Is Jack Bauer To Blame For Conspiracy Theory?

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Film & TV, Film/TV-General

The meteoric rise of thriller novels has been fueled by real-world events ever since the cold war, but the growth of the thriller genre in writing pales in comparison to its ever increasing popularity in television and film. As Netflix finished 2013 with a soaring subscriber base (2,33 million new subscribers in Q4), it’s clear that accessibility to film and television is larger than ever before. Political thrillers and drama like any other genre, have benefited from this growing trend.

With greater accessibility comes desensitization. Dirty Harry style 70s thrillers are not so dirty, in fact they’re merely grubby. Public demand is ever more bloodthirsty. More blood, more intrigue, more twist. Because where there used to be two distinct genres ‘many films easily blur the boundaries between horror and thriller. In reality both genres [now serve] largely the same crowds’ [Is thriller the new horror?] And the current trend is to make your twist in the form of vampires… or politicians.

And then there’s the whistleblowing phenomenon. In today’s neoliberal culture it’s about audacious individuals that perform the act of reporting wrongdoing for the greater good [Whistleblowing & Neoliberalism]. It’s the story of the underdog against the corporation or organisation. It’s the story of us, against that scary world out there (and if there’s one thing we like watching, it’s anything about us…especially when we win).

These three trends have contributed to the rise of TV series like 24 and their big Bourne brothers which provide easy to digest narratives of events and catastrophes about which we would otherwise be clueless. In the wake of 9/11 we were left with our desolation, our thirst for vengeance (commonly justified as ‘justice’) and a whole lot of ambivalence. If we could just understand why, then we could prevent tragedies, thus taking control of a situation where we were powerless.  We asked why. And television answered 3 months later in the form of 24.

So we know now how the mother of a suicide bomber feels. We have a likely backdrop of society where such a person grow up. We believe that torture is necessary in extreme cases. We can watch it without covering our eyes because the bad stuff is mostly ‘justified’. We even think we know how the government operates behind closed doors. But the rise of the thriller has had far more reaching consequences than just entertainment or even satisfying our hunger for the illusion of security.

See, the time was right for Obama’s election, not least in part because 24 had paved the way by showcasing an African American president. David Palmer & Barack Obama (if you were a songwriter you could make that rhyme). Time will tell whether Allison Taylor will do the same for Hillary Clinton (songwriters, note the same amount of syllables in each name). It’s a case of life imitating art.

We know that there is conspiracy in authority…why? because we’ve seen it on telly.

Thrillers built on mixing likely scenarios with ‘real’ or ‘perceived’ truths set precedents which though fictional, create textures and contexts that we carry over to our daily lives. Because our memories are not terribly good at distinguishing between fact and fiction in cases which contain an high quota of personal relevance. In a study by Anna Abraham of the Max Planck Institute, researchers found that ‘personal relevance is not unequivocally related to what is real, since some individuals may experience personal relevance in certain fictional realms.’ And what could be more real to us than terrorism? It’s on our television, in our news stories, in our cities and splashed across Facebook. It’s relevance is highly personal.

Conspiracy theories give people the choice to simplify complex events they can’t understand, to human agency and evil. As bad as it appears, it means there is a villain to fight (usually a government). Violence is justified. 24 has given us a dangerous route to assuage our dissatisfaction. It’s given us a false sense of security. It also gives us a hero. The man of integrity is the one fighting authority. The one fighting to do right thing through bad actions. We align ourselves with him against the government in the form of conspiracy theories.

In his article ‘Conspiracy theorists aren’t really skeptics‘ William Scaletan explains that the more we see the world in terms of malice and planning as opposed to circumstance and coincidence ‘the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once you buy into the first theory, with its premises of coordination, efficacy, and secrecy, the next seems that much more plausible.’  It’s comfortable to have a solution to a problem. It also gives us justification to keep our own counsel or the counsel of those who confirm our existing bias rather than being dependent on ‘experts’ or scientists for an answer. It’s a slippery slope.

Whilst conspiracy theorists are right about bankers being assholes (okay, #notallbankers) and the Snowden files prove that the conspiracy nuts were not (just) nuts, assimilating just one fictional conspiracy theory from 24 will make you more likely to buy into others. That includes anti-vaccination (the big pharma conspiracy), climate change deniers and genetically modified crops. Our tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is not only confined to the government, it generates an overall distrust of authority. All authority. And it’s not likely to change any time soon.

Because providing realistic narratives is not only comfortable for viewers, it’s also hugely profitable for producers. 24 has spawned spin offs, computer games and countless imitations. So even if they know the consequences of their progammes (and they do)*, they are not inclined to turn away from profits.  24 and shows like it, are profitable. They capture our attention because they satisfy our desire to seek revenge. They capture our attention because we love think we know ‘the truth’ even if ‘the truth’ is purely fictional. Believing that the authorities are ‘out to get us’ feeds into our nameless fear and makes us feel in control. It’s why we’ll continue to believe the stories that Jack Bauer tells us, even though he’s no more real than Mickey Mouse.

 

*24 producers were forced to make Kiefer Sutherland himself distinguish between fact and fiction in an address prior to series 6 in which he stated that “the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism” (which I obviously didn’t watch since I, like the majority, was far more invested in watching Jack Bauer killing baddies).