". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Sloppy Thinking

Doublethink: the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs simultaneously without seeing or questioning the contradiction between them. The term was coined by George Orwell in the classic book 1984. In the novel, doublethink refers to the unthinking citizen's ability to accept without question the government's constantly changing version of the truth (which we might call doublespeak, although the term doesn't appear in the book). So the government can claim to have raised the chocolate ration, even though the facts say it was lowered, and the masses nod and cheer at their good fortune and question not a thing. Anyone who pays the slightest attention to the news knows that doublethink is a phenomenon that is not limited to futuristic 20th century fiction. It is with us today, not only in the public sphere but in the private one. In our sinful condition, we human beings have an unlimited capacity for self-deception and rationalization that makes its way into all aspects of our lives and thus into all our social institutions, large and small. The only cure for that sickness is repentance, and the only thing that will put an end to it is the destruction of this fallen earthly kingdom and the establishment of God's perfect, eternal one. But in the meantime, we have to make the best of the here and now, so it sure would be nice if we would all use our God-given intellect to think a little more and feel a little less, at least when it comes to the world of facts.

So, doublespeak is intentional manipulation of facts in order to mislead and thereby control, whereas doublethink is the lazy mindset that makes doublespeak possible. Here is a case in point of how easy it is to practice doublethink, even when the two things that are mutually contradictory are side by side, staring you in the face. On July 4, the Associated Press published an article by Tom Roam entitled, "Rising debt might be next crisis." (Well, duh--but that's not the point here, so we'll move on.) Here are the opening paragraphs of the article:

"The Founding Fathers left one legacy not celebrated on Independence Day but which affects us all. It's the national debt.

"The country first got into debt to help help pay for the Revolutionary War. Growing ever since, the debt stands today at a staggering $11.5 trillion--equivalent to more than $37,000 for each and every American. And it's expanding by more than $1 trillion a year."

The history buffs out there may have already spotted the factual error. (Those facts--they're such inconvenient, pesky little things.) The national debt has not been "growing ever since" the Revolutionary War. In fact, President Andrew Jackson paid it off, rejecting one infrastructure project after another to do so. At other times in the nation's history, it has risen and fallen in tandem with the country's economic health and involvement (or lack thereof) in war. Yes, the overall trend has been upward from the founding until now. But to state that the debt has been rising ever since the nation's inception is inaccurate and disingenuous. And to refer to it as the Founding Fathers' "legacy" takes the pressure off those who bear current responsibility by suggesting that the debt has always been with us and is a fact of life that we have little choice but to accept.

Here's where the doublethink comes in. In the Northwest Herald, the McHenry County, IL newspaper in which my husband and I saw this article (while attending my friend's son's wedding), there was a bullet list of facts to one side of the article. One of those bullets stated, "The nation has been out of debt only once since the American Revolution: in 1834-35." Well, what do you know? Someone apparently does care about the facts. I'm thinking the credit for that bullet point probably goes to the Northwest Herald, because it's not an element of the multiple places you can find the article online (the article itself does eventually get around to saying it, but it's much later on in the story. And if you're like me, you often scan news articles, reading the headline and maybe the first few paragraphs, but only continuing if the article really interests you, which in this case would give a skewed picture. So kudos to the Northwest Herald for highlighting the facts in a way that provides a fuller, more accurate picture.)

Even with the bullet point, though, I bet most people would not pick up on the contradiction in the article. Full disclosure: I didn't (my husband pointed it out to me). I am as much a lazy thinker as the next person, accepting without questioning too much of what is placed before me. This wasn't a matter of my needing to know the historical record in order to recognize the contradiction. The contradiction was right there before me in black and white. Maybe if I had read the whole article from start to finish it would have sunk in that something wasn't computing. But from my cursory look at the headline, the opening few paragraphs and the bullet points, I didn't immediately see it. And I think of myself as a fairly intelligent and clear-thinking person.

So what's the answer? I don't know. I think my own response has been to become incredibly skeptical about the information that comes my way (just ask my husband). I don't trust anyone much--even those whose integrity I would bet money on--because I imagine they are probably just as susceptible to being duped as I am. Much of what I read goes in one ear and out the other because I doubt its veracity but don't have the time to pursue the truth of the matter. It's frustrating, because in our information society--the one I first heard about some years ago in the book Megatrends--it is more important than ever that we practice critical information consumption. And yet because of the constant onslaught of information I think human beings have less capacity to concentrate and pay attention these days (so much for evolutionary theory--I would argue we're devolving, not evolving). The ability to think critically--to not merely absorb information but to analyze, categorize, and organize it--seems to be a dying art in our postmodern world. I think that's why our culture has become so dominated by feelings and impressions and intuitions and headlines and soundbites. So maybe that's where the gut comes in. If your gut--not your heart or even your head but your gut--tells you something isn't adding up, it probably isn't.


Susan said...

Hypothesis: Gut can be a good guideline only if the brain has had previous practice with critical thinking and being filled with honest-to-goodness facts. Otherwise the gut runs on emotional fumes.

(This just now crossed my mind. Whadya think? Is this a reasonable hypothesis?)

Cheryl said...

Sounds good to me!