Living in the Age of Contradiction
My first philosophy professor at the university, when it could still be plausibly described as a place of learning, was a deceptively brilliant man. Professor Henderson was prone to delivering a string of resonant tautologies as if permitting us a glimpse into the most solemn and abyssal mysteries of metaphysical speculation. I recall in particular one lecture in which, before a packed but comatose auditorium of resentful sophomores, he expounded on the great dictum of the pre-Socratic sage Parmenides: “Whatever is, is.” Those of us who were still awake had no idea how to react. Should we ask for an explication? Were we missing something? Were we too callow to fathom so profound an indubitably mystical utterance? Or, more cynically, if this was philosophy, was it a discipline we should consider pursuing? Whatever is, is?
I got to know Professor Henderson a little better in the latter years of the general arts curriculum and discovered a number of salient facts about him: he was a friend of Bertrand Russell, whom he called “Bertie,” was chauffeured to university in the back seat of a silver-and-green Bentley, like a contemporary Plato on a visit to the court of Dionysius of Syracuse, and always managed to suggest that the given was precisely that which was rarely understood, that the obvious was usually inscrutable to the lazy mind. Clearly, he was no rubicund eminence waiting to be pastured out into the land of memoirs and reminiscences, as many of his students tended to think, but an impressive scholar familiar with the arcana of his subject. Whatever is, indeed is. It is more than we assume and at the same time less than we typically dissemble. “We have great trouble,” he once said to me, “with the is. We are far more comfortable with the is not. Pity.”
Half a lifetime later, I find myself thinking back to Professor Henderson’s Parmenidean analysis of the world, not so much in a metaphysical but in a political and cultural framework. It seems far more pertinent to me now than it did when I was his often baffled student. We live in a very strange time, an age whose mindset is dominated by the spirit of contradiction and non sequitur, as if in a concerted assault on the Parmenidean apothegm and its expansion in Aristotle’s laws of thought as enunciated in the Metaphysics: namely, the laws of Identity, Non-contradiction and the Excluded Middle. It seems that we in the West have taken direct aim at these axioms, which govern coherent thinking and are clearly mutually implicated. The Law of Identity, a slightly exfoliated re-statement of the Parmenidean maxim, maintains that “everything is the same with itself and different from another”; that is, everything that exists has a specific nature and cannot be something other while retaining its particularity. The Law of Non-contradiction stipulates that “one cannot say of something that it is and is not in the same respect and at the same time.” The Law of the Excluded Middle states that “there cannot be an intermediate between contradictories, but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate.”
Violation of these laws in the domains of experience and discourse cannot be explained away as a manifestation of fuzzy logic, as developed by AI researcher Lotfi Zadeh in the 1960s, who used the concept of “degrees of truth” to refine the laws of mathematics and their eventual application to computer technology. We use fuzzy logic in everyday life in those cases where judgment is inherently uncertain -- how fast is that car approaching? -- or playfully paradoxical -- is the glass half full or half empty? But in the sphere of determinate events -- the jetliners piloted by jihadists are flying toward the towers in order to kill as many people as possible -- logic can be fuzzified only at our peril. In other words, fuzzy logic is not the same thing as fuzzy thinking; the first is chiefly the purview of competent specialists in a scientific discipline (and individuals in intrinsically fluid situations), the latter is the staple of the liberal intelligentsia, post-modernists, post-colonialists and progressivist ideologues.
The basic laws of human thought as defined by Aristotle have been deliberately infringed in the totalitarian political space, the subject of Orwell’s classic dystopian study 1984, which, by an apt reversal confirming its thesis, was written in 1948. One can summarize the nature of totalitarian language -- Orwell’s Newspeak -- in the anti-Parmenidean phrase as “Whatever is, isn’t.” In Orwell’s account: War is Peace. Slavery is Freedom. Ignorance is Strength.
Communism and socialism continue to thrive, if not prosper, on such perversions of cogent reasoning: the individual finds his fulfillment in the collective; redistribution of wealth leads to personal incentive; nationalization of industry and finance are the infallible conditions of increased productivity; property held in common is the road toward a social utopia devoid of envy and competitiveness. Experience has proven otherwise, but such precepts are plainly irrational and contra naturam, as should have been evident from the start to anyone not blinded by ideological convictions.
