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Why Some People Insist that Twice Two is Five

by John Spritzler

September 28, 2012

Have you ever felt, when trying to persuade somebody to agree with you about a controversial issue, that you were banging your head against the proverbial brick wall? Has it ever seemed as if the other person was obstinate and illogical and incapable of acknowledging plain facts, so much so that it was as if they were denying that twice two is four? I have felt this way plenty of times.

When I try to persuade certain Jewish friends that the Israeli government and the whole notion of a "Jewish state" is based on ethnic cleansing and it is morally wrong and harmful not only to the non-Jewish Palestinians but also to ordinary Israeli Jews, I sometimes encounter an obstinate and illogical refusal to face facts. It is as if the person I am talking with insists that twice two is five.

The same thing sometimes happens when I talk with dyed-in-the-wool liberals about why the question of whether or not to legalize same-sex marriage has nothing whatsoever to do with any so-called "right of any two single adults to marry" because there are some pairs of single adult consenting loving people that virtually everybody, including advocates of same-sex marriage, believes should not be allowed to marry, such as a man and his adult daughter, or two siblings.

It even happened when I asked the late Howard Zinn to support a boycott of the presidential election in 2004. Zinn would not support a boycott, even though he had written in his famous book, A People's History of the United States, that in the 1830s and 1840s, "The two party system came into its own in this time. To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the sightly more democratic one was an ingenious mode of control."

I believe that the reason we often run into such stubborn refusal to see plain facts and to think logically is because human beings are a social species. We all know that we need to be part of a social group to survive. Social groups are in large part defined by shared beliefs and shared loyalty to certain ideas. If a person belongs to a group that is in part defined by a belief in X, and you ask them to reject X, you are essentially asking them to forsake their membership in their social group. If this membership is important enough to them, and if your argument against X is so strong that in order to reject it they must do the equivalent of insisting that twice two is five, then by golly they will insist that twice two is five.

If a person feels that their membership in good standing in a social group--defined perhaps in part by support for Israel, or by support for same-sex marriage as a question of equal rights, or by support for the Democratic Party as a lesser evil that must be supported lest the Republicans win--is important enough, then they will refuse to even consider any idea, no mater how logical and no matter how much it is supported by the facts, that challenges what they must believe in order to remain in their social group.

As frustrating as this phenomenon can be, it has a positive aspect as well. When an ideological requirement for membership in a social group changes for the better, then most members of that social group adopt the better view very rapidly, almost overnight. This was illustrated by the sudden and surprising rejection of apartheid by white South Africans, 69% of whom voted to abolish aparthied in the 1992 referendum, even though prior to that they had condemned opposition to apartheid as "un-Christian."

What made this happen? The leader of the pro-apartheid forces, President De Klerk, having been persuaded--by the world wide movement that was sanctioning and isolating apartheid South Africa--that apartheid was no longer sustainable as a way for the corporate elite to rule South Africans, declared his views and made opposition to apartheid, for the first time, socially acceptable for the white Africaner people of South Africa who were the most fanatical defenders of apartheid. When white South Africans no longer feared social ostracism for opposing apartheid, they voted to abolish it. Nowadays it is hard to find a white South African who will admit to having ever supported apartheid.

The people around the world who participated in the movement against apartheid had no foreknowledge that one day white South Africans would suddenly switch from delaring apartheid to be Christian to voting to abolish it. The anti-apartheid activists did not know that, even though white South Africans defended apartheid fanatically up till 1992, the anti-apartheid movement was creating changes in the world that would cause white South Africans to suddenly change their mind.

The moral of this is, I believe, that we need to concentrate our efforts on finding the many (very many!) people who already agree with us on the key points--wanting a more equal and democratic world. We need to help these people become more confident in their views and more organized in standing up for them. When these people are sufficiently confident and organized and visible, and when they say to others, "Join us," that is when a lot of the people who insist that twice two is five will change their mind and admit that no, it's really four.

 

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DIVIDE AND RULE:The "Left vs. Right" Trap