We Can Have (and Believe in) Both!

In the Preface to Androcles and the Lion, George Bernard Shaw notes the ability of people to hold contradictory ideas as true at once:

As the gospels stand, St. Matthew and St. Luke give genealogies (the two are different) establishing the descent of Jesus through Joseph from the royal house of David, and yet declare that not Joseph but the Holy Ghost was the father of Jesus. It is therefore now held that the story of the Holy Ghost is a later interpolation borrowed from the Greek and Roman imperial tradition. But experience shows that simultaneous faith in the descent from David and the conception by the Holy Ghost is possible. Such double beliefs are entertained by the human mind without uneasiness or consciousness of the contradiction involved…. It is quite possible that Matthew and Luke may have been unconscious of the contradiction: indeed the interpolation theory does not remove the difficulty, as the interpolators themselves must have been unconscious of it. A better ground for suspecting interpolation is that St. Paul knew nothing of the divine birth, and taught that Jesus came into the world at his birth as the son of Joseph, but rose from the dead after three days as the son of God. Here again, few notice the discrepancy: the three views are accepted simultaneously without intellectual discomfort. We can provisionally entertain half a dozen contradictory version of an event if we feel either that it does not greatly matter, or that there is a category attainable in which the contradictions are reconciled.

Perhaps this is the basis for the ease with which Americans manage to believe, today, in so many things that patently contradict each other. After all, in mathematics, if you are willing to accept that something can be divided by zero, you can prove any proposition. Just so, if you are willing to believe in one set of contradictory ideas, moving on to acceptance of others could not be too difficult.

Lewis Carroll probably understood best the mental gyrations making this possible. In Through the Looking Glass, he presents this exchange between Humpty Dumpty and Alice:

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

Logic, and consistency, are subsumed in human desire to control the world, to be the master—of our surroundings and of our thoughts. If we want to believe something, we will. Most of the time, we are tethered strongly enough to earth to keep or desires from getting out of hand. But not always—and therein, of course, lies the danger. George Orwell writes in his short essay “In Front of Your Nose”:

we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.

And there, of course, is where it gets most dangerous, and where the cords attaching us to reality and consistency most easily snap. Where we can find ourselves fighting for peace, for example, or falling in line for freedom. Where we find ourselves believing the propaganda that keeps us struggling (for good or for bad).

This only works, however, when we want to believe the propaganda. As Eric Hoffer writes in The True Believer:

The truth seems to be that propaganda on its own cannot force its way into unwilling minds; neither can it inculcate something wholly new; nor can it keep people persuaded once they have ceased to believe. It penetrates only into minds already open, and rather than instill opinion it articulates and justifies opinions already present in the minds of its recipients.

This happens most easily when that mind is already primed to accept contradictory ideas. If you already believe that war is peace, then you can wrap your mind around just about anything, if you so desire.

In America, these days, we’re getting to the fanciful point of believing, as they say, that we can have our cake and eat it, too. Tea Partiers want government spending cut, but increased for them. We’re no longer acting rationally, having divided by zero so many times that even our metaphors have come untethered. In The Public Philosophy, Walter Lippmann wrote:

A rational man acting in the real world may be defined as one who decides where he will strike a balance between what he desires and what can be done. It is only in imaginary worlds that we can do whatever we wish. In the real world there are always equations which have to be adjusted between the possible and the desired. Within limits, a man can make a free choice as to where he will strike the balance. If he makes his living by doing piece-work, he can choose to work harder and to spend more. He can also choose to work less and spend less. Bu he cannot spend more and work less.

Except, we no longer believe that.

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