Believe because it is absurd?

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“Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.”

“The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.” – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four


In a series of recent posts, I looked at the process of how a large percentage of the Republican Party has been persuaded, in the course of less than two years, to adopt positions on critical issues that are 180 degrees in opposition to recent earlier positions. In this post, I propose to look more deeply into the “Why?” question. Why would a political leader propose these verifiably-opposing positions, and then require other party leaders go out in public and in the media to swear that, in some cases at least, these have always been the party position?

In those earlier posts, I listed four of these positions. There are more, but let’s go back to these:

Markov Change

Ironically, shortly after those earlier posts, President Trump “doubled down” on the third position after his unsettling meeting with NATO leaders in early July, and before his love-fest meeting with Vladimir Putin several days later:

“I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade,” Trump said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Now you wouldn’t think of the European Union but they’re a foe.” [1]

One can’t help but remember George Orwell’s words from Nineteen Eighty-Four’s protagonist Winston Smith, quoted above, as he tries to cope with the altered history being forced down from his leader. Then we saw the defense from Republican talking heads on the news programs, claiming that the European Union and NATO have too long taken advantage of the United States, and that we need to instead be getting more intimate with Russia. This despite reams of pages of speeches available online from such anti-Russia hawks as Trump’s own national security advisor John Bolton, and decades of commitment from Republicans toward funding NATO military forces and logistical support in Europe as a preferred alternative to stationing these soldiers in the United States.

Add to this spectacle the “corrections” from the White House press office that Trump really meant “wouldn’t” instead of “would,” or “No” not meaning “No” when he was asked about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. These assertions were simply absurd, and to assert otherwise is to insist on “believing the absurd,” reviving a third-century test of fidelity for Trump loyalists.

“The European Union has always been the enemy.” Any rational person struggles to make sense of this “altering of the past.” One news producer on the MSNBC network said that Trump was “peeing on our leg and telling us it’s raining.” Let me try to come up with a more academic reason for this behavior.

From “How?” to “Why?”

My earlier posts on “changing the collective mind” of the electorate used the statistical simulation technique called a Markov Chain to show how a small “defection rate” in one-by-one preference-changing can account for significant shifts in consumer behavior in, say, moving from one restaurant preference to another. And the technique also works in demonstrating the movement from one political position to another. In other words, it does not take as much incremental change as we might think to effect an en masse change of peoples’ minds, but it happens one mind at a time.

Americans, along with much of the rest of the world, live daily in a conflicted reality, where they will stridently deny that media messages and advertising affect them personally, and yet the “media influence business” is a multi-billion-dollar per year economy driver, with the stocks of its purveyors dominating the NASDAQ stock exchange. I call this a collective delusion that advertising does not work on us, when it so obviously does.

And sometimes, those social messages can get ordinary people to believe some really absurd things…

Credo quia absurdum

Early in the third century CE, the early Christian theologian Tertullian wrote a commentary on the death and resurrection of Jesus from which this phrase is widely quoted, commonly translated as “I believe because it is absurd.” Now, Tertullian didn’t quite say that, and arguably he didn’t mean this in the way that it has since been most commonly interpreted. [2] However, the phrase has since more widely been quoted to describe people who rigidly stand their ground on increasingly irrational and incredulous beliefs. At some point, you are so far “into crazy-land” that it becomes impossible to walk the belief back, and your defense of the absurd becomes itself ever more absurd.

It is clear that the White House communications office employees are commanded to go in front of cameras daily and defend the most absurd of positions as tests of loyalty to the President. A hint of doubt or skepticism gets you escorted off the White House grounds, it appears. Let me suggest that the whole idea of “Why?” is a pure test of loyalty to the President. Are you willing to “Kellyanne Conway” yourself on national TV in order to defend the absurd with a straight face?

Where does this end? The defense of absurdity extends to religious leaders like Franklin Graham and political leaders like Mitch McConnell, who both strongly defend presidential behavior that would have sent them into shrill calls for impeachment just two years ago. There seems to be no bounds on the forms of mistreatment of women, or abuse of refugee children, or slandering of career law enforcement workers, or aggression by “former enemy” dictators that these people will not excuse.

Do they know that they are defending the absurd? Do they know that we know that what they are saying is absurd?


Notes:

  1. O’Reilly, Andrew. “Trump Says ‘European Union Is a Foe’ to US Ahead of Summit with Putin.” Fox News, 15 July 2018.
  2. A phrase similar to, but slightly different, from the common quote “Credo quia absurdum” appears in Tertullian’s polemic De Carne Christi, in which he argued against the Gnostic Docetists, asserting that Jesus really had a human body. Rather than an rejection of basic rationality, as it appears on the surface, it is often argued that Tertullian was instead more simply asserting the need, in the end, for “faith” in order to resolve difficult religious questions.

 

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