Wheaton College, C.S. Lewis & Bad Jackie: On preferring the nightmare to reality

One unappealing possibility is that Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College, is making his clumsy debut as a culture-warrior because he is nothing more than a lying hack. I hope that isn’t the case. I hope he is not simply posturing about Satanic baby-killers to stroke his own pride or to feed his addiction to self-righteous indignation or in a grasping attempt for political influence.

That would explain why Ryken is publicly saying untrue things about emergency contraception, but it’s only one possible explanation, and I hope it’s not the correct one.

It’s also entirely possible that Ryken simply doesn’t know any better. He may be saying untrue things because he does not know the truth.

Granted, the latter possibility doesn’t quite mean that Ryken’s grandstanding is innocent. When a public figure speaking publicly makes such sweeping pronouncements without bothering to get his basic facts correct, the best we can say is that he’s recklessly and irresponsibly indifferent to the truth. He might be too lazy to have bothered checking his facts ahead of time. Or he may have an unappealing eagerness to believe the worst about other people.

But still, even though such ignorance can’t quite be excused as innocence, it would still be far less bad than if he said such untrue things simply because he’s a shameless liar.

But we needn’t speculate. This is something we can know.

Yes — we can know, one way or the other. This is knowable.

There’s a test for this. The test is as elegantly simple as it is conclusive.

It’s the simple test that Good Jackie passes and that Bad Jackie fails. It’s the same test that you apply each time you send a Snopes link to your Fox-addled Uncle Jim in response to his latest Facebook posting recoiling from yet another imaginary horror.

How does Uncle Jim respond to the evidence Snopes presents? That’s the test. Is he happy to learn that the horror is not real? Or is he angry that the horror is being taken away from him?

That tells you all you need to know. That lets you know all you need to know.

If your Uncle Jim is really upset at the possibility of whatever the horrible thing he’s denouncing is, then learning that such a horrible thing is nothing to worry about should make him happy and relieved. “Oh, thank goodness,” he’ll say. “I’m so glad to learn that this terrible thing isn’t actually happening.”

But if, instead, your uncle gets angry when faced with such evidence, if he defensively dismisses that evidence, or even the possibility of such evidence, then you can know that he was never really upset at the prospect of the horrible thing. He was excited by it and excitedly for it. He wanted the nightmare to be true — needed it to be true. He prefers a world in which such a thing were true.

When someone defensively prefers the nightmare to the evidence, then we know — we know — that he enjoys the nightmare. We know that it serves some emotional or political need for him — a need so great that reality itself cannot stop him from trying to meet it.

That’s a bad place to be. Bad Jackie is never a happy person. Or a good person.

The last time we discussed this simple test, Xeno reminded us that C.S. Lewis also wrote about this in Mere Christianity. Lewis urged all Christians to apply this test to ourselves as a prophylactic against the soul-destroying corrosion of Bad-Jackie-ism:

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

I write about this a lot because I believe that Lewis is describing precisely what has been happening in American evangelicalism over the past four decades. And I do not believe that he overstates the consequences of it.

American evangelicalism has fallen in love with its own nightmares of Satanic baby-killers, desperately wishing — and then pretending, and then almost believing our own pretense — that we are on the side of righteousness against superlative evil.

We need that nightmare to be true. We want it to be true. We’ve forgotten who we are or who we might be without it.

And we’ll fight to cling to this nightmare, reality be damned, even if clinging to the nightmare means we will never again be truly awake. Even if clinging to our imaginary horrors fixes us forever in a universe of pure hatred.

 

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  • Lori

    This is true, but not really the issue with the people know who I most often want to Snopes slap. The people I know don’t trust Snopes because there has been a concerted effort on the Right to discredit the site. The careful fact-checking and evaluation that make Snopes useful to people who are interested in knowing the facts are the very thing that make it anathema to the people who generate those Right wing chain emails. I know several people who now reflexively disbelieve anything that comes from Snopes because they’ve been trained to class it as part of the lie-beral media.

  • Lori

     

    If I believed it–but I can’t see how I would, given the substantial
    vested interests (ever since I first heard that expression as a kid,
    I’ve imagined ‘vested interests’ as the little Monopoly man in his vest)
    wanting me to ignore these kinds of things. 

    Evaluating the source of a story is obviously important and it would be perfectly reasonable for you to distrust a single study or small group of studies, that claim the Gulf oil spill wasn’t so bad. That goes double if those studies were sponsored by the oil industry.

