Belief Sets

ABC News interviewed Karilyn Bates, wife of Staff Sargent Robert Bates, the man accused of killing 17 civilians in Afghanistan recently. She provides an intriguing picture of how the mind deals with stress and confusion — not her husband’s but her’s.

To begin with, she refuses to believe her husband would have done such a terrible thing. It’s “unbelievable….he would not do that,” she said. But, then, he served four tours of duty in Iraq before serving three in Afghanistan and Karilyn admits “he shielded from me a lot of what he went through,” including a head wound which caused traumatic brain injury. She does admit that when she spoke with him as he sits in Leavenworth prison awaiting trial he “seemed a bit confused as to where he was and why he was there.” Now clearly there are pieces of this account that simply do not fit together. We have a woman who admits that her husband kept things from her and that he was confused when she spoke with him. Yet she refuses to believe that he could have done such a thing as shoot 17 civilians after seven tours of duty in two different war zones.

This is interesting for two reasons. To begin with, it is a case of crass exploitation of a terrible situation by the media. ABC will pass this interview off as “news,” but there is nothing whatever this woman can tell us that will shed light on what her husband may or may not have done in Afghanistan. It is maudlin entertainment designed to get the ratings. Secondly, it is an example of the way the human mind works under stress, though I would argue that it resembles the way most human minds work most of the time.

My point here is not to make fun of the wife of a soldier who was doing his duty and seems to have suffered from an injury that should have been spotted by those around him long before he took a rifle and a pistol and went out (twice, apparently) and shot innocent civilians in a war-torn country. It is clear that Karilyn Bates is in denial, and it is entirely understandable. But what is interesting is the contradictions that dwell comfortably together in what we like to call the woman’s “belief system.” (George Eliot pointed out that we should not call it a system at all because it is a nest of inconsistencies and contradictions — not just those of a distraught wife, but those of us all.) Let’s call it a “belief set,” simply a set of beliefs that don’t always (seldom?) cohere.

Clearly when we are under stress we are more prone to this sort of thing, but there is good evidence that a great many people are perfectly comfortable every day of their lives embracing the most blatant contradictions — “pro-lifers” who support the death penalty, for example, or Democrats who vote for a wealthy, hawkish presidential candidate. Edith Wharton describes the type (who is all-too-common) in her character Pauline Manford in Twilight Sleep. Pauline is a social busy-body committed to such opposing causes as increasing the world’s population while at the same time practicing birth control — intent on improving the world by making it conform to her curious blend of ideals. She is contemplating several notions simultaneously in one pivotal scene when Wharton tells us that “Pauline felt no more inconsistency in this double train of thought than she did in shuddering at the crimes of the Roman Church and longing to receive one of its dignitaries with all proper ceremonials. She was used to such rapid adjustments, and proud of the fact that whole categories of contradictory opinions lay down [peacefully] together in her mind.” As I say, Pauline Manford is a token of a type that is very much among us and just as worthy of ridicule today as it was in the 20s of the last century.

Emerson famously said that “consistency is the hobgoblin of tiny minds.” Perhaps he was right. But then consistency is one of the few rules of thinking that allows us to get things right. If we do not obey the laws of thought and the rules of coherence and consistency we are easy prey to unprincipled demagogues who would capture and hold our minds prisoners of their own personal agendas. In a word, we don’t then know what we are doing. It’s time to consider seriously about requiring all pupils in our public schools to take a course in logic! No, check that: it’s past time.

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