"We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves." —Eric Hoffer
I have noticed something about how some people treat beliefs which are personally important to them. When faced with uncomfortable facts, they do what I call “making up stories.”
I don’t mean they lie. Or rather they do, but they’re lying to themselves, and in a very particular way.
Some examples: About seven years ago, I was taking a course in the Polish city of Wroclaw. While there, I shared an apartment with an Englishman who had a bachelor’s degree in philosophy.
This fellow was convinced of every fashionable environmental catastrophe, including, of course, global warming.
I am skeptical about man-caused global warming for reasons not relevant here. In the course of our discussions, I mentioned that when I was working to launch a new college of science in Poland, I had come to know quite a few members of the Polish Academy of Science in the departments of chemistry, physics, paleobiology, etc.
I told him that not one of these world-class scientists believed in man-caused global warming.
He replied, “That’s because their jobs depend on defending the oil companies and denying global warming.”
To begin with, that's not true. On the contrary, the Polish government at the time had no concerns about global warming. They had too many real problems to deal with. And he was a stranger to Poland who couldn’t have known one way or the other.
He had answered a claim with the circumstantial ad hominem logical fallacy — which a philosophy student should have known right away.
Later, I realized that he was doing more than just committing a logical fallacy. He was making up stories.
Another: In an email exchange with me, a Marxist acquaintance referred to something as being “right-wing Nazi” in nature.
I replied to him: “Nazism is left-wing. ‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party’ doesn’t even remotely sound like a right-wing trope.” (The word “Nazi” comes from Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, commonly abbreviated NSDAP.)
He decried this statement as right-wing propaganda. I pointed out that it is not a matter of political opinion, but established historical fact. Nazism was considered “leftist” at the time of its founding, by its founders, and only “right” of the further-left communists.
I added parenthetically that my wife was taught this as a schoolgirl in Poland.
He immediately suggested my wife probably had a high school teacher who was a holdover from the Solidarity resistance and wanted to discredit the old regime, etc. He’d never been to Poland and had met my wife only briefly.
Making up stories.
One more example: In my newsroom not long ago, I brought up on my computer screen a picture of President Obama shaking the Emperor of Japan's hand and bowing low.
I showed this to a colleague and said that our president had really stepped in it again, after the flap about bowing submissively to the King of Saudi Arabia, then and treating the Queen of England with undiplomatic familiarity.
“What’s wrong with that?” she asked.
I pointed out that American presidents — heck, American citizens — do not bow in submission to any foreign monarchs. There are long-established diplomatic courtesies appropriate for citizens of a free country, which show respect for but not submission to foreign monarchs — courtesies our president entirely omitted when meeting Queen Elizabeth II.
Furthermore, I said, in Japan bowing has gradations and subtleties indicating relative status, that non-Japanese seldom get right. Foreigners doing business in the country are generally advised not to try.
She replied, “Well maybe he’s creating a new custom, blending the customs of America and Japan.”
Making up stories.
Notice what these have in common. One, people who do this are usually pretty intelligent. You have to be, to think that fast.
What they did was create an elaborate explanation without reflection, on the spot, to explain away something that threatened cherished beliefs. And they did it with no knowledge-base to reach a rational conclusion. They weren’t attempting to reach a conclusion; they were making up stories.
For a long time I looked for a technical description for this phenomenon, and experimented with terms like “cognitive dissonance something-or-other.”
Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was making up stories. There is a perfectly simple word for this. We don’t like to use that word, especially about people we may like, because it’s ugly.
That word is “cowardice.”
More specifically, intellectual cowardice, as opposed to physical cowardice. Physical courage seems to be far more common than intellectual courage, and isn't that odd? Having to reexamine cherished beliefs, or being mocked and ostracized for your opinions, is unpleasant. But not nearly as unpleasant as torture or a violent death.
Many intelligent people tie themselves in intellectual knots attempting to justify absurdities, even when their conclusions are counterproductive, dangerous, or life-threatening. I am certainly not the first to point out the adherents of environmentalism, leftism, and the Cult of the One often behave like followers of a particularly odious religious fundamentalism. No matter what economic or humanitarian disasters their plans result in, they never question the essential rightness of their cause.
So why would any intelligent person persist in believing what experience proves is antithetical to their high-minded goals?
I think the answer is that intellectuals often feel a need to deal with a scary reality by embracing a TOE — a “Theory of Everything,” a perfect model of reality, which explains everything in all cases and leaves no room for doubt, uncertainty, or ambiguity. I think we’d all like one of those.
Unfortunately, you can’t have one. Some of us realize this, others spend their lives denying it.
A theoretical model is just that — a model, an abstraction of reality, which does not, can not, contain the whole of reality. It only contains those parts of reality relevant to the purpose the model is designed to illustrate.
A philosophical/scientific model, like a model airplane, cannot perfectly reflect reality. That would be the classic logical contradiction of “the class of all classes that includes itself.” A model airplane true to reality in all respects, would be an airplane.
However successfully our models reflect reality, we have to live with the fact there will always be lurking ambiguities, uncertainties, scary facts, and things we just don’t know. That can be terrifying.
The way too many people react when confronted by something that pokes a hole in their comforting beliefs, is to attempt to patch the hole. By making up stories.
Stephen W. Browne is a writer, editor, and teacher of martial arts and English as a second language. He is also the founder of the Liberty English Camps, held annually in Eastern Europe, which brings together students from all over Eastern Europe for intensive English study using texts important to the history of political liberty and free markets. In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for his work supporting dissidents during the Milosevic regime. His regularly-updated blog is at StephenWBrowne.com.