were so broken and financially destitute that their friends and families were volunteering (almost begging) to pay for their therapy in hopes of rescuing them from their belief systems. At one point, I received a faxed credit card authorization from a complete stranger to pay the session fees of another complete stranger almost a full two days before the person it was intended for contacted me about setting up sessions.
We learned it was possible to have an impact and to offer meaningful change!
Yes, they believed the same ideas, but that’s where it stopped. None of them were the fake-Viking-helmet and face paint adorned extremists storming the capital building as so many assume.
They were shell-shocked voices that sounded nearly identical to the cult members I’d spoken with in my college years. And, they wanted truth and to learn how to find it – in some cases more than those who claimed allegiance to science.
Couples Therapy for Toxic Conflict: Helping couples heal their own hearts first:
Individuals and couples seeking to address toxic family conflict and conspiracy theory-related belief systems often find significant discomfort in learning how they arrive at their own truths. After posting the previous article, one of the most interesting discoveries was that those most opposed to research and learning were not conspiracy theorists. Somewhat ironically, the members of those conspiracy-oriented communities were deeply committed to learning. They just had learned all sorts of incredibly incorrect “facts.”
Among the strongest voices against this learning was a collection of largely left-leaning health care professionals and a United Church Minister. These were highly articulate and well-educated people, but they were people who firmly believed that the proper course was just to believe what their side of the argument was telling them.
None of them seemed able to grasp that their insistence on “just believing” was precisely why the members of those communities had such contempt for them!
Reddit has a subreddit succinctly titled AITA. It stands for “Am I The Ass-Hole?” Obviously, it’s mostly a place to get absurdly self-justifying perspectives validated by others where even a cursory reading of many situations described should result in the conclusion that “Yes, you most certainly are…”
But, it’s still an essential question to ask.
In simple terms, unless you have developed the ability to think through the question at hand logically, all you will be doing is arguing differing belief systems. Unless you understand toxic conflict enough to assess if you are actually the toxic one, you likely are toxic. Unless you have honestly followed academic best practice procedures and really done your own research, you’re probably just beating your own tribe’s drum.
Honest self-reflection and integrity are critical. Left-leaning crusades against GMOs and for strange identity politics are no more science-founded than COVID denialism or anti-vax crusades. Left-leaning pronouncements about Gaia Spirit/Force or the sacred spirits of old-growth forests are just as religion-based as Young Earth Creationism. Credibility always starts with a long, searching and fearless look in the mirror.
Credibility then begins to grow when you ask yourself, “Am I really listening?” Building trust with anyone requires calmness, empathy and respect. It takes time and patience for anyone to feel you understand them so they will be willing to try and understand you.
Realistically, less than 5% of the people who were positively impacted by the previous article will likely ever undertake the task of even learning how to do actual academic research. Strangely, that wasn’t what mattered to most of the readers.
What mattered was that, in the sea of voices demanding they “just believe” and mocking the idea of anyone doing their own research, someone respected their desire to do so.
Christian Marriage Counselling Calgary: The identity based roots of Toxic Family Conflict
Quite a while ago, I had a conversation with a rather forceful and aggressive denier of most scientific facts. We were discussing not only the views this individual held but also the incredible fallout of such. Our conversation included the employment costs suffered and the growing distance exhibited by siblings, cousins and other family members who had blocked all contact via email, text or social media. It touched on the increasingly disorganized thinking and focused on the marital distress that eventually motivated the online couples therapy we were undertaking. Close to the session’s conclusion, I asked this client if there was anything I could say or any evidence I could present that would result in a change in those COVID-19 related science-denialist beliefs.
The question was met with silence.
At that moment, I realized something: As much as the denialist communities claim to be all about the facts, research and evidence, it simply isn’t about the facts. It’s about identity.
