This piece is inspired by Paul Frijters’ post titled The Benefits of Being Dumb in Politics. I don’t actually think it is possible meaningfully/reliably to distinguish between politicians who are “really smart and great actors as well, who thus have no problems with telling outright lies and with backstabbing” and those autistic egomaniacs who “are sincere because they truly do not see the inconsistencies and selfishness in their own actions and those of others”.
11. KP: In fact political discourse (and indeed human discourse in general) is a complex, interwoven continuum of truth, lies and self-deception. I suspect that the most common mix in the political arena is that the politician calculatedly oversimplifies her own position and skates over its deficiencies, while equally deliberately demonising and exaggerating the shortcomings of her opponent. Nevertheless, she fundamentally and sincerely believes (rightly or wrongly) that her own position is markedly superior to that of her opponent. She accepts that effective communication with a mass audience of largely disengaged voters inhibits the conveying of nuance and complexity. [↩]Paul’s own attempted assignment of various particular politicians to each category appears to me to be at best arbitrary. How could one possibly reliably distinguish between the two categories without being able to read the politician’s mind? After three hours of interviews with Kerry O’Brien I still can’t really tell where Paul Keating is engaging in calculated bullshit and where he is deluding himself.
Nevertheless, the musings of both Pauls give rise to some important points. Not even the most intelligent and well-educated of us is as reliably reflective, analytical and rational as we like to imagine. All of us unavoidably make frequent use of heuristics in decision-making; all of us frequently exhibit cognitive phenomena like confirmation bias; and all of us mostly make moral judgements by a process that clinical psychologist Jonathan Haidt christened social intuitionism.
Moreover, there is cogent evidence that Paul Frijters’ somewhat uncharitable labelling of autistic egomaniac politicians actually identifies a widespread and perhaps even universal cognitive phenomenon, certainly one that is not confined to politicians. As far as I know, the phenomenon was first labelled as a politico-literary trope by George Orwell in
Animal Farm 1984. He called it doublethink:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink …
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.
However, recent social science research suggests that doublethink is not just a dystopian literary construct but a real behavioural phenomenon that many if not most of us sometimes exhibit in social situations:
Operating in this way becomes occupational and organisational commonsense. Because any reflection and questioning would interfere with and obstruct the containment of the contradiction, the absence of reflexivity which Oakes (1990) observed becomes necessary and arguably intentional. Doublethink and reflexivity are arguably mutually inconsistent, at least across the brackets or boxes which contain the contradiction. This leads us to a further possible explanation for the act of doublethink (which Gilian’s “frontal lobotomy” Orwellian doublethink example points us to) associated with the construction of ignorance (Wynne, 1995). We turn again to Oakes (1990) here who draws on Nietzsche’s notion of the “will to ignorance” (Nehamas, 1985).
The will to ignorance is a decision not to know something: that in acquiring and practising skills essential to personal sales, the salesperson not only remains ignorant of other things, but also fails to know what these other things are. In the final analysis, this amounts to a decision to limit reflection to a certain sphere of occupational functions in a way that excludes recognition of the conflicts of the sales process. As a result, the experience of these conflicts remains below the salesperson’s cognitive horizon. Thus in learning the practice of the sales process, the salesperson also learned the means of rendering the antinomies of the process invisible.
Doublethink is thus usefully employed to keep one utterance separate or bracketed off from its contradictory counterpart such that never the twain shall meet. It is not that there is no reflective activity, but that such reflection is confined to a particular box or bracket. There is no apparent tussle between our participants’ contradictory beliefs, no detectable sense of implacable struggle, and no need for one to win out over the other. This is not a case of either/or but a case of both/and. Both coexist and they are able to do so through the act of doublethink. In this way, organisational members are able to go about their organisational lives free from the sorts of crippling dilemmas which, in the absence of doublethink, they might have to confront day in day out. Doublethink creates and sustains a “protective cocoon” (Giddens, 1991). We argued here, however, that these tensions are not resolved, at least not in the way Giddens and others have suggested. Security does not derive from a stable and consistent single personal narrative. As we have seen, participants in our study have more than one personal narrative. Whilst each individual narrative may be internally consistent and coherent, it frequently conflicts with and contradicts other narratives which the individual articulates. We see security as deriving from keeping separate or bracketing these contradictory and conflicting dimensions. Both recent work (Ashforth, 2001) and not so recent work (Lieberman, 1956) has shown how people’s roles shape their attitudes and actions, but this refers to roles held sequentially. That is, people leave one before taking on the next. Our data suggest that multiple roles held simultaneously can have similar effects.
Several elements of our tentative explanations for doublethink discussed above imply that although doublethink is not conscious, it is in some way intentional or at least performed to fulfil a goal. Clearly, the language of psychoanalytic psychology is consistent with unconscious intention, and indeed the notion has been applied to Freud himself (Halpern, 1999). Findings of some experimental studies have been said to support the idea that volitional action is triggered before it reaches conscious awareness, although this has been challenged on the grounds that the person can articulate a general intention well before they perform a specific action consistent with it (Zhu, 2003). Perhaps most relevant to this article, however is Bargh and Chartrand’s (1999) analysis of what they call “the unbearable automaticity of being”. They conclude that unconscious monitoring of stimuli helps us maintain focus on specific tasks, so that effectively the conscious and the unconscious are working together. It may be that doublethink is one product of unconscious processes allowing conscious attention to focus on whatever enables the person to function at that moment.
It may well be that George Orwell conceived doublethink merely as an exaggerated dystopian vision of a nightmarish future, rather than an accurate description of how many of us actually behave when confronted with conflicting social expectations, because he was writing at a time when electronic mass media were still in their infancy. The mass media age highlights the extent to which politicians exhibit and (sometimes) sincerely hold contradictory positions for different audiences. Nevertheless, the highlighting effect of mass media does not stop them from doing it nor does it stop the rest of us from believing them when it suits us to do so (confirmation bias). Fortunately, the utterances of non-politicians are not usually electronically recorded, otherwise the extent to which we are continually surrounded by (and creating our own) bullshit would be depressingly apparent. Indeed the delusionary aspects of doublethink may well be necessary to our psychic survival. Psychiatrist R.D. Laing argued that schizophrenia was not so much a mental illness as a reasonable response to being put in impossible situations, where sufferers are unable to conform to the conflicting expectations of their peers.