    If multiple studies conducted by scientists with no ties to or funding from the oil industry concluded that the spill wasn’t so bad would you still assume they were wrong/lying?

  • Robyrt

    That whole “universe of pure hatred” bit makes me think of Frank Miller.

  • Lori

     

    Can’t shake the feeling that showing this post to the people who need to
    read it most would just result in “So do you really prefer the
    nightmare of this ‘global warming’ scenario to the reality that it’s
    just a bunch of scientists making stuff up?”  

    Yes, I’ve no doubt that the people who most need to think about these issues would spectacularly miss the point in exactly this way.

  • Caravelle

     That does make sense, because Snopes to me is one of those sources that are self-confirming. As in, they explain in detail what the myth is, what the truth is, how they figured both out, and show their sources. If you don’t believe a Snopes article the article itself gives you all the information you need to check it for yourself.

    So I can understand doubting an individual Snopes article but I don’t understand considering Snopes an intrinsically untrustworthy source, if one actually thinks of the truth as something that can be found out and not just accepted.

  • Tonio

    I can identify in the metaphorical sense with the mindset that Fred describes, even while being repulsed by it. It’s been suggested that some of the treatment I endured in school and in college wasn’t motivated by malice, but by a simple desire to get a reaction from me. And in the few times I lashed out at someone calling me names or playing a prank on me, allegedly I was giving the person exactly what they wanted. My goal at the time was simply to scare the person into leaving me alone, or scare others who might think of hurting me the same way. 

    That theory behind their motivation makes no sense to me on any level. It seems far more logical that either this was simple malice, or that I was provoking the mistreatment, either something about me or something about my behavior. If I could have articulated it at the time, I suppose I would have said that their intentions didn’t matter. What did matter is that I perceived their behavior to be hostile and threatening, like it was a prelude to an assault, even though that outcome almost never happened. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Could something similar be going on with folks like Ryken? They’re invested in having US culture treat their religion as the norm or default, and this privilege is eroding. Are they conditioned to automatically fear the worst from this, like the next step will be feeding to lions?

  • Tangentially related thing:  My father likes to call out all the Democrats he can for being gay (Barney Frank was a favorite target of his for a while, complete with references to him wanting to molest all the Congressional pages), but he stopped when I mentioned the Penn State atrocities and said “It looks like either the Catholic priesthood or college athletics are the best career paths for the child molester that’s really going places”.

    The talks broke down, but he never tried to start them up again. I honestly wouldn’t have taken a bet that there was ever going to be a way to stop him from going on about “the gays”, but I figured one out.

  • If people do not ascertain the probable truth of a particular assertion via means of fact-checking and evaluation, then by what method do they make such determinations?  

  •  (nods) Tangent-to-a-tangent… in a somewhat similar vein, I got into the habit once with a relative of replying to each such comment about an out queer celebrity by agreeing that child molestation was a real problem and rattling off a dozen straight celebrities who had recently been accused or convicted of it, and how problematic the culture that enabled that was.

    She couldn’t exactly say I was wrong, but of course her point had not been that child molestation was wrong but rather that queers were evil, which I’d completely “missed.” It frustrated her. More importantly, it refocused the conversation.

    Years later, when I came out to her, she was actually surprisingly accepting of me and my husband.

    Also, she recently broke her hip. I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, but then I’m not quite sure how the rest of the story hangs together either.

  • Ursula L

    This is true, but not really the issue with the people know who I most often want to Snopes slap. The people I know don’t trust Snopes because there has been a concerted effort on the Right to discredit the site. The careful fact-checking and evaluation that make Snopes useful to people who are interested in knowing the facts are the very thing that make it anathema to the people who generate those Right wing chain emails. I know several people who now reflexively disbelieve anything that comes from Snopes because they’ve been trained to class it as part of the lie-beral media. 

    True enough.

    But Faux News also can look as if it has a basis in truth, because they make the effort to look that way.  Interviewing people they introduce as experts, citing sources while using the quotes out of context, etc.

    The problem is, you’re trying to prove that someone can present information in a way that looks reasonable and supported by facts and experts on the topic at hand, but which actually is untrue.  

    And if you accept the idea that information can be presented in a way that looks true and well documented, but isn’t, then any source you have becomes suspect of the same problem.  Are they telling the truth in a well documented way?  Or are they telling a lie in a way that makes the lie look like a well-documented truth?  

