Deep Disagreement and the QAnon Conspiracy Theory

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Deep disagreements are disagreements where two sides agree on so little that there are no shared resources for reasoned resolution. In some cases, argument itself is impossible. The fewer shared facts or means for identifying them, the deeper the disagreement.

Some hold that many disagreements are deep in this way. They contend that reasoned argument has very little role to play in discussions of the things that divide us. Call these the deep disagreement pessimists – they claim that many of the disputes we face cannot be addressed by shared reasoning.

There are also deep disagreement optimists. Their view is that deep disagreements are intractable only for contingent reasons – perhaps we have not yet surveyed all the available evidence, or we are waiting on new evidence, or there is some background shared methodological principle yet to be uncovered. With deep disagreement, the optimist holds, it is hasty to give up on rational exchange, because something useful is likely available, and the costs of passing such rational resolution up are too high. Better to keep the critical conversation going.

Disputes among pessimists and optimists regularly turn on the practical question: Are there actual deep disagreements? The debates over abortion and affirmative action were initially taken to be exemplary of disagreements that are, indeed, deep. Later, secularist and theists outlooks on the norms of life were taken to instantiate a divide of the requisite depth. More recently, conspiracy theories have been posed as points of view at deep odds with mainstream thought.

This brings us to QAnon.

Here’s QAnon’s core doctrine in a nutshell: (a) there is a cabal of Satanic and child-sex-trafficking Hollywood and Washington elites who drink ‘adrenochrome’ from tortured victims to prolong their lives; (b) Donald Trump, along with select other patriots, is waging a secret war against this group; and (c) an insider with ‘Q-level’ clearance in either intelligence or military command is leaking information out to readers on internet message boards. So Q-believers think they have insider information about a monumental war of good versus evil that’s being fought right in front of everyone’s eyes, but is nevertheless largely unseen.

Conspiracy theories typically are based in accounts of secret dealings that not only run contrary to widely accepted views but are also evidentially sealed off from them. Because conspiracy theories are built around a contrast between what is widely believed and what is known only by those with special access to the truth, they can thrive only among a community of conspiracy believers. Accordingly, what outsiders present as evidence against the conspiracy theory gets explained away by those on the inside. Purported evidence against the conspiracy theory is often transformed into further evidence that those on the outside are deluded, duped, and gullible. In the end, conspiracy theories thrive partly because in adopting them, one adopts the view that all possible evidence confirms the theory. We can say, then, that it is part of the nature of conspiracy theories to be epistemically sealed in this way.

So it is with QAnon. Observe some popular pairings of counter-evidence and correlate sealing strategies:

Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah Winfrey have been arrested for child pornography, but they are still allowed to tape their respective shows, so as not to alert the others in the cabal.

Wayfair trunks are means for ordering and delivering abducted children to their abusers, but only select users may order them.

Kamala Harris has a body double, but one cannot tell the difference on video.

Hillary Clinton was to be arrested for child sex trafficking in 2017, but she was allowed to continue her activities but under heavy surveillance.

These reports make no promise that there will be publicly available confirming evidence. Instead, the only evidence provided simply expands the scope of the conspiracy, thereby deepening the community’s reliance on the leaks supplied by the purported “insider.” Further, it is part of the conspiracy theory that Q-believers should expect to encounter what purports to be evidence against their view. The contention is that publicly available evidence that points against the Q-doctrine is all part of ‘the Plan,’ the promised culmination of the surveillance and the coming war.

That QAnon includes reference to ‘the Plan’ makes it distinctive. Other conspiracy theories are fixed on explaining events that have already occurred. For this reason, they tend not to involve grand forecasts about what’s to come. QAnon, however, makes a prediction: there will be a conventional war that culminates in the end of the Satanic political order, with Trump establishing the right kind of society. We might say, then, that QAnon is hybrid, part conspiracy theory, part eschatological cult.

For Q-believers, the inauguration of Joe Biden as President was supposed to be the moment of truth. The military, operatives all throughout the government, and Trump himself were predicted to stop the inauguration and execute the traitors who purportedly stole the election and illegitimately installed Biden in the role of President.

As Biden completed the oath of office at 11:47am, however, QAnon online commenters were stunned that the promised conflagration did not descend on the capitol. However, as the Q prediction was that the military would intervene at Noon, doubters were told to “trust the plan.” But then nothing out of the ordinary happened. Biden took over the office of the President, Kamala Harris walked Mike Pence to his waiting car to exit, and a near-frozen Tom Hanks hosted a night of mediocre music to celebrate the inaugural ball. It is rumored that former President G. W. Bush was overheard saying “Now that was some normal shit.”

End-of-days cults have a problem if they specify the day it all is supposed to end. When that day comes and goes with no more calamity than any other day, they stand with significant evidence against them. And this is recognized by not only those on the outside, but those on the inside. So stand Q-believers. Many have renounced the theory, while others have argued that a longer game is being played, so ‘the Plan’ is yet more complicated with another wrinkle not accessible to the uninitiated. But what all agree on is that the Presidency of Joe Biden is evidence against the account of political reality they accepted on the morning of January 20th.

The fact that Inauguration Day has come and gone without incident is evidence that what was taken to be a deep disagreement with no shared intellectual resources for rational disputation was, in fact, a disagreement waiting for crucial testing. That test has come. Though the QAnon conspiracy theorists may elect to incorporate yet another epicycle into their worldview, that they recognize the need to regroup and revise is a minor win for reason and argument. It also suggests that the disagreement among Q-believers and those who reject the view is not absolutely deep after all.