Department of Communication
Public Address Conference
Chara Kay Van Horn

The Paranoid Style in an Age of Suspicion: Conspiracy Thinking and Official Rhetoric in Contemporary America

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are two events that scarred America and its people. In the aftermath of the assassination and the terrorist attacks, the American public was forced to sift through competing messages existing in the public sphere in order to make meaning out of the events. Although the American government, within a few days of both events, released who was ultimately responsible (Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated President Kennedy and Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were responsible for 9/11), the people were still left with coming to terms for why such violence occurred.In order to provide a frame from which the American people could view and understand the assassination and the terrorist attacks, two blue ribbon commissions were formed: the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination of President Kennedy, and the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the terrorist attacks. Despite the reports’ purposes, significant segments of the population questioned both Commissions’ conclusions. In both instances, conspiratorial understandings of the events grew after the publication of the reports so that, in the case of the Warren Commission, most of the American public believe Oswald did not act alone and, in the case of the 9/11 Commission, there is growing belief that the government’s failure to predict and prevent the terrorist attacks was the result of a governmental conspiracy. This dissertation seeks to understand why, in our current times, official discourses are unable to prevail over conspiracy theories. This study proposes to illustrate the power of conspiracy discourse by examining it through the lens of official discourses that were designed, in part, to head-off conspiracy beliefs before they gained momentum within the American public. Such an inquiry will provide three main benefits: it will contribute to a more exacting understanding of the rhetorical power of conspiracy arguments in our times; it will provide insight into the relationship between official and conspiracy discourses (especially as they now exist); and, such a study has implications for determining the current direction of political life.

Chara Kay Van Horn
Georgia State University 

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