It takes only half an hour or so of listening to uncover how much of this thinking is driven by deep distrust and alienation from the surrounding culture. It’s energized by powerful resentments at being told what to do by anyone. Those resentments have been displaced onto what they see as elitist professionals and condescending experts who relentlessly and systematically lie to them. Most importantly, though, these conspiracy theories function as an identity to them – a means of finding acceptance in some small community and, in many cases, shoring up a shaky and fragile sense of self.
I have asked that question so many times over the last two years, and it’s almost always met with the same silence. This is why bombarding people in these communities with facts is pointless and why empathic listening is so critical: It never was about the facts. These beliefs represent who they are, and you will never make headway with them until you understand the isolation and heartbreak underlying why they believe what they do.
Helping Couples Heal From Toxic Beliefs: It’s all about the community.
In my role as a marriage counsellor, I am uniquely offered a vantage point that so many authors in the area of science denialism will never have. It’s the ability not just to see the publically promoted ideas and aggressive attitudes we see exploding across social media and the political stage today, but to also see the relational fault-lines in these people’s lives.
In a word, what I see is loneliness.
Unsurprisingly, during Christian marriage counselling sessions, I see some of the most vivid expressions of this – especially from those in the more fundamentalist faith communities. Fundamentalism already promotes an us-vs-them style of thinking that focuses less on loving God or serving other people and more on why I am holier-than-thou. They often promote flawed ideas like Young Earth Creationism, focus on invented culture wars, denigrate higher education and generally create a culture of alienation from general society such that the only community available is with other church members. However, the levels of judgment, shame, fear and guilt-based control WITHIN the community often leave members afraid to show who they truly are even to their partners, to say nothing of the larger faith community.
What a marriage counsellor will typically see as they begin work with these couples is one partner having become increasingly silent, conflict-avoidant and detached from the relationship. Usually, that partner generally has little allegiance to the conspiracy theories and is, instead, deeply invested in keeping the peace through silence. That silence, however, constitutes one more rejection. It leaves the denialist with no other option but to find another community in which to belong and feel good about themselves.
A community based on lies is still a community, and it sometimes feels so much better than no community at all.
Again, this is why real relationship, unconditional positive regard for the person and treating them in a profoundly respectful manner is essential to bringing change: It breaks the us-vs-them narrative while simultaneously offering healthy relational connections.
And, yes, change is possible!
Couples Counseling Calgary: An understanding-based and emotionally focused approach to toxic conflict and belief systems.
Firstly, yes, there are a tiny few people out there within the science-denialist community that very clearly know what they are doing. They consciously and deliberately create false information while peddling cures or media purchases that usually make them absurd amounts of money or offer them immense political power.
Sadly, none of this article will impact them; likely, nothing other than incarceration or heavy fines will.
But the success of these snake oil salesmen reveals an important truth: Our mechanisms for finding and arriving at truth have broken down along with our trust in the systems designed to protect and defend us.
Make no mistake about it. People within these communities are angry, and justifiably so. Most of their worlds have been turned upside down and many have been hurt by the cursory fixes we have applied. The idea that we can somehow fix disempowerment by stripping power from an already disempowered group to give it to a slightly more disempowered group is insanity. And, it’s incredibly common, because we’re so unwilling to even acknowledge the underlying issues. As truth systems break down, people get hurt, and distrust and trauma feed conspiracy theories, making people vulnerable to the lies spread by such.
And that vulnerability is a critical lens through which we must view this entire problem.
Those in the various conspiracy theory communities are victims of a lie and are trapped in such. These theories are not mistakes or alternate viewpoints; they are intentionally propagated lies they have been deliberately conditioned to believe to benefit some person or organization’s agenda. If you hope to impact this system, it is critical to understand the logical fallacies that create these beliefs.
In 2007, Chris Hoofnagle published a brilliant paper discussing what he termed “The Denialist’s Deck of Cards.” In it, he detailed the five key tactics routinely used by science denialists. His brief but powerful paper demonstrates how all forms of denialism are virtually identical in how they create confusion, deny the problem, shift blame, invalidate any solutions and eternally delay taking any steps of change.
