Before we start putting all this together, it’s worth noting that while I think the incoherence of much of our most violent ideologies is an important element of our current situation, that it is not a unique one.
In fact, it appears to be a rule of thumb that times of significant upheaval produce both incoherent ideologies and even mass delusions about basic facts.
In some ways, this is a “fog of war” phenomenon applied to “culture wars,” which appears to have been the case in Nazi Germany, as seen in this passage from Erik Larson’s book In the Garden of Beats, about the American Ambassador to Germany in the first year of Hitler’s chancellery:
“To (American Ambassador) Dodd, Pappen’s remark ranked as one of the most idiotic he had heard since his arrival in Berlin. And he had heard many. An odd ind of fanciful thinking seemed to have bedazzled Germany, to the highest levels of government. Earlier in the year, for example, Goring had claimed with utter sobriety that three hundred German Americans had been murdered in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia at the start of the past world war. (Deputy American Ambassador) Messersmith, in a dispatch, observed that even smart, well-trained Germans will ‘set and calmly tell you the most extraordinary fairy tales.”
In other cases, you have an incoherence brought about by the nature of the epistemology earthquake that can accompany culture collapse: there is no agreed upon standard for what is relevant any more, and without that people’s sources of knowledge and interpretive abilities get … quirky. You see this a lot when colonial powers completely upend native cultures, resulting in bizarre synchronicities such as Cargo Cults, but you also see it in times when sudden technological innovation quickly overturns established ways of life; it’s no accident that a mass obsession with of occultism gripped the West at the same time as the industrial revolution. It may likewise be no accident that the recent embrace of pseudoscience and “Goop”-style new ageism as a significant public force has emerged simultaneously with the grandiose claims of social upheavals caused by the modern tech industry.
And of course major disasters tend to bring this out: are we at all surprised that the Black Death in Europe also left a series of bizarre, counter-factual, beliefs?
So some degree of extreme incoherence always tends to accompany times of major cultural shifts and collapse. Perhaps this is inevitable because many people aren’t all that coherent even in the best of times. Even in relatively stable times, cultures can constantly be seen holding on to beliefs that, from an outside perspective, are absurd on their face. Ours was no different. People being wrong, and even people being incoherent, are not necessarily signs of a culture in distress.
But there is a difference between holding absurd beliefs that one justifies through bad evidence, and not caring enough to try and justify incoherence and inconsistencies at all. The former is a fairly normal cultural process; the later is not. Whether or not a person or group at least understands the importance of reconciling their beliefs with reality is a key factor in how that person or group should be interpreted.
The inability of a society to reject or marginalize people who do not care whether their own beliefs are consistent, with reality and with each other – who do not even care if they appear coherent – is very much a fever symptom in a culture.
It is not unique to this particular place and time … but that’s exactly why we know it’s a symptom to pay attention to, rather than to write off as just bad people believing bad things.
This post is part of a series which first ran on my Patreon.