    Fox News is a huge organization, with countless people working together to spread lies.  Very literally, a conspiracy.

    One of the best arguments against huge conspiracies (e.g., UFOs covered up by the government, secret prisons where innocent people are murdered en-mass) is the idea that you can’t keep such a thing secret, because with that many people involved, someone will talk.

    But then you find those cases of large groups of people working towards a dishonest or evil end.  And someone talks. But it sounds massively implausible, because for everyone who talks, there are still so, so, so very many who are going along with the Evil Plan.

    There really were secret prisons where innocent people were murdered en-mass.  We call them things like :Soviet Re-Education Camps” or “Nazi Concentration Camps” or “The Site of this-or-that Massacre.”  

    So then, who do you believe.  

    If Fox News can be a massive national news network dedicated to spreading lies in a way that looks like well-documented truth, couldn’t Snopes be that as well?  

    ***

    On an emotional level, many people who trust Snopes do so because they first encountered in in a casual, or even funny, context.  There are all sorts of strange urban legends, and reading Snopes is a fun way to find out the truth about things that are amusing, but not particularly significant in the larger scheme of things.  

    But if the first time you encounter Snopes is in the context of something you consider an issue vital to the the well-being of the world, or even merely your nation, then you look at it with a far more critical eye than you would if you were just looking at a silly story about a soft drink.  

    And when Snopes debunks a massive national news network as a bunch of liars, then you’re left wondering if anyone can be trusted.  

    ***

    Fred likes to give people the benefit of the doubt.  They’re misled, not deliberately lying and emotionally invested in promoting the lie.

    If you’ve been misled by one source, and you find, or are pointed to, a second source that corrects the mistake, then you wind up, not knowing the truth, but in the ambiguous position of having two conflicting sources.

    And while it would be nice if you could rely on the less-awful source being more likely to be true, that isn’t actually a good way to determine the truth.  

    ***

    People, like my grandfather, actually did build massive prisons to murder innocent people.  And too many people believe that that isn’t true.  Sometimes because they’re the sort of people who don’t think that this behavior was bad, but sometimes because they don’t want to believe that people could be that bad.  

    And if you can accept as true “Opa, whom I remember as a person who, while visiting for a month when I was four, would sit with me and help with the record player so I could listen to my Sesame Street record, was also someone who worked at a concentration camp where innocent people were imprisoned, died from the hardship of the conditions, and were murdered” then you absolutely can’t count on information that the situation may be less awful being more likely to be true.

    The memory of my grandfather being a kind person, who loved me, and indulged me by helping me play children’s records in a language he struggled to understand, and which he certainly would not have cared for on his own, is a very real memory.  The sort of memory that anyone would cherish, a single remembered moment with a grandparent who died when they were very young. 

    And yet, when older, I learned he was in the SS, and worked at Dachau.  That my father was born there, in the hospital that was built to care for the guards and their families.  That my grandparents met at a Nurmburg rally, and would never have met in ordinary circumstances.  That, without the massive evil of Nazism, I would not exist. 

    If you accept as true “Ursula’s grandfather, who was sweet and kind and helped her play records on the record-player when she was small, was also an active participant in some of the worst atrocities in human history” then any information about whether the truth is more or less awful needs to be viewed through the lens of that massive ambiguity in the way human nature can work.

    If you think “Ursula seems an interesting person, and I’m glad she exists because I can read what she writes” then you also think “I’m glad that Nazism exited, so that Ursula exists, so that I can enjoy reading what she writes.”  

    And you cannot, therefore, use less-awful as a measure of likelihood of truth.

    ***

    And I wish, I wish, I wish I was an awful spammer and troll who was writing a lie and all of the above was untrue.  

  •  

    And I wish, I wish, I wish I was an awful spammer and troll who was writing a lie and all of the above was untrue.

    Yeah.
    Me too.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    I don’t agree with all of your conclusions, but it’s a valuable perspective and an easy one to lose sight of.

    The world seems a lot simpler if I can segregate it into the good people who have no evil, and the evil people who have no good. It’s only when I have to add all the filters that keep me from noticing the contradictory reality that the complexity starts creeping back in.

    ” Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil
    passes […] through every human heart, and
    through all human hearts.”

  • If people do not ascertain the probable truth of a particular assertion via means of fact-checking and evaluation, then by what method do they make such determinations?