- An almost religious belief in conspiracy theory.
- If nearly all scientists say the same thing, it must be because they are all an old boy’s club, have conspired together and are out to con us all.
- Ben Franklin’s statement that “Three can keep a secret if two are dead” is so relevant here.
- A high degree of evidentiary selectivity (cherry-picking facts.)
- Quote mining, citing a few discredited ideas and treating redacted papers as valid can put together a fantastic website…
- Exclusive reliance upon fake experts while disparaging real experts.
- The formula is simple: Find someone with an empty set of credentials (any doctorate will do, even a naturopath) who at some point has published in whatever random field and then elevate them above genuinely knowledgeable people.
- Use this artificial status to promote ideas that are inconsistent with general literature, are rejected by those who lead research within the field and are incompatible with well-established epistemological standards for scientific study.
- Setting impossible expectations (and moving the goalposts) for scientific proof.
- Rule #1: There will never be enough research.
- Rule #2: If the evidence is utterly overwhelming, refer to Rule #1.
- A blind acceptance of misrepresentations and general fallacies of logic.
- There are far too many to list, but Wikipedia has a list that increasingly appears to have been used as a how-to-guide by so many denialist communities.
How can Calgary Couples confront Conspiracy Theories and Toxic Beliefs?
Throughout the various COVID lockdowns, online couples therapy has dominated most of the marriage counselling Calgary has to offer. While initially seen as a barrier, online couples therapy has opened an entire world of clientele who would otherwise have limited access to the couples counseling Calgary residents take for granted due to location or geography.
But with that has come a paradigm shift:
Even just ten years ago, couples would come to couples counselling or marriage counselling sessions and talk about the odd ideas and destructive things their crazy uncle had to say over thanksgiving dinner. And as they spoke, I would sit there and think, “Oh, come on – no one actually believes that.” But social media has given them a megaphone to spread their views, and online couples therapy has suddenly made people with these views a normal part of the couples therapy Calgary marriage counsellors offer.
It’s been a rapid learning curve for most urban Calgary psychologists to suddenly confront Alberta’s rural culture. Instead of the everyday communication and conflict-related issues of couples therapy Calgary psychologists are so used to dealing with, we’re facing a culture where it somehow seems perfectly normal to post a poorly photoshopped image of a tornado bearing down upon an Alberta hospital that features a prayer for the death of the wicked who promote wearing surgical masks and getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Our experience there closely mirrors what we again discovered after publishing: Certain approaches simply do not work.
The majority of the Christian marriage counselling Calgary offers is delivered by psychologists or at least people with the training to become such. We are trained in a science. Facts and data are both the most comfortable and the lens through which we see the world.
So, off we went to fix the problem and save the world…
These online couples therapy sessions would start, and we would begin to point by point present the facts. We would address each of the counterarguments in detail. Each inaccuracy would be carefully replaced and appropriately substantiated – just like we learned in graduate school.
It failed – miserably.
What we discovered is that while denialists may not be well informed, they are definitely cunning. We found that they all came well equipped with a set of talking points to defend the falsehoods they believed. It took only a few sessions to realize that a core part of successfully creating a community of conspiracy theorists was rooted in first scripting out how to deny the truth. It started to seem like they collectively decided Chris Hoofnagle’s (above) card deck was supposed to be a guidebook, and we learned that it’s impossible to reason away beliefs that were never acquired reasonably.
So, we switched tactics.
In retrospect, content rebuttal was too much work anyway. It takes time even to research the facts for yourself. It takes far too many hours more to discredit the fiction. The entire industry of people profiting off of disinformation will always generate lies faster than even a small army can discredit them.
But they all have one weakness in common: Flawed reasoning.
