Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance and C.S. Lewis' Stable

I think I owe C.S. Lewis an apology.

Okay, that probably needs a little explanation. A while back, I decided to re-read the Narnia series. This would probably have been close to a decade ago, but it was the first time I'd read it as an adult, and I was really hit hard by how didactic and preachy the books were when I was old enough to recognize the Christianity metaphors for what they were. The books weren't all bad, don't get me wrong, but some scenes and a couple of entire books felt a little bit arrogant and off-putting in their defense of religion. (To throw out a minor example first, the ending of 'The Silver Chair' seems to convey the message that it's okay to beat up little kids if you feel like God is telling you it's the right thing to do, because God wouldn't make you want to do bad things. I don't know if that's the best message to send, is all I'm saying.)

In particular, 'The Last Battle' felt really insane and creepy. There was a lot of material in there about how religious tolerance is really just a lie told by Satan to corrupt the faithful (and this felt especially awkward when you consider that Tash drew inspiration about equally from Allah and Satan, and Lewis clearly intended his audience to conflate the two) and the whole thing ends with everyone cheering about the revelation that they all died in a horrific train accident and so did their parents.

...um, you can probably tell that this is going to be a pretty back-handed apology. Not much I can do there.

The bit I want to apologize for, though, is the bit about the dwarves. For those of you who haven't read the book recently (or who have never read the book and are busily looking it up on Wikipedia to see if I made up the bit about everyone being really excited that their parents are dead just like them) there are a group of dwarves who refuse to believe that Aslan's returned...which is theoretically good, because he hasn't and it's all a fraud. But they take it too far, at least in the opinion of Lewis, and decide they're not going to believe in anything anymore. They wind up going to Aslan's country with all of the other characters through a mystic portal in an old stable, but they don't experience it the way everyone else does. To them, it's just the grimy stable that they were locked into. Every bit of evidence they're provided is just another lie to them, because they believe deep down that there is no Aslan and no Heaven Aslan's country to go to.

And while I think that this is a pretty uncharitable view of atheism and shows Lewis in a pretty poor light (have I mentioned this is a back-handed apology yet?) it does strike me as a very useful metaphor for cognitive dissonance in general. Once you allow yourself to believe very strongly in a narrative, it really is very easy to twist and contort the facts to fit that narrative and become imprisoned in it. In reality, you're free--there are blue skies and singing birds all around you, and green grass underneath your feet--but all you can see is the walls you've built for yourself.

For one example out of literally thousands, let's look at Obamacare. By any reasonable standard, it's a success. Healthcare costs are falling, the number of uninsured is at an all time low, people all over the country are getting the lifesaving medical attention they need and the system is paying for itself. But there are a lot of people out there who have invested their emotional well-being into opposing Obamacare based on reasons that are integral to their sense of self more than on facts. When you confront these people with the numbers, they insist that the numbers must be wrong, because Obamacare is a disaster and a failure and we have to repeal it immediately to save the country. When you point out that real people will die if the law is repealed, they insist that you simply can't be right. If you press them with too many truths, they'll preserve their sense of self and their understanding of the way the world is supposed to work by deciding that you're simply not trustworthy. You are consigned to the "them", the shadowy and nefarious group that opposes right-thinking people, and everything you say is discounted as a malicious lie.

Obamacare is only one example. You can probably think of plenty yourself--people who've unfriended you when you started pointing out holes in anti-vaxxer propaganda, people who made the news for calling Sandy Hook Elementary and demanding to speak to people who were killed in the shootings, people currently analogizing themselves to North Korean political prisoners because people were mean to them on the Internet...all of them, in some way, have become prisoners of their narrative. They've closed themselves off from the truth because it conflicts with what they need to believe, and they'd rather believe a terrible lie than live a wonderful truth because they're too scared to give up what defines them. It really is an amazing metaphor, one that serves as a cautionary reminder to open yourself to reality rather than cling to a narrative. It's worth more as a metaphor than I thought it was, and for that, I owe C.S. Lewis an apology for dismissing it unfairly.

Still not buying that "Tashlan" stuff, though.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not to be pedantic, but modern scholarship has made it pretty clear that C. S. Lewis was not conflating Allah with Satan in the character Tash.

This is not because Lewis was being open-minded about Islam but more because he was fairly disinterested in Islam overall (with one or two minor exceptions). Overall, Lewis' view of Allah was simply that this was a faulty way of referring to the Christian God, and that was about as far as he bothered himself with the matter.

Tash is based more upon the polytheism that pre-dated Islam far more than a millennium earlier, in large part because Lewis was inspired by his love for the Thousand One Nights tales (with their focus on djinni and sorcerers and pre-Islamic imagery) rather than by any real interest of his in the Middle East.

My apologies if this quibble seems too pedantic for you.