Damar Hamlin, Paul Pelosi, and the Culture of Cynicism
Damar Hamlin is not dead. And Paul Pelosi was not engaging in funny business with his attacker.
Over the past few weeks, not everyone has agreed on those two points. Those who have reconciled the point with Hamlin seem to be more plentiful, and the consensus on the Pelosi opinion seems to be settling as well. Still, a cursory search of social media shows not everyone is convinced. But let’s back up a bit.
On January 2, 2023, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin dropped quickly to the ground after taking a hit in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He didn’t get up. Hamlin was hospitalized following a frighteningly long time on the field (the game was suspended), and a surprising nationwide prayer effort ensued. The social media rumor mill spun up immediately, with many attributing his cardiac arrest to his vaccination status. When that speculation didn’t lead to any conclusive ends, and public information about Hamlin’s case became scarce, another rumor began to circulate: Damar Hamlin was really dead. After all, even during his few public appearances following the incident, his face was obscured. It must be a body double, right?
Before the Hamlin incident, the slowly-emerging facts around the attack on then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) husband sparked its own slew of conspiracy theories on social media. Last fall, police responded to a 911 call about a home invasion at the Pelosi residence in San Francisco (Pelosi was in Washington at the time). When police arrived, Paul Pelosi was attacked by a man wielding a hammer. When initial public reports about the incident seemed hazy and incomplete, speculation and rumors ensued, often posed in the form of a question. Had Pelosi let the attacker in? Had he invited him? Did Paul Pelosi have an illicit relationship with the attacker? There were too many unanswered questions, went the narrative, and the official story didn’t add up.
Of course, as has now been shown neither conspiracy was true. Damar Hamlin is very much alive. Case closed. And the now-released video and audio of the Paul Pelosi incident show that, though the interaction was indeed weird (what home invasion isn’t a little weird?), Pelosi was most likely trying to keep the attacker calm — which ultimately failed when the police arrived.
Where do conspiracy theories like these emerge? What’s wrong with our society that people are so instantly cynical of anything and everything? Are we doomed to be a culture so enveloped in distrust that we can’t take anyone at their word?
Such an environment is not new. The prophet Jeremiah spoke about this as a warning to a people who weren’t following the Lord:
“Let everyone beware of his neighbor,
and put no trust in any brother,
for every brother is a deceiver,
and every neighbor goes about as a slanderer.
Everyone deceives his neighbor,
and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongue to speak lies;
they weary themselves committing iniquity.
Heaping oppression upon oppression, and deceit upon deceit,
they refuse to know me, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 9:4–6, ESV)
The further a culture strays from truth, the more it must search for it. Conspiracy theorists masquerade as the ultimate truth-seekers, except for the fact that they never arrive at the truth. Living in an age where flat earthers really do exist, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that any one of us might become swept up in a lesser conspiracy.
One contributing factor to this susceptibility is our appetite for immediate, omniscient knowledge about everything. Because he is a public figure, we take it for granted that we should know every detail about Damar Hamlin’s recovery. The fact that so many of us share much of our lives with the world on social media contributes — if we share everything about ourselves, then why shouldn’t we know everything about everyone else? The truth is, however, that social media personas are only part of the picture. The only way to fully know someone still requires some amount of physical proximity. That’s why most conspiracies are entertained from afar.
Even with the video evidence of Hamlin’s survival and Paul Pelosi’s genuine-yet-weird behavior during his attack, some will continue to refuse to acknowledge reality. Their never-ending pursuit of conspiratorial truth would come crashing down if they did. The cynic’s constant vigilance to see through everything and everyone causes them to miss what’s really present in front of them.
Jeremiah’s warning to his people was rooted in a refusal to know the Lord – a condition that’s not far removed from the conspiracy theorist’s refusal to ever arrive at the truth. Thankfully truth really does have an end in the person of Jesus Christ. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8, ESV). In him, we can find rest from the endless search to find a truth with endless depth.
Jared Bridges is editor-in-chief of The Washington Stand.