In 1984, the book, not the year, George Orwell, borrowing from that most brilliant German language concept of compound words, introduced us to the concept of doublethink, the act of accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. It’s slightly different from hypocrisy where there is an element of selfish convenience involved. It’s different from neutrality, which refers to the absence of belief in either side of the story and it’s different from cognitive dissonance, where the mind is actually troubled by the presence of opposing viewpoints, like two protons in an unstable nucleus. Doublethink is like two elephants in the room, sitting on the sofa, both blissfully knitting sweaters while watching TV and not paying any attention to one another. It is well and truly one of the most remarkable features of the human brain.
Let’s start with the simple ones we all indulge in at some point or the other.
We believe we must fit into society and yet stand out. Our parents believe we must follow our dreams and yet find a secure job. We like rags-to-riches stories and we believe money can’t buy happiness. Our lives are ordained by fate and we must exercise our free will. We must be fiercely individual and yet an excellent team player. We must act our age but we are only as old as we think we are.
There are also some tricky ones. Affirmative action (also known as reservations in this part of the world) is the idea of ending discrimination by practising it. It’s the idea of improving meritocracy by not being strictly meritocratic. One way of looking at it is as righting past wrongs by giving certain groups of traditionally disadvantaged people a leg up. There is no clear evidence that this actually works, but everyone agrees that it cannot be a permanent solution.
The interesting thing about affirmative action is that the doublethink works both ways. If you are for affirmative action, then you are practicing discrimination in order to end it. If you are against reservations of any kind, then you are claiming to support meritocracy while doing nothing to level the playing field. You might claim, on the other hand, that better education is the solution and that government schools must be improved but you can’t improve those schools without the middle class sending their children there. You can’t have ghettos and egalitarian meritocracy at the same time, unless you are comfortable with that doublethink.
Things get even trickier when it comes to religion. It’s my personal theory that it’s called brainwashing because it mostly involves the act of dividing your brain into a washer and dryer and putting your original thoughts through both to completely disorient your worldview. For instance, God is omnipotent, merciful and compassionate but will make you burn in hell if you do not believe in his omnipotence. This is confusing because it shouldn’t really matter to someone with that kind of cosmic power that some people don’t believe in him.
Another example — my religion is the paragon of tolerance and broad-mindedness but I will not tolerate you taking advantage of that tolerance and making fun of it. A slight variation of this is — I will allow you to make fun of my religion only if you equally make fun of this other religion. This is a classic example of the doublethink template that goes “I am <positive adjective>, but <contradiction to positive adjective>”.
Politics is obviously a goldmine of doublethink.
It is sometimes okay to “spread democracy” by waging war and killing people. Then there is something called responsible free speech. And there is the War on Terror, which is particularly funny because it’s a war on an abstract noun used to describe a common war tactic (terror). Then there is the Defence Department which often plays offence by fighting for peace with peace-keeping forces. And there is holy war to keep the holiness of peace.
We have simply got so used to these completely contrasting words being put next to one another like two mismatched people at an arranged marriage girlcheckoutification that I think it will take an alien civilisation to come to earth, learn the language, and then point out that there’s something bizarrely odd about “holy war” and “fighting for peace”.
Ideologies can also be susceptible. Here’s a classic one from India. There are a significant number of people on one side of our political spectrum who have a history of idolising Hitler’s strength and resolve and yet simultaneously admiring Israeli Zionism, which brings us full circle from Orwell’s German language inspired doublethink to the most ironic example of its use — admiring both Hitler and the Jewish people.