    Well, I can’t speak for others, but for me it’s not so much that I ascertain the probable truth of a particular
    assertion via some means other than fact-checking and evaluation, as
    that I end up treating certain assertions as true without explicitly ascertaining
    their probable truth at all.

    As for what means result in my treating the assertion as true, if not evaluation of probabilities based on observed fact… well, there are loads of assertions that I decide to treat as true because I trust the source, and still more assertions I treat as true because I always have and I’m not really sure anymore why (or even whether) I made the decision to in the first place, and still others that I treat as true because they seem plausible and it doesn’t occur to me that there are other possibilities worth evaluating.

    Those things vary enormously in terms of how much reliable evidence they provide, but my confidence in the assertions they support doesn’t seem especially well correlated with their reliability as evidence.

    I suspect it’s like that for a lot of people.

  • Tricksterson

    Not if it’s digital.

  • Tricksterson

    Because it’s not telling them what they want to here so it’s automatically suspect.

  • Ursula L

    The world seems a lot simpler if I can segregate it into the good people who have no evil, and the evil people who have no good. It’s only when I have to add all the filters that keep me from noticing the contradictory reality that the complexity starts creeping back in. 

    The thing is, it really isn’t contradictory or ambiguous or complex.  

    Nazism was absolutely evil.

    And it isn’t merely the Holocaust.

    It’s WWII.  And civilians killed and injured and psychologically damaged in air raids and battles to capture the place they lived. (My step-mother still has PTSD symptoms from the bombing of Dresden.  When she was a small child, and utterly innocent by any standard.  And she and my father both suffer physical problems from the shortages and malnutrition they suffered through, as innocent small children, towards the end of and after the war.) And the hardship and horror of living under an occupying army, on both sides.   

    And soldiers, many drafted and not their voluntarily, being killed and injured and suffering the psychological trauma of knowing they have killed and injured other human beings, who were also not their voluntarily, but were drafted and were also, exactly like themselves, killing and injuring and inflicting stress and psychological damage on other human beings who were not there voluntarily but were drafted, and were killing, and injuring and …. ad infinitum and ad nausum.

    There were very, very good reasons why “waging a war of aggression” and “conspiracy to wage a war of aggression” were right next to “genocide” at the Nuremberg trials.

    ***

    The truth is not always complicated.

    Sometimes, it is merely utterly awful.

    And sometimes the truth is utterly awful in a way that everyone wishes it was complicated, because any imaginable complication would lessen the awfulness.  

    There is absolutely nothing ambiguous or conflicting or complicated in wishing that Nazism, in the form in which it did exist, never existed. 

    Even when that wish (of everyone here) necessarily involves (everyone here) wishing that Ursula never existed.  

    I can’t wish away what my grandfather did.  I can, and do, insist that no one consider anything about, or related to, or touching, me, as excusing, or mitigating, or justifying, or making morally ambiguous, what my grandfather did, and what his fellow Nazis did.

  • Tonio

    With respect for your excellent point, I read Dave as saying that life would be easier if people were either all good or all bad, like a Michael Bay movie. People may be more likely to commit monstrous evil if they’re convinced they’re totally on the side of good. 

  • swbarnes2

     but for me it’s not so much that I ascertain the probable truth of a particular assertion via some means other than fact-checking and evaluation, as that I end up treating certain assertions as true without explicitly ascertaining their probable truth at all.

    Sure.  That’s why we have centuries of people thinking that blacks were natural slaves, and women were barely human.

    If you never question your assumptions, how do you determine which ones are not true?

    well, there are loads of assertions that I decide to treat as true because I trust the source,

    Right!  That’s just what those people who justify hating gay people say…they trust their sources, the Bible and their church.

    If they don’t stop to reality check those claims against the facts, how will they ever discover they are wrong?

    and still more assertions I treat as true because I always have and I’m not really sure anymore why (or even whether) I made the decision to in the first place,

    Again…you are not an infallible person, right?  Therefore, at least  one of the assumptions you hold this way is false.  How will you figure this out, if you never exaimine it?  If you never reality-test it, in such a way that its falseness could be detected?

    and still others that I treat as true because they seem plausible and it doesn’t occur to me that there are other possibilities worth evaluating.

    And if a few hundred years ago, it was plausible to blame an old widow for a crop failure, and burn her as a witch, well, it just didn’t occur to anyone that there were other possiblities worth investigating.

    Those things vary enormously in terms of how much reliable evidence they provide, but my confidence in the assertions they support doesn’t seem especially well correlated with their reliability as evidence.

