Help keep my friend out of prison
November 3, 2011 7:56 AM   Subscribe

My friend is being being influenced by internet crackpots. How can I get him to listen to reason?

These crackpots are saying that the IRS has created a "straw man" of everyone and every one has something like two million dollars in an account that can be used if you know this arcane, magical incantation; "Accepted for Value".
Some of the bizarre things he's been "learning" include- you have to write/print at a 45 degree angle (on the bill/statement that you wish paid) in BLUE only "Accepted for Value No Levy Due..." then your "account number (SSN!) in RED ink as it is the color of "blood" and that if you wrote "paid in full" on the memo line of a check, and the other party cashed it, then they were automatically agreeing that whatever amount you wrote on the check really was the full payment and they would never, ever bother you again.
Now my friend thinks that if you're on trial and the flag in the courtroom has a gold braid all you have to do is state "I refuse to accept the authority of an Admiralty Court."
I think this stuff is completely insane but he just says "I've really been researching this stuff. You just don't know. If you read the things I've read..." He thinks I'm the one who has been brainwashed and that he has discovered some secret conspiracy that "they don't want you to know about". I would prefer a gentle method of persuasion because I don't want to make him mad because he is my friend, but I don't want to see him do something stupid and go to Federal Prison. Does anybody know of an enlightening website or video I can e-mail to him to make his brain click back to the right path? Hell, I'd settle for good Zen koan. How would you handle this?
posted by ambulocetus to Law & Government (42 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
"Too Weird for 'The Wire'" is a good read.
posted by box at 8:03 AM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ah! Yes! The Sovereign citizen movement is some pretty nutty stuff.

Here's the thing: outside of kidnapping him and sticking him into a hotel room for a few days with a CIA de-programmer, all your objection is really just going to make him think there's really something there. Because why would protest as much as you do if it was just harmless bupkis?

Of course, it isn't harmless at all. A lot of this stuff involves dodging income tax, and we all know how well that tends to work out in the end. People who showed up to the employment agency I used to work at with sovereign citizen paperwork -- yeah, they have fake federal government forms they download from the internet and bring to worksites -- got smiles and then immediately shoved in the "DO NOT CALL" box for fear or, among other things, litigation. The Sovereign Citizen movement is really litigious. A lot of these people think they can get out of the situations they put themselves in with lawsuits, but there's a long, long history of said lawsuits and the bringers of said lawsuits getting tossed out on their ass within five minutes of addressing a judge. All the while incurring legal fee after legal fee.

Anyway, like I said, you're not going to get him to snap out of it and the harder you bug him, the harder he's going to go into it. Have you ever seen anyone quit smoking or drinking or drugs because their friends kept giving them hypotheticals on how bad it was? No. It usually takes a knock on the head to make a person realize they are involved in bullshit. Hopefully your friend will get a knock pretty soon, and hopefully it won't be too hard.

But, basically, if he is as invested as you say he is, you're SOL. I know this sounds mean, but I would also avoid the shit out of him until/if he gets over this. People involved in this have a tendency to fuck up and fuck up hard and you don't want to be his one phonecall for bail money.
posted by griphus at 8:06 AM on November 3, 2011 [27 favorites]

Ask if he has read first-hand the documents that these people on the Internet claim to carry this information. Then ask if he has some other impartial source that can back it up.

If he says something like, "no, see, man, the Feds cover these sources up because they don't want us to know," ask him, "then....why are the people who are posting these secrets online not in jail?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:07 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Engage him about it. Ask him to show you (not just email you links, but physically show you) the things that he's reading. Wonder out loud why so-and-so who is saying this hasn't posted pictures of his actual tax returns (that's what you're talking about, right?) that he's filled out this way. Every time he says, "and see the such-and-such?" you should ask, "but what about the hoozit?" And so on. Ask him enough questions about it that he's eventually forced to come to a point where he admits that, "well, they didn't really say anything about that."

It'll take a lot of work on your part, but having a "critical thinking buddy" with him is going to be a lot more effective than giving him more stuff to read. (Because anything you give him to read is going to be written by someone BIASED!!! AND BRAINWASHED!!1!)
posted by phunniemee at 8:07 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

This doesn't sound like conspiracy theories - it sounds like serious psychological problems.
posted by odinsdream at 8:08 AM on November 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

You could point out that, historically, technicalities (like gold fringe or ink color) have been used against individuals more often than for them.

