Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Please note the modifier: “foolish.” He is not saying that it is foolish to be consistent. He is saying it is foolish to cling to a position despite the evidence that displaces that position, despite evidence to the contrary. We seem to love foolish consistencies in this country and to distrust anyone who changes his or her mind — thinking, perhaps, that the person who does so is weak. George McGovern, years ago, lost the presidency, according to many experts, because he changed his mind about his running mate early on in the race. Heaven forbid that a man change his mind because he has determined that he was wrong! We had better be thought strong — even at the cost of foolish consistency.

As one who taught logic and critical thinking for many years and who thinks consistency in itself is a good  thing — not a foolish consistency, just ordinary consistency — I am amused by the ability of so many of us to hold on to two or three conflicting claims at the same time. Recently Terrell Owen, a football great in years past, was voted into the Football Hall of Fame — on the third ballot. He was incensed. He, suffering from entitlement as do so many athletes today, thought of himself as a “first-ballot” candidate. It was not to be and he fumed. The induction occurred recently and he determined not to attend the official ceremony in protest. He had his own celebration in McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga,Tennessee where he grew up and had friends clothe him with the gold jacket which had been sent from Canton, Ohio. He then gave a speech to approximately 3000 people who were there to support him. They also thought he should have been a first-ballot inductee. And later several talking heads on ESPN lauded Owen for his “honesty,” not to say, his courage. Many have agreed that it shouldn’t have taken this long.

In his speech Owen started off by insisting that he was not going to excoriate (my word, not his) the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall as soon as he was eligible. He then went on to excoriate the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall of Fame as soon has he was eligible! It was an astonishing example of inconsistency bordering on outright contradiction. And inconsistency can be so obvious that it amounts to a contradiction, a violation of what Aristotle thought to be the first “law of thought.” To be logical and indeed to make sense, we must avoid contradiction — especially in these days of false news and alternative facts. A square cannot be a circle at the same time and in the same respect. That is a law of thought. One cannot logically begin by saying that he is not going to criticize the sports writers for their egregious mistake and then go on to do just that!

We ignore the laws of thought, and indeed the common-sense notion of consistency, at our peril because it behooves us as intelligent creatures — more intelligent one would hope than the evidence suggests we are — to think clearly and cogently in order to find our way in the dark to something that we can accept as true. Not that we can ever be certain that we have happened upon the truth, but there are claims that simply are evidentially true and if we group them together they must be consistent, one claim cohering with another.

In the end, it would appear, we must avoid consistency of the foolish variety, fiercely embracing claims that are mutually exclusive, and insist upon consistency of the ordinary kind, making sure our claims fit with one another. Emerson was surely right: it is foolish to cling to claims once they have been shown to be false. But I would add that it is equally foolish to lay claim to “truths” that conflict one with another when such cannot possibly be the case. We must think our way through the maze and seek to be coherent and consistent throughout. That would appear to be the first rule of critical thinking.

 

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