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Contradiction vs. Inconsistency

Last week, I provided examples from both the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle that I claimed represented genuine contradictions people are grappling with. But contradiction can also be subtle or exist in the “eye of the beholder” of just one person or group.

For example, an elected official who votes for something he vowed to vote against during the campaign season could face accusations of hypocrisy for not living up to campaign promises, accusations that resonate with voters who tend to look for consistent behavior as a sign of strong character.

As mentioned previously, we tend to be harsh with people who seem to behave in contradictory ways, but we get into risky territory if we treat every example of inconsistent behavior as a flat-out (and punishable) contradiction. For example, that campaign promise a politician supposedly broke might have been vague, or open to interpretation, or the legislation he or she voted for might have been the result of compromise between competing goods. This would make perceptions of inconsistency the result of incomplete information, changing circumstances, or our own oversimplified (and sometimes self-serving) interpretation of what was promised.

While it is easy to perceive and react to inconsistency in the behavior of other people (especially those we don’t like), our sensitivity to seeming or real contradiction also taps into discomfort with our own inconsistent behavior.

Such internal contradictions might include ignoring the homeless person asking for a handout (despite our self-identification as being generous and caring) or cutting corners at work (despite our belief in our own dedication and commitment).

Our desire for levels of consistency on the part of political leaders that we instinctively know firsthand are not possible is made even more complicated by the fact that anyone who has risen to the level of being able to run for high office has no doubt had to make compromises along the way that the rest of us never have to confront.

Now a partisan has a simple solution to this problem: ignoring inconsistencies that can lead to accusations of hypocrisy on the part of candidates they like while highlighting and dwelling on similar inconsistencies/hypocrisy on the part of those they dislike. This is what underlies all those spam e-mails you’ve probably been sent during an election year with titles such as “[Insert Democrat Here] the Flip Flopper” or “What Does [Insert Republican Here] Believe Today?,” each of which is designed to tap into our all-too-human hatred of contradiction coupled with partisan confirmation bias.

But as critical thinkers, we are obliged to recognize from experience (including first-hand experience) that any human being is made up of multiple interests, desires, and motivations that can legitimately be in conflict without rising to a level of hypocrisy that would imply a significant character flaws.

We must also recognize that the political process (which should about compromise between different opinions, many of which represent competing goods) makes absolute consistency impossible and perhaps not even desirable for a candidate who must lead a nation of more than three hundred million people who neither individually nor collectively represent a single (or consistent) set of beliefs.

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