Even if these things were true, which they aren't, he'd still have to appeal to the very people that are "oppressing" him to get them recognized, and if the government is as corrupt as all that they won't be dissuaded by some magic writing or incantations.
posted by JeremiahBritt at 8:10 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yes, this sounds more like schizophrenia than somebody simply researching and believing conspiracy theories. Help you're friend find resources for this and look up suggestions for helping a friend seek treatment.
posted by glaucon at 8:11 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to look at some of the past AskMes about creationism, the kid who doesn't believe in science, and the conspiracy-theorist girlfriend. Tax protesters are, for all intents and purposes, a cult.

I think the common experience has been that you really can't engage with cult members on a rational basis. You might just want to leave this be, and just talk about football or something.

N.B.: The "paid in full" thing is an "accord and satisfaction." It's a real concept in negotiable instruments law, meant to be a settlement of a disputed charge. Not all jurisdictions accept it (see Oregon, which doesn't seem to). I doubt the federal courts would give it any credence in settlement of a tax dispute with the IRS.

IANYL, this is not legal advice. Your friend really needs to see a lawyer and get straightened out, or have one on retainer for when the IRS comes a-knockin'.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:13 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

It seems like there may be a deficit of critical thinking and reasoning as an underlying problem. Teaching someone the nuances of logical analysis may not be possible in this circumstance, but Occam's Razor is a worthwhile starting point for discussion.
posted by EKStickland at 8:14 AM on November 3, 2011

The stuff about Admiralty Court is part of a whole world of anti-government conspiracy theories, common among Montana militia members and other fringe groups. They believe the Constitution wasn't ratified, only local sheriffs have any authority, stuff like that.

Maybe talk to him about how Wesley Snipes went to prison for laboring under the delusion that, under a similar conspiracy theory reading of the law, he didn't have to pay income tax?
posted by steinsaltz at 8:14 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can't convince someone that a completely batshit thing they think is not right. When you argue with someone, they don't care a lick about what's right as much as what they *believe* is right and their main goal is just to win the argument. It's the argumentative theory of reasoning.

Also, unreasonable people will believe unreasonable things. Know you're right and stay the hell out of it.
posted by inturnaround at 8:15 AM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've dealt with and un-friended (not just on Facebook) a few people like this.
You will be unable to reason with them, they are not of sound mind. I won't pretend to know what their diagnosis is, but you should instead somehow encourage them to see a doctor. Offer to go with them.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 8:16 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thing that worked for me when a friend was sucked in: "Think about it: If these loopholes and procedural dodges did exist, how long would it take our various legislatures to change the system?"

Or, in essence: Doesn't matter whether or not you think you're right, being right will not protect you from "the system".

Reframing it that way helped a lot.
posted by straw at 8:17 AM on November 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

Nthing that this reads more like mental illness than merely interest in some fringe beliefs, but there are some people out there who believe some completely bizarre things who are otherwise high functioning.

Consider how difficult it is to convince a rational person that their social and political beliefs are at best unfounded in fact and at worst outright hypocritical. Then consider how much more difficult it will be to convicne someone who isn't processing information in a standard, predicable way.
posted by itstheclamsname at 8:20 AM on November 3, 2011

Also: Redemption Movement
posted by griphus at 8:20 AM on November 3, 2011

Yes, this sounds more like schizophrenia than somebody simply researching and believing conspiracy theories. Help you're friend find resources for this and look up suggestions for helping a friend seek treatment.

Why exactly are you Internet diagnosing this as a very specific and serious mental disorder? People who are not schizophrenics believe all sorts of wacky things, and these conspiracy theories are no crazier than thinking that you can pray to some all-powerful deity to solve your problems in life. I've heard of both the paid in full thing and the gold fringe thing, and there are whole websites about these sorts of things, this is not a case of a guy hearing voices in his head that are telling him not to pay taxes.

