“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of what he was never reasoned into.”Jonathon Swift
I came across this quote at the head of the Iraqi blog Healing Iraq. It may well become humanity’s epitaph but in the meantime it reminded me of a recent encounter with irrationality.
In the winter holidays I found myself in the UK at the dinner table with a certain old crusty, who shall for the purposes of this essay be known as Old Crusty.
Old Crusty well knows that he and I disagree on much and he likes to bait me. On this occasion he was pontificating about the Iraq war, of which he is an enthusiastic fan. For the sake of family peace, I try to ignore his provocations, but on this night before Crimbo I did indulge myself a little by pointing out the hypocrisy of Blair and co. showing so much concern over the killing of foxes (i.e. in banning fox hunting) while happily playing accomplice to the slaughter of Iraqi children. Old Crusty in his best patronising tones told me, ‘Children die every day, old boy.’
I was astonished into silence by the callousness and illogic of the remark. Yes, children die everyday of natural causes, starvation and the rest of it, but, Old Crusty dear, that does not justify shooting them, dropping HE and cluster bombs on them and is no cause to immolate them with napalm — all of which is basically what the US military is doing in Iraq and Afghanistan on a daily basis.
The thing is, Old Crusty’s intellect is impaired by a need to believe. Some people believe in religion or fairies or an ideology. It gives meaning and structure to life and thought processes when the imagination or the IQ is not up to scratch.
Old Crusty and any poor soul who operates on faith rather than reason will forever be condemned to filter what they see and hear to fit the belief, rather than the other way round, which is the basis of rationality.
In this case, Old Crusty has faith in matters martial and manly and conservative. In this creed (and I use that word carefully), war is noble and worthwhile and one of those hard choices in life like cold showers and putting bromide in your tea. He spends much of his free time absorbing books and films about WWI and WWII, and steeps himself in tales of derring do. It is a bit sad and pathetic really — heroism by proxy; he has never seen active service.
Concomitant to this is an unshakeable faith in the goodness and superiority of Britain and the US. The British Empire civilised the savage and America is fighting for freedom and democracy. Foreigners are handicapped by not being British or American.
Consequently, if war is noble and we are always right, we filter out facts that don’t fit our world view and adjust morality to encompass what’s left. Thus civilian deaths as a result of our actions are ‘just one of life’s harsh realities’ like earthquakes and tsunami (or they don’t happen at all — see Fox and CNN). Civilian deaths brought about by the actions of our enemies are murder.
Yet Old Crusty will never see the illogic of his position. He will forever be incapable of seeing that invading Afghanistan and Iraq was wrong because the justifications were built of lies that hid the true motivations, because to do so would be to shatter his whole belief system.
When pushed, the veneer of justification falls away: he eventually declared that we need oil so we should control it.
There! Killing foreign children to maintain our standard of living and pollution is fair and reasonable. Presumably because kids die every day. Got it?
So, why is it worth mentioning this one dinner table spat with this mad old gentleman?
Because it matters, that’s why. Crusty cannot be dismissed, as many would, as a harmless old eccentric. Old Crusty has the vote. Crusty’s enthusiasm for Western superiority through military might enables raw power to function. Moreover, Old Crusty is not alone. Perhaps Old Crusty is atypical in the way that he manufactures his belief system with the mania of a religion, but too many people fall foul of the same bad thinking. Many, many people believe in their rightness first and cannot accept that we might be in the wrong, because such acceptance is too challenging about ourselves. Too many people accept myth in place of reason. Here you are, fans of difficult choices: accept what is right, that we are wrong; or accept what is wrong, that we are right.
Old crusties die every day, so by crusty logic should we institute a cull?