IncredibleDecember 16th, 2016

There was a time when the word “incredible” described an unwholesome condition.  Saying that a narrative is beyond belief implies dishonesty and distrust. But these days, you hear “incredible” in conversation all the time, and it doesn’t seem to mean unworthy of belief but, rather, worthy of admiration. Accomplishments that are altogether credible are described as incredible. It seems to be the general-purpose superlative of choice. This would be fine if we could still recognize incredibility, but it‘s possible that the overuse of the term signals a general inability to distinguish between what should be believed and what shouldn’t.

The fact is that there are no facts. You can say almost anything about almost anything and expect to be believed. The New York Times and Washington Post told you there were nuclear weapons in Iraq. Without a single fact to back up their claim, the papers goaded the nation into aggressive warfare. Our government killed hundreds of thousands of people on the basis of this incredible, unverified claim. NPR and others told us, with no supporting facts, that the president of Syria attacked his enemies with poison gas.  We almost went to war over that lie, but a few generals defied civilian authority, and our leaders had to be content with other means of destroying Syrian society. Candidates for high office routinely tell us lies that our mass media pass on without critical comment. Too often for enumeration, the reports of news-mongers are truly incredible, but we believe them, or we pretend to believe them.

There ought to be some cognitive dissonance. That’s a phrase from the psychology glossary describing a  morbid condition of mind touched off when we try to resolve conflicting beliefs. The theorists tell us that the condition forces us to resolve the conflict by denying one of the beliefs, even if that means denying objective facts.  I disagree with the theorists on this point. I think we’ve adapted socially to the point that we are now able to hold conflicting views with no psychological consequences whatsoever. If the consensus is that all narratives are to be believed, the credible along with the incredible, then there no facts and no two propositions can ever be truly inconsistent with each other.  We knew the grounds for war with Iraq were incredible, but we waved flags and banged the war drums anyway.

The current preoccupation with fake news is a good illustration of genuine incredibility. It really is incredible that an industry that has treated consumers to a stream of gossip, rumor and fiction on foreign affairs, justice, politics, and the economy–at incalculable cost to the people–should expect to be credited when it accuses others of circulating falsehoods.  Does anybody really believe that the Russians are to blame for our election? Do the neojournalists at the Times, the Post and NPR really think anybody is buying that story? Who will step up and charge that our news is censored and fabricated? Anybody? Nobody?

We are tested for cognitive dissonance at least once a year around September 11. We’ve been told to believe that three New York skyscrapers collapsed to dust because airplanes crashed into two of them. Even though this is impossible and truly incredible, Americans pretend to believe it. Just like Hans Christian Anderson‘s characters pretending to believe the emperor wasn’t naked, you’d rather not be the guy that says the unthinkable. Every year, cognitive dissonance prompts a few brave Americans to face the bitter truth about the events of September 11, but with the help of the mass media, whose censorship of discussion on the topic is complete, most seem able to hold on to their belief in the incredible.  The annual test of the public’s tolerance for incredibility gives the mass media some idea of what they can get away with.

Right at the moment, we are expected to believe that it’s OK for us to bomb Arabs in Iraq but it’s not OK for the Russians to bomb Arabs in Syria. It’s OK for us to interfere in elections in Ukraine and Venezuela but it’s not OK for other countries to interfere in ours. It’s OK for us to credit fake news from NBC but not fake news from Facebook. Incredible.