The reason why it's so difficult to argue with someone who believes in these particular conspiracy theories is that they believe that this is a secret correct interpretation of the law that the court illegally refuses to recognize. So if you point to the numerous court cases where a judge clearly says "All of this stuff about gold fringe on flags is a bunch of hogwash, your case is thrown out," then their response will be that obviously the judge is part of the terrible conspiracy to deny people their actual rights. At best you can convince them that if they don't pay their taxes, they will end up losing in court, regardless of what understanding they have of the "true" laws that govern how the IRS should work.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:21 AM on November 3, 2011 [14 favorites]

I don't think using the methods of people who think he's an idiot is a good idea because the contempt really shows through and sours the whole discussion. I would find a libertarian with more legal training than he has to be an ambassador to him. I have personally witnessed a two-hour discussion between a such a person and a 'sovereign citizen' advocate and it was very effective in dissuading him from carrying any of this out and ending up in jail.
posted by michaelh at 8:27 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I had a very similar experience, I've hung around with a group of friends online for over a decade now, and one of them went off the deep-end (in his case, conspiracy theories) and Threeway Handshake is right, there's seemingly nothing you can easily do.

I tend to think that your friend probably has a emptiness in their life, that this way of thinking is helping to fill-- if you can identify that, you might be able to replace that emptiness with something of worth, that will push these ideas out.

Unfortunately for my friend, I couldn't, perhaps if I was a physical neighbor, I could have taken them out for a drink, a meal and a chat, away from the smorgasbord of online rantings, that it could have helped-- but he's lost to me and as difficult as it was, I ignore that part of him, totally.

He still comes online to our group, and I'll say hello, and have a pleasant conversation, but if he even hints upon a conspiracy, which he always enviably does-- I just ignore him, as if he never said it-- I just switch off.

That might sound heartless, but I went through a period where I argued his every statement into the ground, pulling it apart, identifying the flaws. But it never helps, the answer from them is always along the lines of "I've read more, it's real, you'll see, I feel sorry for you to be so ignorant". Now it's easier to just sigh and move on.

Best of luck to you.
posted by Static Vagabond at 8:30 AM on November 3, 2011

Okay, there is some kind of clinical term for the type of mental illness where a person sees connections that don't really exist -- not "pareidolia" but something akin to it, and if I recall correctly it is correlated with schizophrenia. There was a really awesome AskMe about a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend who concluded really bizarre, roundabout connections and "messages" to herself in, say, Facebook posts from friends-of-friends or TV commercials and the like that I cannot find again for the life of me.

But anyway, that is probably why "schizophrenia" is being invoked here, and if we're going to avoid playing Internet Psychiatrist, we can label this "magical thinking" and be done with it.

Sorry about your friend. Agreed very much with griphus. Back away slowly.
posted by trunk muffins at 8:38 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Or, in essence: Doesn't matter whether or not you think you're right, being right will not protect you from "the system".

You may want to dig up a stack of examples, either from the news, pacer, or from legal journals, 'Defendant A pled the "gold braid defence" or "sovereign citizen argument" and got his nuts handed to him in court'.

straw is correct that any tax loophole will get exploited until it is closed. Perhaps try the "if you were a legislator, and thought that the government you serve needs taxes, would you leave this loophole open?

IANYL, this is not legal advice. Your friend really needs to see a lawyer and get straightened out, or have one on retainer for when the IRS comes a-knockin'.

Seconded. 'If you really aren't going to pay taxes, they're going to come after you. Let's get a lawyer on retainer now or at least see what one will say.'
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:47 AM on November 3, 2011

Totally agree with what griphus said previously. The only way this guy is going to get some sense knocked into him is when he hits rock bottom. Your friend is not using logic or reasoning. Remember that saying "You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into." This applies in this scenario.
posted by amazingstill at 9:17 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Object Lesson: Wesley Snipes
posted by rhizome at 9:20 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

What straw said. I'm a lawyer and have had a few clients get sucked in with similar arguments, some tax, some extradition, all with the common element of relying on lots of old, weird technicalities. I think maybe when you feel like the deck is totally stacked against you, it's pretty tempting to fall for believing in a magical loophole that will make everything work out ok.

But anyway, the point is this: it doesn't matter how "right" you are. Hell maybe you are right on a really technical level. The only thing that matters is convincing a judge that you're right. Because being "right" doesn't magically stop the jail staff from putting the handcuffs on. And unless you can show me concrete examples of someone else convincing a real judge in a real court of your position, it doesn't matter. Or unless he has an army to resist the power of the cops coming for him.

