I find it amazing how many people in western Libya, who supported Gaddafi when it looked like he was going to able to hold Tripoli, will have having not supported him when it became clear that he wasn’t. (I also find it amazing that tense-grammar in English is rich enough that I could have expressed that amazement so succinctly. But I’ll marvel about that another day.)
I find it amazing how many Germans, after the war, had never supported the Nazi regime. And how many closet Italian partigiani-in-waiting there must have been before the sounds of Sherman tanks were heard coming up the road.
This amazement has turned to curiosity. In changing our minds like this – and let’s face it, for these pretty tawdry reasons – do we know we’ve changed our minds for these tawdry reasons? Or do we convince ourselves our minds were as they are now all along?
Here’s why I ask. A couple of years ago I couldn’t have cared less about – how shall I categorize them, so as not to bore you with a tedious list – oh, let’s just call them the ‘green’ issues. Today, in spite of myself, I find little pieces of these – what shall I call them? – political correctednesses, creeping into my lectures and writing.
If I ask myself what I know now about these issues that I didn’t know before, the only honest answer is: diddley squat. If I ask myself whether perhaps, in the interim, I might have subconsciously internalized what little I did know, the answer is: I seriously doubt it. No, I think what happened is that I’ve simply learned to mimic the patter that I’ve learned that others want to hear.
But hold on. Who are these others other than just other me’s? So I can’t help wondering whether they, in turn, have simply mimicked wanting to hear what still other others have wanted to hear. And so on. In fact, isn’t it at least possible that no one believes any of this patter, but we all think we do because, well, why else would we say it and want to hear it?
And then this thought, mistaken though it must clearly be, got me to thinking further. What if every Nazi was just one of these faux Nazis? What if there were no real Nazis at all? What if Hitler was a member of a team of social psychologists who were just curious whether it was possible to create a faux ideology by just saying something outrageous enough, and often enough, and with enough fervor, that people would start mimicking it? But then, having confirmed their conjecture – and much to their chagrin – the thing took on a life of its own. At that point they couldn’t just say, “Just kidding!”, now could they?
As I say, I don’t believe any of this, any more than I believe the moon-landing was staged, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that there was a third gunman on the grassy knoll. (I say third because I was the second, and I didn’t see anyone else with a rifle there that morning.) But surely I’m not the only one to have sat around with his buddies thinking what fun – and how lucrative – it would be to make up a religion. Its metaphysics would have to be really bizarre, the more bizarre the better. Each of its rituals had to have an obscure meaning, and an equally obscure origin, so that scholars could have sober and learned debates about these meanings and origins. And so on.
Great fun, but hardly philosophy. As St. Paul put, “When I was a child … but now that I am a man …”
Still, I think there is a lot of pretending-to-believe – pretending even to oneself – because it takes so much less effort than having to actually come to believe, and because in most cases pretending-to-believe does everything that believing does, but at a fraction of the cost. Pretending-to-believe allows me to say, at dinner parties where things like this are expected to be said, “It’s unconscionable what we’re doing to the ozone layer!” Like complimenting the furniture, it’s social lubrication. Is there something more that believing it’s unconscionable what we’re doing to the ozone layer does that I’ve missed? I don’t think so. The only difference, it seems, is that the real believer has to take the trouble to know what the ozone layer is, whereas I don’t. So it seems that I’m getting the better deal.
Now don’t get me wrong, which of course you will. I’m not saying there aren’t things about which we genuinely need to have an informed view rather than just what others want to hear. I’m just expanding on what my old MA supervisor, Bob Martin, said about differences that can make no difference. Bob was only talking about things like whether everything might be twice the size than we think they are, or whether the works of Shakespeare might have been written not by Shakespeare but by a man of the same name. I’m just suggesting we allow ourselves the same self-mocking nod to things like, “What is it to be a Canadian?” A half dozen of us can go through a dozen jugs of beer on it and not one of us has to know a damn thing!
And what’s especially attractive about my view about views is that you can take the opposite view – and please do! – without ever having to have given it a moment’s thought.
(What a marvelous thing English tense-grammar is that it can be perfectly correct to concatenate “without every having to have given” like this!)