Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

Attempts to Reconcile Contradictory Beliefs

I studied Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, and was always a little unnerved to hear about studies that demonstrated substantial ideological contradictions within a single individual. The studies showed even the smartest and most learned people to be almost hypocritical at worst or gullible and ignorant at best. Changing small contexts, adopting slightly different perspectives, and wording questions in different ways or orders  can seemingly produce very different answers and preferences from a single individual with little consistency between the answers. You can find instances where people who identify as conservative favor large scale state intervention in the lives and liberties of individuals. You can also find instances where people who identify as liberal prefer some form of cultural conservatism. People seem to have trouble being internally consistent with their stated values, and that was unnerving for a young college undergrad and grad student who was hoping to better understand how people reached their political and ideological beliefs.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari shows how these internal contradictions and inconsistencies stretch back much further than our current political moment. He writes about Medieval knights struggling to reconcile Christianity with ideas of chivalry and he writes about the struggles of creating a system that incorporates both social equality and individual freedom today. On the latter he writes, “ever since the French Revolution, people throughout the world have gradually come to see both social equality and individual freedom as fundamental values. Yet the two values contradict each other. … The entire political history of the world since 1789 can be seen as a series of attempts to reconcile this contradiction.”
Equality and individual freedom form the backbone of many WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) societies, and while many citizens don’t think about the contradiction of the two values, they are not easily merged together. An authoritarian regime could force some sort of equality onto all people, but it would require a loss of individual freedoms. At the other extreme, society could radically favor individual liberties to the extent where there was no law enforcement because individual freedoms were maximized. This of course would be extremely unequal as some people would literally die while others kept living due to personal choices that threatened the lives of some. These two examples are the extreme poles that few would argue in favor of, but it is worth noting that we are arguing for some sort of balance between two contradictory ideas.
Humans live with more internal inconsistencies than we realize, and we can even flourish within such inconsistencies. Democracies which struggle between liberty and equality have created middle classes, have pushed technological advances, and have generally been attractive places to live. But they are difficult and sometimes unwieldly as people fail to reach cohesive decisions on how much liberty and how much equality a society should strive toward. Much of our lives is spent trying to reconcile inconsistent and even contradictory beliefs within our own lives and within our larger societies. It is a distressing reality, but one that humans seem perfectly able to flourish within. 
Culture, Physics, Noise, & Thrawn

Culture, Physics, Noise, & Thrawn

I am a big fan of Timothy Zahn’s books about the Star Wars character Thrawn, but one critique I would offer is on the way that Thrawn derives insights about entire populations based on their artwork. It’s a fun part of the stories and I don’t mind suspending disbelief as I jump into the fiction worlds that Zahn has helped create, but culture is too turbulent for the ideas to really hold if you don’t work extra hard to suspend your disbelief. The reality is that culture is ever moving, shifting, and swirling, and drawling large conclusions about anyone and anything from artwork is probably not a good judgement practice.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari demonstrates this by contrasting culture with physics. He writes, “every culture has its typical beliefs, norms, and values, but these are in constant flux. … Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions.” Whether it is our political beliefs, the larger influencing factors that shape our media and artwork, or our individual opinions and mood, there is a lot of noise that influences our cultural products. We all see the world through unique perspectives influenced by where we happen to be at any given moment, what our past experiences have been, and factors that we are not even aware of. Drawing a single conclusion about anything is hardly ever possible, even for ideas and memes that are shared throughout a culture.
It is not just Thrawn who draws large overarching conclusions about entire groups of people based on their cultural outputs. Thrawn works because it is something we all do. It is easy to watch a sporting even where our favored team is losing and decide that the opposing team’s fans are savage animals. It is easy to see high school kids these days and decide that they are all degenerates based on seeing the way that a few of them dress and behave. It is easy to make broad assumptions and generalizations about people in another country after seeing a tourism advertisement. In each of these areas our own biases, the randomness of who we see and when, and even deliberate propaganda and framing influences the way we come to understand the world. But how people act and behave, how people dress, and what cultural outputs they create constantly change and are not the same between people or even within the same individual over time. Unlike physics, the culture of a people is constantly ebbing and flowing. It is constantly up for interpretation and debate, and constantly influenced by outside forces or appropriations. In a way we are all Thrawn, making grand pronouncements about others, without recognizing just how turbulent culture truly is and how much noise and variability is possible within a culture.