So maybe you could get him to the point where he still believes he's right on an intellectual level but also sees the folly of trying to convince the world (that stupid, shortsighted, benighted world!) of his position.
posted by bepe at 9:29 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's social scientific research which shows that rational, evidence-based arguments are not only ineffective in the face of beliefs like this, but they actually reinforce the beliefs. I'm not sure getting down on his level and engaging in the conversation is the right thing to do.
posted by brozek at 9:38 AM on November 3, 2011 [4 favorites]

I would ask him questions about what he believes. Act like you have a friendly interest but don't fully understand what he is saying, ask for more information or for proof to help you "understand".

So for the fringe on the flag thing tell him you don't fully understand and could he show you a case where someone has done that and had it work so you can get what you'd have to do because man it would be great if you could do that.

Basically get him to try and find actual proof because man you want to believe so bad and hopefully as he tries to find actual cases and real proof it works he will slowly realize that there is no real proof any of this works. So ask lots of questions in an interested, non threatening way to try and get him to really think about what he's saying. They say the best way to learn something is to teach it.

Also once bills start going to collectors and the IRS turn up on his door he'll start to realize something is wrong. If you plant the seeds of doubt now, maybe he'll understand just how silly it all is sooner rather than later.
posted by wwax at 9:44 AM on November 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh and check out the Wikipedia article on Sovereign citizens, if that's what he is talking about. It lists a whole bunch of legal cases that show most of what he's talking about is illegal. Maybe ask him "innocently" if what he is saying is true then how come all these cases turned out like they did.
posted by wwax at 9:47 AM on November 3, 2011

wwax has it, in my estimation. I wrote a comment a while ago about getting a friend out of Scientology that might be relevant here. If you come at him from a position of disbelief, he will only shut you out. But if you come at him from a position of "I find your ideas intriguing, but the stakes are really high -- can you prove to me that this has worked in the past and will work in the future?" then he's more likely to be able to see it when the case comes apart around him.
posted by KathrynT at 9:53 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have never ever seen a conspiracy theorist argued out of the position they are holding, no matter how flagrantly looney and counterfactual. The only thing you can do is disengage on this issue if you want to remain friends. It may well be worth pointing out that there are likely to be unpleasant real-world consequences if he acts on these ideas, but having pointed that out once I would drop the issue altogether. If he brings it up again just say "we're going to have to agree to disagree about this stuff; now, how about that sporting/arts/whatever event last weekend! Wasn't that something, huh?"

The one thing I have noticed about conspiracy theorists is that they do sometimes drift from one theory to another. If he's not getting his "I know something you don't know" jollies from this Sovereign Citizen nonsense he might drop it and pick up something equally asinine but without any real-world consequences like moon-landing denialism or what have you.
posted by yoink at 9:57 AM on November 3, 2011

I seem to recall a bunch of gang members making these claims in a court case a while back...their asses are still in jail. You might try a bit of googling along those lines ... Report after report of people who have tried these arguments and ended up in the joint for check kiting or tax evasion might get him to see that they don't, you know, work. Even if he still believes they're true on some level.
posted by Diablevert at 10:14 AM on November 3, 2011

No need to diagnose anything.

Your "friend" is lost to you. He might as well be dead as the person you knew. Once people go down this rabbit hole in any serious way they do not come back until bad things happen. Walking away from the friendship is not only all you can do, but the best thing you can do for yourself and for your former friend. This is a cult, ecstatic, paranoid belief system that is as insidious as any other cult out there.

Get away from him.
posted by spitbull at 11:24 AM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding the argument from pragmatic futility: "dude, anyone who adopts these beliefs and puts them into practice ends up either dead or in jail." If that doesn't have an impact, nothing will.
posted by holgate at 12:21 PM on November 3, 2011

This page includes a very thorough debunking of the loony ideas your friend has heard, as well as tons of related ones. It might be worth passing the link on.

These "sovereign citizens"/"freemen on the land"/"tax protestors" exist in the UK too. I used to have to deal on a semi-regular basis with people using some version of these crackpot arguments (complete with complicated pseudo-legal documents) to claim that they didn't have to pay their debts. This tactic never, ever, ever works, and if the "citizens"/"freemen"/whatever really manage to piss the judge off, they may end up having to pay their creditors' legal costs on top of the money they already owed them.

