Friday, October 30, 2009

Thank God for Doublethinking

The novel 1984, by George Orwell, is such a wonderful and prescient work. In it, Orwell describes a government policy known as doublethink. As it is described in the novel:

The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them....To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.

I sometimes hear skeptics describe this using the psychological term cognitive dissonance, which Wikipedia describes as "an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously." I prefer Orwell's term, at least when I encounter it in everyday life, because I don't think most people find the experience uncomfortable. I think the majority of people are happy to doublethink because it allows them the ability to say one thing and act differently.

For instance, I know of many people who profess to be Christians, and who profess to follow the Christian Bible. They will point out the chapter and verse in the Old Testament that decries homosexuality, but ignore the prohibition against eating pork that is in the same book only a few lines away. Why do they follow one line in the Bible to the letter, but ignore another? Doublethink.

Examples abound in our culture. Many black churches in our country justly and rightly celebrate their connection to the historic rise of Civil Rights in this country. They recognize the important struggle that led America to finally recognize that all citizens, regardless of race, are entitled to the same rights under the law. Such people , you would assume, would be in the forefront of the battle for Gay Rights and Gay Marriage, because they must know about the evils of prejudice and exclusion, but many are silent. Many are actively engaged in fighting against Gay rights. Why? Doublethink.

An individuals reaction to doublethink or cognitive dissonance depends on how uncomfortable holding two contradictory thoughts is. Severe discomfort causes one to reassess their opinions. A black leader may come to the conclusion that Gay Rights are different than rights based on race. He may decide that they are the same. He might decide that rights don't apply to everyone equally, a decision that makes him have more in common with a racist in 1950 than an enlightened human of the 21st Century. Or he might have no real discomfort, and live happily with his contradictions. It's only a matter of the degree of discomfort with the dissonance.

It's doublethink that allows Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia to trample all over the rights of women because their religion tells them to, but still collect interest (known as usury) in the international banking community despite the fact that their religion tells them not to. If these countries were to allow themselves to be uncomfortable with their hypocrisy, they would either have to withdraw from international finance or give women equal rights.

On one level, we should be happy about doublethink. It's what keeps the Christians in our community from killing witches, stoning to death disobedient children, or engaging in polygamy. Those with intolerant beliefs who behave consistently can sometimes engage in hate crimes, kill abortion doctors, or pass legislation that curtails our rights of free speech.

So let's thank God for doublethink, which keeps us safe from delusional thought.

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