Analogously, those of a social reconstructionist persuasion, mainly academics, believe that human nature as we have known it since time immemorial is merely a political and cultural artifice. We come into the world as blank slates or undifferentiated beings and are then imprinted or indoctrinated with a “nature” -- a dogma which creates the insoluble problem of origins. Who or what was the initiating presence? A related form of social reconstructionism -- deriving from Michel de Montaigne’s praise for the “noble savage” in “On Cannibals” (1580) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s exposition of the mythologem in Discourse on Inequality (1755) -- holds that primitive man was more peaceful, cooperative and egalitarian than civilized man and that the psychological structure of modern man can be radically expunged to allow the pristine substratum to re-emerge. These feeble and decrepit assumptions constitute a flagrant contradiction of everything we know from the anthropological study of primitive tribes and the fossil record. As historian Bruce Thornton comments, “Wisdom once known by every village explainer and cracker-barrel crank has been discarded and replaced with phony ‘sciences’ making claims about human nature and behavior that are based on nothing other than false assumptions, political ideology, and wishful thinking.” He might as well have said: specious thinking, though his allusion to the West’s “abject stupidity” is close enough.
To take a recent case in point. Lorna Salzman in Humanist Perspectives tells the story of Napoleon Chagnon, an evolutionary anthropologist who lived among the South American Yanomamo tribes. Using “scientific and statistical methodologies as well as first-hand observation,” Chagnon showed that the laws of nature working through genetic selection were valid, ascertainable and inescapable -- for which defection from the shibboleths and clichés of the day he found himself the target of a storm of “slanders, lies, distortions…intended to destroy [his] career and reputation.” The army of cultural anthropologists and social scientists who have invested in the canard that “humans are above Nature, not subject to her laws, have no evolutionary history [and] no genetically conferred attributes” cannot permit rational thought and empirical evidence to interfere with their theoretical hallucinations.
The absurdity doesn’t stop there. Such theorists also assert that gender -- some even go so far as to say sex -- is entirely a social construct, one’s identity as feminine or masculine, female or male unrelated to one’s physical anatomy. Anatomy is a delusion, a mere datoid that disguises the “truth” that gender identity is voluntary, an expression of desire or feeling rather than palpably somatic, a physical fact of nature. We are not dealing here with the rigors of evolutionary biology but with the illicit and puerile effort to force nature to conform to ideology. A man is a woman is a hermaphrodite -- a blatant violation of the Law of Identity.
The political and intellectual realms have been equally vitiated, corrupted beyond recognition. Every day another instance of cognitive debauchery surfaces, to the extent that the denial of reality has become the new normal and its formulation the new lingua franca. Of course, such intentional distortion has an ancient pedigree, but it has now become the very air we breathe. Thus a “psychotic thug” and coward like Che Guevara can be widely lionized as a noble and selfless revolutionary, in the face of an Everest of countervailing evidence. Thus an academic thesis vetted by Hebrew University in Jerusalem claims that Israeli soldiers are racist because they refuse to rape Palestinian women. Thus the epidemic of black violence in America, not only against whites but in the black community itself, is the direct consequence of white bigotry. Thus George Zimmerman is a “white Hispanic” -- another brazen fracture of the Law of Identity. Thus the carnage at Fort Hood unleashed by a Muslim jihadist shouting Allahu Akbar is re-designated as “workplace violence.” Thus bombing Syria is not an act of war. Everything is what it is not and is not what it is.
When, for example, President Obama declares at a Business Roundtable speech that “raising the debt ceiling…does not increase our debt,” we find ourselves once again in terra noncognita. To raise the debt ceiling is an affirmation of the intention to accumulate more debt, else there would be no need to do so; to say that it does not or will not lead to an increase of indebtedness is a denial of the implicit affirmation. Once again, the Law of Contradiction has been wantonly transgressed -- a maneuver that has rapidly become the presidential mode of communication. One notes such neural dereliction in the president’s September 24 speech to the UN, in which he lays it down that “Israel’s security…depends upon the realization of a Palestinian state.” In other words, the survival of the Jewish state depends upon an entity that rabidly seeks its destruction. As Israeli journalist David Hornik puts it, “suicide is security,” an aphorism that would be right at home in 1984.
Israel, of course, is a magnet for counterfactual thinking. To affirm the existence of the Jewish people but to deny the right of Israel to exist, a staple ploy among anti-Zionists, is one more conspicuous example of a violation of the Second Law. Israel is among the oldest nations on the planet, has always been a home to Jews even when they were a minority, was formally re-established as a haven for a dispossessed and decimated people, and has figured in the Passover prayer as a solemn promise sworn by Jews since the prayer was first uttered. That some Jews may repudiate their “promised land” or do not make aliya does not alter the fact that Judaism and Israel are coterminous. There can be no Judaism without the concept, the hope and the ancestral reality of the Jewish state. To reject the nation while affirming the people is both an instance of bad faith and of faulty thinking.
To take another howling example of cognitive dissonance: when British PM David Cameron asserts that the savage attack on the Nairobi mall by the al-Shabab terror group explicitly targeting non-Muslims -- those who could cite the name of Mohammed’s mother or recite an Islamic prayer were spared -- has nothing to do with Islam, we are back in anti-Parmenidean country, witnessing the depraved politicos of 1984 stepping out of the pages of the novel into the very world we are living in. Here we go again: what is, isn’t. Such examples can be multiplied indefinitely and readily observed by anyone still capable of practicing the law of non-contradiction in a time given over to the imperium of antinomial speculation, aka the reign of pure mendacity.