    If your doctor told you that he was utterly confident in the grueling medical treatment he was going to put you through, but that that didn’t correlate particularly well with the evidence supporting its efficacy, would you really say “Sure, whatever?”

    You don’t see that as a problematic stance?

    Pretend that you are a woman programmer.  Would you rather be judged based on the facts of the quality of what you produce, or judged by a bunch of assumptions  about how terrible women programmers are, assumptions that your boss is highly confident in because they seem so plausible?

  • You don’t see that as a problematic stance?

    Of course I see that as problematic.
    Incredibly so.
    But it doesn’t go away just because I’m aware of it as problematic.
    Nor will it go away if I pretend I don’t do it.

    If you don’t do any of that stuff, I’m vastly impressed by your epistemic superiority.

  •  Oh, yeah, that’s another good one. Basically, they switch back and forth depending on what argument they need. If they want to argue that they’re being persecuted, then Christians are all of a sudden a tormented minority beset by secular hordes. If they want to argue that their norms should dominate the country, they play up the notion that the U.S. or even all countries in the Western hemisphere essentially belong to Christianity.

  • Matri

    But it’s still wrong 718 times the rest of the day.

  • Matri

     Gah, math fail.

    That should have been 1438 times of the day.

  • Matri

    Fox News is a huge organization, with countless people working together to spread lies.  Very literally, a conspiracy.

    On related news, have you heard that the Vatican hired someone from Fox News to be their PR person?

  • guest

    My geek friends are uncomfortable being wrong; they see it as a moral failing and are embarrassed to discover that there is something they don’t know.  I have said to them that that’s actually pretty silly; can they honestly believe they know every fact in the world, and that every single thing they know is correct?  I honestly don’t get the aversion to being wrong.  My typical reaction to someone saying ‘you’re wrong’ is gratitude; as I said, in my opinion finding out I’m mistaken about something is knowing there is now one less thing in the world I’m mistaken about.

  • Tonio

    Because of my social ineptitude, I understand the aversion to being mistaken. Lack of knowledge is a vulnerability, akin to being stranded in an unfamiliar city without a smartphone or even a paper map. In my case it’s a lack of understanding about people where it’s not knowledge that can be retrieved from Wikipedia.

  • Caravelle

    Oh hey guise ! This is probably too late for anyone but lurkers from the far future, but while trawling Less Wrong looking for an unrelated article I found the one I was  thinking of here ! It’s One Argument Against An Army :
    http://lesswrong.com/lw/ik/one_argument_against_an_army/
    And yeah, it basically says what I was saying in that comment but longer and Bayesianer. (the previous article in that sequence, “Update Yourself Incrementally”, is also relevant)

  • Xeno

    First, hooray for me being quoted. :)

    Sadly I know that quote so well because I need it. My knee-jerk reaction is to always cast things as a good vs. evil struggle where my opponents are Bond villains. I’m working on it.

    The reason Christians try to be persecuted is that the Bible is clear that followers of Christ are persecuted. If there are no arenas, kangaroo courts, and exiles to deal with then “hurtful speech” will have to do.

    Part of me is a little concerned that God may take us at our word for what we want and give us persecution even if we aren’t earning it by following Jesus. I expect over half of Christians will fold under into apostasy within a week. I cannot even say I think it would be a bad thing for them or for Christianity.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The reason Christians try to be persecuted is that the Bible is clear that followers of Christ are persecuted.

    What does the Bible say about when Christians are the people in charge, rather than (as was the case when the New Testament was being written) an endangered minority?

  • Benjamin Thomas

    This applies very well to the current Zimmerman/Taylor race-baiting hysteria

  • Guest

    Fred has fallen in love with its own nightmares of racists everywhere, desperately wishing — and then pretending, and then almost believing his own pretense — that he is on the side of righteousness against the superlative evil of racism.

  • dpolicar

    How did you arrive at this conclusion?

  • AlexSeanchai

    You wanna explicate that statement?

  • Yeah. when we al know Rosa Parks ended racism singlehanded decades ago.

  • AlexSeanchai

    No, no. Not Rosa Parks. Dr. King. Can’t admit that a woman did anything of significance, remember?

    (More seriously: Parks wasn’t the first black person in Montgomery to refuse to give up her bus seat to a white person when told to. Claudette Colvin was, I believe. But Colvin was a teenager and she got pregnant and the NAACP didn’t want her to be the face of the civil rights movement.)