What happens when a whānau member or friend falls down a conspiracy rabbit hole? If logic and facts aren’t the answer, what is? Kim Mcbreen offers some insights from her own experience with her father.
It’s rough watching people I care about struggling with people they care about over the Covid vaccination. It’s rough watching people becoming entrenched in their corners — scared of losing each other, with no way to reconnect.
Fear makes some of us selfish, defensive and irrational. It makes some of us exhausted. It can amplify all the differences and resentments between us. How can we reach across that? How can we stay connected when social media works so hard to push us away from each other?
My dad died last year, but I lost him years before to a conspiracy theory. By the time he died, we hadn’t spoken in ages. He hadn’t met his grandson, and his granddaughter hadn’t seen him for a couple of years.
It started with an email from Dad about a documentary. He asked what I thought about it. The documentary pushed a (conclusively debunked) argument about a large pre-Māori civilisation on these lands and an ongoing conspiracy to cover it up. Most people would recognise it as badly researched, racist, and desperate.
My dad had always been racist, in that smug, unquestioning way of most conservative Pākehā people of his time. Both my parents are Pākehā. When they adopted me, they were told they were getting a Pākehā baby.
They didn’t expect that I’d turn out to be Māori, queer, and an academic, pretty confident in my ability to understand stuff. I sometimes wonder if Dad thought I chose it all to spite him.
Dad was in his 70s at the time. He’d recently retired and he had all this extra time to spend on the internet. I didn’t know that he was coming under the sway of white supremacists — that he was becoming one himself. I didn’t realise his email was the start of the end of our relationship. It just seemed like an email about a dumb documentary.
But he had found his people — other white people aggrieved that Māori weren’t being put in their place aggressively enough. People who were stoked to find a community who’d listen and agree with them no matter how horribly or stupidly racist they were.
It was very personal. Since the first email about the documentary, he only got angrier at me. He told me he’d found his cause. He told me I had to listen to what he had to say about Māori or I was the biggest racist. He told me my children needed to know the truth.
I look back and wonder if I could’ve done anything. It felt unstoppable. From that first email to the point where I had to cut him from my life, it became relentlessly inevitable so bloody quickly. I talked to Mum and to my partner and counsellors trying to find a way that didn’t mean losing him. Nothing worked.
I made a mistake right at the beginning. Dad tried to convince me of his truth and I pushed back with logic and facts against his nonsensical argument, as if there was anything rational about it. I know now that a common misstep is arguing with someone who is heading towards a conspiracy theory. I pulled out pretty quickly, but I’ll never know if that argument five years ago was where I lost my dad.
After that first argument, I didn’t argue with him. I tried to talk to him as someone I cared about and who cared about me. I tried to keep him in my life. For maybe a few years, I kept asking him to stop talking to me and my family about it. I tried to explain how he was hurting me and my children, his grandchildren. I even set up mediation with a counsellor hoping he’d listen if there was someone to help him.
Dad still tried to push it on me or my partner, and I kept repeating that I didn’t want to hear it.
While we weren’t talking about it, Dad was getting more drawn into this community that fed his beliefs. He was entrenching even though I wasn’t pushing back. He couldn’t help himself. He became more and more certain that he was right and I needed to get on board. Not talking about it allowed it to get worse.
So what could I have done?
I didn’t try responding with love every time he tried to pick an argument, reminding him that I didn’t want this to get between us. I was too stressed, exhausted and angry with his increasingly aggressive and personal racism.
I didn’t get help beyond Mum and my partner to steer him towards a healthier community. My mum tried, but there wasn’t anyone he’d listen to. Maybe she was too late.
So many men have no community, and my father didn’t have friends until he found the white supremacists online.
Today I see people I care about heading this way over Covid vaccinations, and it makes me so sad. I don’t want anyone else to lose family like I did. I don’t want anyone else to wonder if they missed their moment to reconnect.
And with the stress of Covid, and needing to make decisions to keep our loved ones safe, it’s so much more urgent and high-stakes. How can we talk with whānau and friends who don’t believe in the danger of the virus or the safety of the vaccine? How do we protect our kāinga when whānau choose a path that could bring Covid home?
I don’t know. We can’t let them go — but we have to be safe. It feels impossible.
My only advice is, if someone you care about is connecting with a community that feeds their fear and selfishness and leads them away from what’s really important to them, you should try to find ways to remind them who they are and what they care about.
Ask for help from anyone they might listen to. Not to argue or convince, but to show care, and reconnect them with themselves. Treat it seriously from the start. Because the more they commit, the harder it is to pull them back.
Life is so short. You don’t want to lose anyone sooner than you have to.
Kim Mcbreen is Waitaha, Kāti Māmoe, Ngāi Tahu and Pākehā. She is a kaimahi at Te Wānanga o Raukawa. She lives with her partner and two children in a small coastal town and dreams of community.
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