Technique rebuttal doesn’t bother with confronting the individual lies. It starts from Hoofnagle’s five elements of flawed reasoning. It focuses upon exposing errors in thinking and then teaching why those errors lead to incorrect conclusions.
Just focusing on COVID-19 for a moment, here’s a few examples:
When someone launches into a rant about how the COVID vaccine is making everyone sicker than the virus ever could, it’s far too much work to discredit all of their cherry-picked statistics. It’s simple, however, to ask, “So what percentage of people in your town have been vaccinated? If that’s so, there should be scores of people around you suffering severe side effects. How many people do you personally know who the vaccine made ill?”
When someone begins to talk about why everyone is ignoring all of the horrible things showing up in the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS), they are trying to suck you down a rabbit hole of paranoid debate about conspiratorial media bias. Engaging that is foolish at best. It’s far easier to simply ask, “With anyone able to put in a report by filling out a simple online form, how can you or I ever discern which reports are actually real? Shouldn’t we let immunologists who have spent their lives studying this sort out what’s actually a result of the vaccine instead of trusting yourself, a random facebook influencer, a naturopath or a chiropractor’s view on it?”
When someone claims they won’t be vaccinated because they are too young, strong and healthy to be threatened by COVID-19 and are concerned that the vaccine will cause a lethal allergic reaction, giving a science lesson is guaranteed to accomplish nothing. But, pointing out that it is internally contradictory to claim you are stronger than COVID-19 but weaker than a vaccination made out of a dead version or fragment of the same virus? That just might expose a general fallacy of logic.
Simply put, you don’t have to be an expert to start making an impact; you just need to learn how to think.
One of the sad realities of building your life upon lies is found in how rapidly it degrades your ability to think. And, it’s once we switched to a technique rebuttal that we started to discover that people can break free of denialism and conspiracy theories!
Why? Because when we listened to how they had been hurt, they started to find a safe community. When we addressed the logical fallacies they were being fed, we were inadvertently teaching them how to think. And people who feel cared for, learn to think and put effort into actual research quickly started getting vaccinated instead of searching for a human version of horse dewormer.
Marriage Counselling Calgary: Setting people free, one couple at a time
In her brilliant work, Republic of Lies, the Jewish author Anna Merlan describes how conspiracy theories feed on trauma and distrust and how political failures, injustice and inequality in society provide the fertile ground in which they grow. Hurting people naturally search for explanations for what they are experiencing, even if they lack the education and knowledge to define what is hurting them in the first place. Like the suffering German people who looked for answers and eventually got conned into blaming the Jews, we have a fresh crop of deceived and hurting people today. They exhibit the same disturbing rush to vengeance, the same willingness to punish evildoers and the same desire to vanquish their enemies that the same kinds of political opportunists are so flagrantly exploiting.
Unless hurting and deceived people are approached with compassion, deep understanding and a willingness to take their pain and bewilderment seriously in a world that seems stacked against them, you will only continue to feed the sense of alienation and displacement they already feel.
We saw this so clearly after publishing the previous article: It’s rarely highly educated, affluent leaders with power and influence in a society that buy into conspiracy theories; it’s people who hurt. Acting like people who believe these conspiracy theories are somehow the trolls, Orcs and monsters menacing our community misses how much their distrust is rooted in trauma, how legitimate their grievances are and how little erasing some disinformation from Facebook or Twitter will do to fix that.
And viewing them as one of Tolkien’s Orcs both cancels your ability to connect with them and forces them to make their own shockingly toxic community.
So, if you fear that this year’s Thanksgiving dinner will once again be overrun by toxic conflict and irrational conspiracy theories, perhaps it’s time to consider booking some of the most effective couples therapy Calgary has to offer? Through online couples therapy, in-person couples counselling and Christian marriage counselling, our Couples Counselling Calgary services have been helping couples heal and develop much more effective strategies for well over twenty years.
Reach out today!
Image Credit: Banner Photo by Erasio Ferreira on Scopio