I stalked members of Sherry Shriner’s conspiracy cult online for the better part of a year and can’t tell you how depressing it was.
The obvious stuff didn’t shock me, though the bigotry and unlimited hatred fueling people on the fringe is always tough to take. Their interactions with one another, which contained a desperation to be heard not much different from my own, was the most uncomfortable revelation.
We all want what we say to affect our larger community. We want to be respected for our insight and cleverness. Their inability to cultivate genuine interpersonal connections saddened me. The group communicated in memes, quotes, and factoids. None of “Them” came through in their interactions, as if they were practiced, maybe even habituated, in alienation.
I have nothing nice to say about meme culture. The staggering lack of originality amplifies the needlessness. Asking the internet for a clever thing to say is an intellectual surrender not worth dwelling upon. Beyond communicating in memes, though, lurked a dumbfounding lack of discernment. At first and even second blush, I discovered many of Sherry’s followers were stupid. Like, real stupid people in real life. Dumb people.
Don’t Call Me Stupid
“Stupid” is a loaded word (one I couldn’t use growing up), and for good reason, but it’s the word I want here. “Stupid” gets at the sense of entitlement to a thick, low ignorance and pride in their entitlement. Ignorance, which is too much maligned, just means not knowing. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing. In fact, the world would be better if we said “I don’t know” more often. You don’t need an excuse for not knowing something. There’s no shame in ignorance.
Stupid is clinging to the right to be ignorant, to be overwhelmed into giving up rather than trying to figure something out.
A stupid person nods yes as you realize they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about and are tottering off to do what they’ve decided you asked.
The stupidity bothered me more than anything else. Shrinerites’distorted understanding of how the world worked directed they way they ran their lives. They’d have discussions about quantum physics so off base as to offend me, a relative ignoramus on the subject. It’s stupid to not realize when you’re ignorant of something, I guess, is the point. Their stupidity made them dig in their heels. Terrified of revealing their ignorance, they created and inhabited an alternate reality where only what they already understood was true.
I’m not gonna lie. I spent the first month of my research laughing at them. Schadenfreude can be unpleasant but also difficult to resist.
A lot of us get a little sick superiority pleasure in the presence of people ignorant of their stupidity. We want to take the person by the shoulders and shake them while yelling “I’m so much better than you.”
On the flip side, they don’t care about me and my stupid opinions, either, or so I thought. After stumbling upon a video of a song to Sherry Shriner, I wondered whether they did care.
In a Facebook Live video, a middle-aged man with shaggy, thin blond hair (I’ll call him John) addresses the camera over the top of his keyboard organ. He has composed a song for Sherry set to the tune of the Daniel Boone television theme and explains as much as he introduces the song and begins singing.
“Sherry Shriner has a plan, yes a big plan, with a brother who’s an eagle she’s as bold as a warrior can be….”
If I’m honest, his voice is a little better than mine.
The performance hurt to watch because of his unselfconscious enthusiasm. Still, I sent the video around to a couple of people who knew I was working on the story.
I wanted them to be complicit, to be impressed by this gem too cringe-worthy for The Office, and realize this project was kooky and full of potential. Sharing the video gave me an excuse to stop being empathetic, which can be a relief. When you struggle to understand how people believe the insane, sometimes you need a release.
I’d link to the video, but it’s been deleted (which stung me with a little guilt, as if I’d hurt John’s feelings). Even when it’s not derisive, laughter hurts if you’re being serious, when people take your art for buffoonery. Like a young child who elicits unintentional laughter from grownups, they learn they’re being “cute” rather than serious.
As we become grownups ourselves, we learn to hedge our bets when we want to be earnest.
The Wrong Kind of Feeling Better
What I want to figure out is why it makes me happy to laugh at desperate, lonely people struggling for attention and acceptance. That’s the big one, right?
There must be something primal, delineating my beliefs as somehow more right because a person I disagree with is so laughably wrong. A better way to put it is maybe the more people I can get to laugh at him, the more right those of us who are laughing must be.
Pretty ugly. If we are so much more “right,” why do we care?
At the bottom of this attitude is a win/lose mentality that has crept into regular life. Winners are right, losers are wrong. If you “lose” an argument, say, you must have been wrong. We all understand the difference between losing an argument and being wrong. People who have the facts and even history on their side don’t always win an argument in post-truth America.
But what about people who understand we may perceive them as “losers?” For them, being wrong is being a loser; something they can contend with. The easiest thing to do is to stay stupid, to be steadfast in denying the mere possibility of your ignorance. I discovered that when I get mad about criticism of my work, the criticism is legitimate. Illegitimate criticism doesn’t bother me. It’s a mechanism I developed the long, embarrassingly painful way.
I hate having been wrong more than almost anything else because I hate having to admit that I was wrong. It’s a weird part of my self-image. I own up. The only thing I hate more is when other people won’t do the same thing.
That I haven’t been able to convince people that there’s merit in admitting being wrong is one of my great failures.
It demoralizes me when other people choose a reality to suit their own private truths and won’t be moved. Intellectually, I know that I’m not in charge of making them less stupid, but in my experience, very few people are happy with their private truths unless they can force other people to acknowledge or even live by them. I think it comes from the very democratic notion that if you can get support from enough people, you probably are right.
The problem is that when you don’t have the capacity to change your mind or to admit you’re wrong, all that’s left is to make sure you win. Get enough people on your side and you all can convince yourselves that your beliefs are true. It’s essential to be part of a crowd when you don’t have the courage of your convictions.
Though I feel like badgering or ostracizing people until they agree probably isn’t a great answer, I don’t know what I would do with a magic wand or whether waiving it could reconcile communities built upon incompatible facts.
For now, the best I can do is to try and take people at their word when they say they believe something, even when it’s bonkers. I tried to talk to John, the guy who made the video, but he didn’t respond to my messages. Still, from the few videos he posted, I was able to get a deeper sense of how seriously Sherry’s followers took the notion that she was speaking for God. It gave me a sense of how critical that belief was.
If Sherry didn’t speak for God, John was just a pathetic loser turning TV show theme songs into odes to some shyster. That was a big lesson for me. None of us want to be pathetic, and most of us will go to extreme lengths to convince ourselves that we aren’t. That the people who are mocking us are wrong. That in fact they are the losers for refusing to see the truth and admit that they were wrong the whole time.