Whether any of this will convince your friend is another matter, of course.
posted by Perodicticus potto at 1:05 PM on November 3, 2011

My father is a conspiracy theorist, and I can tell you that there is nothing you can say or do to sway him from this. Unless you want him looking down on you for not believing in this stuff, it's time to call it a day on the friendship.
posted by daysocks at 1:09 PM on November 3, 2011

How willing is he to talk to you about this? Is he trying to share his amazing knowledge with you, or is he looking for discussion?

Ask him this -- how does he expect to win a game with a crooked dealer in a rigged system, using only the hand he was dealt? If banks and creditors and government agencies have to knuckle under when you say the secret phrase or use the secret signature, why does he trust they will do so?

Tell him "The Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house."* Every time he uses the tools of a court of law to try to prove something, he is asking the government (the government he doesn't trust) to have authority over the decision, and he is expressing a willingness to do what this flawed power figure tells him. What does it mean if he wins a court case on this basis? It means Daddy said it was okay. It means he's willing to retreat to an authority that agrees with him. He will accept the flawed system as long as he is the one it benefits.

I have witnessed (o hallelujah, etc.) a full-on multi-spectrum** conspiracy nut brought out of his whirling stupor by a Critical Thinking Buddy armed with this logic. Maybe it can be a nucleation point for some bubbles of independent thought for your friend. On the other hand, maybe it will make him move into an off-the-grid cabin in the woods. Either way.

*sorry, Audre Lorde.
**things the nut no longer believes since his critical thinking graft: government agencies are hiding the evidence of sea monsters, space aliens, alternative energy sources, and murders committed by presidents, statues crying blood or pancake manifestation are the best ways for God to appear to people, "undesirable" voters get their ballots declared invalid through some sort of pencil-based nationwide discrimination.
posted by Sallyfur at 2:44 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

People get involved in stuff like this, and it gives them a sense of meaning in their life. Let him believe weird stuff, but invite him to dinner, a movie, and help him meet friends and find meaningful activities. A meaningful real life and friendships are way more appealing once you get involved.
posted by theora55 at 4:13 PM on November 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

1) "These arguments have a very poor track record in court." Show examples.

2) "Suppose they're technically correct. Even still, if no judge or jury in the country will uphold them, then what good are they? A legal right that you can't enforce doesn't exist."
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:55 PM on November 3, 2011

Thanks for the answers everyone. I really thought he was picking up some good critical thinking habits from hanging around with me for so many years, but I guess my influence only went so far. He even mentioned those dreaded two words yesterday; "Ron Paul". I got him to believe in evolution, so maybe there's still hope. I sent him a link to the Douglas Adams game Bureaucracy in hopes that maybe that will make something click in his brain. He just sent me a link to one of his dodgy sites and I just told him it's interesting but I need more solid evidence. He's relatively smart and he's never been really crazy, so I don't think all hope is lost. Wish me luck (or perhaps I should say wish him luck).
posted by ambulocetus at 6:33 PM on November 3, 2011

(FWIW: if you're trying to keep the guy away from genuine unrestrained crazy, you should probably just go ahead and let him talk about Ron Paul. Ron Paul has priorities that I disagree with — but he's not full-on delusional, neither are most of his constituents, and listening to him will not land you in a federal penitentiary.

The more you respect your friend on difference-of-opinion-type stuff where sane people can honestly disagree, the more leverage you'll have to correct him when he starts practicing genuinely harmful stuff that really can lead to bankruptcy or prison.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:00 PM on November 3, 2011

It's not insanity, as some folks upthread are suggesting. It's just this weird blind spot these folks have. I have a lovely uncle, solid citizen, decent guy, who believes in chem trails. Yesterday at work an attorney I work with told me sincerely that she believes in demonic possession. Otherwise sane people sometimes have spots of nuttiness that work better for them than rational thought.

(As far as how to deal with your buddy though, I don't have any great ideas, just don't try to have him committed or medicated or something.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:38 PM on November 3, 2011

fingersandtoes: I do want to clarify my previous comment that I don't think all superstitious people have mental illnesses. There is, however, a line between someone who believes a rabbit's foot is lucky, and someone who believes the rabbit's foot tells them which decisions to make in life.

Overzealous pattern-matching lies on a spectrum of normal human brain behaviour, but it can reach a point where it's clinically diagnosable. It's unreasonable for anyone not trained in such diagnosis to make one, though.
posted by odinsdream at 10:07 AM on November 4, 2011

You might enjoy this.
posted by theora55 at 5:10 PM on November 4, 2011

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