The contradictions are what make us interesting. The person who sends a yearly cheque to PETA, the purist animal-rights group, but who still loves to dig into a thick, juicy steak. The business owner who supports higher taxes and encourages their employees to form a union. The skinny antiwar pacifist – the proverbial 98-pound weakling – who steps into a boxing ring and gleefully proceeds to pummel his muscled-bound opponent into a bloody mess.
These are all examples involving real people. Many of you might recognize the last one, which recently involved two high-profile politicians and received wall-to-wall media coverage. The contradictions may sometimes be more apparent than real, meaning that our expectations are confounded.
Depending on your point-of-view, the above-mentioned situations could more represent a state of hypocrisy than a contradiction. I would contradict that argument. The human character is a complex whole that is much, much more than a simple sum (or subtraction) of its parts.
For journalists and other storytellers, this seam is a rich one to mine. We love to unearth past statements by politicians that contradict their actions when are in power. US President Barack Obama is a heartbreaking goldmine in this sense, as his stirring campaign rhetoric wilts in the harsh realities of the compromises and outright betrayal required by the exercise of wielding and retaining power.
And yet, the best chroniclers of the human condition are able to explore this territory with a minimum of judgment in an attempt to gain a maximum of understanding. Sometimes, living with contradictions is simply a condition of being alive.
It’s possible to be a fervent environmentalist, for example, while engaging in the often-necessary evil of owning and operating a combustion-engine automobile. If a viable transportation alternative does not exist, and using a car is the only means of carrying out the good works that may be the driver’s other laudable priorities in life (such as providing for one’s family), well, it’s an overall balance that we’re looking for. Hopefully, by the time we reach our deathbed, most of us can look back on our lives and feel that our good deeds outweighed our not-so-good ones.
There are, of course, other kinds of contradictions that don’t invite such equivocation. Take the classic line from the Vietnam War era: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” To the person who uttered it, the ends justified the means. To the rest of us, it’s a contradiction that cannot be forgiven. That’s how political ideology works to lesson our humanity; it’s very effective at helping us justify actions that in reality completely contradict the creed one ostensibly espouses.
Personally, I am an anti-imperialist who nonetheless believes that armed intervention is sometimes necessary in order to prevent a greater evil, such as genocide. But I struggle with this position when the death toll mounts and the achievable goals get ever more blurry and distant.
In this vein, the worst forms of contradictions are those that brim with self-righteousness even as they cause terrible collateral damage. We are all familiar with the TV Holy Roller who broadcasts a poisonous but lucrative brew of religion and hatred, infecting many innocent bystanders with the cancer of shame.
Among the many victims of this cultural poison are the gay youth who end up committing suicide to escape the self-hatred they are taught to feel at a fragile age. And when the same televangelist is subsequently discovered in a seedy motel room with a male hustler and a bag of meth, he inevitably and tearfully pleads for Christian forgiveness of his contradictions. He’s only human, after all.
It’s true. He is only human. Too bad his invisible victims didn’t get the same consideration.
It’s important to separate the honest contradictions from outright lies, however. The ostensible credo of our Conservative government is one of liberty and independence of state control. Yet, in action, the Harper government rampantly contradicts the most deeply held principles of its supporters.
The Tories attempted to implement blanket state surveillance of our online activities, though they are in temporary retreat in the face of universal public condemnation of this totalitarian tendency.
Would it always be so. They claim that the state shouldn’t intervene in the economy, by picking winners or losers. And yet, now that the so-called free-market conservatives are in charge, they don’t hesitate to use state power to implement back-to-work legislation on union members who try to use their legal and democratic right to withhold their labour during contract negotiations with their employers (even as the Tories display endless tolerance for businesses that engage in long lock-outs of their unionized workforce).
Worst of all, the platitudes and rhetoric over promoting democracy abroad is revealed as empty when we discover that this government’s majority was obtained last year by engaging in massive electoral fraud to prevent people from exercising their right to vote.
But I digress. Perhaps the will to power in the 21st century makes such contradictions necessary. Moral judgments of the state of contradiction may now be so much dust in the wind, and have as much impact.
Consider the classic quotation by the great American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” he observed, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”