Conspiracy theories and disinformation are rife. Many of the reasons for this come up in Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show – which I watched the night before the storming of the United States Capitol. This is an odd sci-fi story, involving an orphaned baby, Truman Burbank, who is adopted by a television studio and placed unknowingly in a reality show where everyone else is an actor.
Conspiracy theories make people feel important. They are about having “special knowledge” ignored by most people. This sets the believer apart as one of the chosen few who really knows what’s going on. No need to go to university for years, and then spend a long time gaining expertise in a job, to end up in a position of eminence. You can get all that by simply believing that the world is flat, or that the American election was stolen. The reasons people believe in conspiracy theories are complex, but I think you can say generally that a frustrated desire for prestige is often involved. Conspiracy believers are either unwilling or unable to achieve prestige in the normal, laborious way. They seek a short cut to self importance. It’s like choosing to steal a car rather than waiting to earn the money to buy one.
Truman Burbank grows into adulthood unaware of the true nature of his life. But then a number of production mishaps on the show start to make him suspect something is going on. He feels that he is living in a world focused entirely on himself. Clearly this suggests that he is very important. He has to try and square this feeling with the fact that he also seems to be an ordinary man.
Truman’s efforts to escape his false existence come to a climax in a sailing voyage across the “ocean” towards the limit of his world. And fittingly, his odyssey takes place on a flat Earth which really does have an edge. His boat bumps into the outer wall of the huge Truman Show studio. Truman disembarks, and walks around the sea’s margin, while the show’s director seemingly talks to him from the sky. We see the prestige which this closed world confers on Truman. He seemingly walks on water while God speaks to him from the heavens. God – that is the director – calls on Truman not to leave the show. It is so tempting to stay there and remain at the centre of things. But beyond the door lies the real world, and the woman who once broke the rules by loving Truman for himself and not because she was an actress following a script. Truman stands at an exit door in a painted sky, and debates with himself what to do. Finally he makes the decision to leave, cheered on by his audience. But his exit also results in the loss of his fame and importance. Truman’s glorious denouement coincides with two security guards reaching for a TV guide, to help them decide what to watch next. So you can see why some people hang on to their illusory beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence against them.
I think The Truman Show is a lesson in humility. We all have to accept that knowledge is hard won. Truman nearly drowns on his hazardous voyage to the edge of his world. He really has to work for what he knows. And his moment of triumph, ironically, is the moment he realises that everything doesn’t revolve around him. To truly appreciate the world, we have to stop telling ourselves that we are at the centre of it.