The sordid pageant of unabashed duplicity and crippled thinking continues apace, especially with regard to the abomination of canonical Islam, popularly misrepresented as “Islamism.” The term “Islamism” furnishes a good illustration of breaching the Law of the Excluded Middle, which, as we recall, states that a proposition is either true or false; there cannot be anything in between. But the term effectively affirms and denies the source of terror at the same time, while producing an intermediate entity or “predicate” to camouflage the rhetorical operation. On the one hand, practicing Muslims are on the rampage, diligently following the dictates of their foundational scriptures; on the other, they are not really authentic Muslims at all but free-floating “militants” (according to the BBC), “Asians,” disaffected “youth,” “fanatics,” “zealots” -- anything but Islamic terrorists. Consequently, the terror campaign from which we suffer is somehow Islamic and yet not Islamic, hence “Islamist.”
Nonetheless, far too many of us persist in believing that what is isn’t and in refusing to exclude the illegitimate middle. Consider. After 9/11, when 3000 people were incinerated; after another 22,000-and-counting terror attacks around the world; after the bloody civil war in Syria with its more than 100,000 casualties and the displacement of millions; after events such as the atrocities recently committed in Kenya (68 dead), Pakistan (78 dead), Iraq (96 dead) and Nigeria (142 dead) -- and another 50 or more college students at the Yobe State College of Agriculture murdered in their sleep by jihadists on September 29); after the random killings in the streets of France, Canada, the UK, the U.S. and other countries; and after the mounting number of planned attacks that have been foiled -- after all this and more, we have come to the happy conclusion that Islam is a religion of peace that has been hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists. That their marching orders come straight out of the holy texts to which Muslims adhere and that there have been no massive demonstrations by moderate Muslims protesting the ostensible perversion of their faith are, apparently, matters of little import. In the bizarro world of the liberal West, the evidence is undeniable that Islam really does mean peace. The higher the mound of corpses rising before our eyes, the greater the certainty that Islam intends us no harm and that Islamic culture, despite minor irritants like stoning for adultery, gay bashing, Jew hatred, honor killing and female genital mutilation, is rich in practical benefits and theological wisdom from which the West can learn.
Broadly speaking, the lie has been institutionalized as the truth, deeply embedded everywhere we care to look: in the academy, in politics, in the media, in the intellectual arena, in the entertainment industry, in large segments of the electoral constituency, and in the public forum in general. There can be no question, then, that in the current age the lie has achieved industrial strength and the violation of the fundamental laws of thought has become ubiquitous and endemic. Bad thinking has acquired something like corporate status; the fact that it is morbid and infectious does not prevent it from appearing as perfectly normal and unexceptionable.
It can take many forms: willful blindness, calculated evasion, “re-interpretation” of the obvious to mean something else, revisionary history (Ilan Pappe, Howard Zinn), outright fabrication (Israel as an apartheid state), treating real conspiracies as hoaxes (9/11) and hoaxes as real conspiracies (Elders of Zion), reversing the sign of events (blaming Egyptian Copts for the slaughter of Christians), and, of course, the mental disease of political correctness -- “how on earth could this great civilization of ours have degraded into such hypocritical nonsense as political correctness?”, ask Soviet dissidents Vladimir Bukovsky and Pavel Stroilov in their defense of Diana West’s American Betrayal.
Contradiction is consistency. “Political dishonesty has become so pervasive,” writes Frank Camp in Last Resistance, “digging its roots into the deepest parts of our culture, that we are easily fooled.” The dishonesty, however, is not only political, a region in which cant and casuistry are standard elements. Moral cowardice and bogus cerebration have invaded every nook and cranny of quotidian and professional life. We now find ourselves embroiled in a moral and intellectual crisis of world-historical proportions, living as we do in a civilization in which the rot of consensual prevarication, indifference to the moral code, and illogical thinking has burrowed so far inward as to augur with decisive finality the cultural marasmus of the West. When lie is heaped upon lie and contradiction upon contradiction, we remark the forging of a vast mental and moral Ponzi scheme that must one day come crashing down.
No doubt, Aristotle has been spinning in his grave since the 4th century B.C.; today he will be virtually centrifugal. Perhaps the last words should be left to professor Henderson and the medieval Persian philosopher Avicenna. As the professor noted, when the Parmenidean dictum is violated, it is indeed a “pity” and leads to “great trouble.” And as the philosopher pointed out in his The Metaphysics of The Healing, “Anyone who denies the Law of Non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”
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