Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Self and Inconsistency

Tibor R. Machan

Many more years ago than I like to admit I read a wonderful little book, Prescott Lecky’s Self-Consistency: A Theory of Personality (New York: Island Press, 1945). (I note, happily, its having been reissued in 1994.) This work argued, in essence, that human beings seek, for the most part, to hold beliefs and carry out actions that are all mutually consistent. There is supposed to be a psychological reward for doing so – and that seems pretty much common sense. We often take pride in being consistent, in not contradicting ourselves.

Moreover, whenever we are discussing ideas or the larger issue of how we live our lives, it seems clear enough that we insist on consistency. Certainly in an election year we can see how journalists try to hold the feet of politicians to the standard of consistency. If they fail this test, they are open to all kinds of charges – having lied, lacking integrity, and so forth. And if witnesses at a trial contradict themselves, all their credibility has been lost!

In short, there is this idea that not only must things make sense to us, come off coherently, otherwise there is something amiss, but we ourselves need to make sense in what we believe. That is, basically, the point of Lecky’s little treatise: a healthy personality is one that’s integrated, has it all together, as opposed to being in constant conflict and out of kilter.

Yet, of course, this standard is one to which few of us manage to live up. And an example stares me right here in the face – I detest ending sentences in prepositions, yet that one, right before this one, does just that and is exactly right for it. What a drag! But this is perhaps a minor inconsistency. What is much worse is the major inconsistencies that people allow within their lives.

Take the people living in Newport Beach, California, about 30 miles south of where I do. John Wayne Airport is located there and the city’s officials, backed by many citizens, have enacted an ordinance that prohibits planes from taking off and landing before 7 AM and after 10 PM. Moreover, every plane that takes off has to proceed like one of those Blue Angel F/A-18 Hornets does, shoot nearly straight up so as to spare the dear Newport Beach residents the trouble of having to hear it climb slowly into the sky. (The pilot makes an announcement of this on nearly every flight, just so as not to scare the passengers to death when his machine immediately turns upward at about a 45 degree angle.)

Now the fact that the citizens of Newport Beach, California, benefit a great deal from the flying done by all the people who use this airport – all those folks traveling to conferences, business meetings and other venues at which many of the affairs that benefit these residents are conducted – doesn’t seem to occur to them at all. They do not even consider the inconvenience they produce for these folks who are probably actively engaged, day in and day out, in serving them all in various capacities – doctors, dentists, CPAs, engineers, professors, actors, athletes and the rest. Never mind that – we just need some quiet in the air in our town, even though the noise that we suppress would be made by the folks who do us a world of good. and it isn't a big deal at any rate. (They should live in Manhattan, next to a fire station!)

This same kind of thing happens when drivers of cars express their anger at drivers of eighteen wheeler trucks, most of which are carrying wares the drivers of the small vehicles depend upon and use constantly. Damn it, why are those big things out there? Or, why do these trains going by make so much noise? Why don’t they all go away and leave us in peace?

Never mind that if all these nuisances disappeared, the dear residents and all those annoyed drivers wouldn’t have hardly any of the goodies and services they dearly love to have around. Do they think about how all those grocery stores get filled up with fruits, vegetables, milk, meat and the rest? Without those trucks and trains they would never get there. Nor would much of the business, entertainment, and whatever else comprises the neighborhood culture exist if the airport were to shut down.

It is these little inconsistencies that I find fascinating, since the people who hold onto them aren’t dumb. They just want to both have their cakes and eat them, too, hoping they can get away with that. Many of them hate developments but they love the people living in the homes that developers build – and they beef, too, a lot about escalating home prices! They do not want anyone to come live in their canyons but they wouldn’t themselves move out in a million years. They cherish all creatures, great and small, accept they have no problem living in their homes which have displaced and keep away zillions of creatures from the spot of ground where the home was built and now stands.

What Professor Lecky said about people wishing to be self-consistent is, sadly, just part of the story. They also often want to have it all ways, however inconsistent that may be – like the politicians who criticize their opponents for lack of integrity but then turn around and champion flexibility and pragmatism – that is, abandonment of integrity, the embrace of compromise – in how public policies should be shaped!

No comments: