Living with our contradictions

During my anthropology of gender class last week, one student explained to us her embarrassment when, a convinced feminist, she realized that she was enthusiastically singing the sexist lyrics of a popular track. In the same vein, I often think about these environmentalists who are, at the same time, smokers. Take also the anti-capitalist intellectuals who, through their editorial practices, participate actively in academic capitalism. And I could find numerous examples of these contradictory thoughts, discourses and attitudes. Critical thinkers, too, are sometimes steeped in contradictions. Passionately defending a cause, they might obliterate moral inconsistencies, much like when you fall in love and lose some discernment. So, how can one have a thought, and in the same movement, its opposite? Psychoanalysts teach us that it is the very foundation of the unconscious to be animated by opposing forces, while behaviorists use the concept of “cognitive dissonance”. Social scientists, meanwhile, haven’t paid much attention to this fact: yes, humans are full of contradictions.

Here I want to suggest some basic ideas about a subject to be explored further. In terms of contradictions, combinations can be multiple. Many individuals live with certain moral principles and hold attitudes that are opposed to these principles. A colleague knows that smoking is bad, yet she smokes. Another condemns ecological disaster caused by carbon emissions and keeps flying all the time. One can publicly condemn adultery and cheats in secret. It is also possible to identify contradictions operating between ideas themselves, often contextually. Progressive and feminists at home, some anthropologists advocate in the favor of backward traditions (female circumcision excision, for instance) when it comes to their far-away field sites. Extreme case in horror: these executioners during the day who turn out to be affectionate fathers at night. Can a trader, responsible for increasing global inequality, be a humanist with a big heart during his vacations?

What intrigues me is that humans live peacefully with such contradictions. In many cases, although one should not underestimate the existence of lies and manipulations (especially in ​​politics where denying contradictions constitutes an important skill), it is in good faith that such inconsistencies are rendered invisible. A relative self-ignorance seems necessary to lead a peaceful life. Often, I will not see my internal contradictions and if I happen to discover them, I might produce an immediate justification to create consistency (“I smoke, yes, but they are rolled cigarettes, you know…”). Sometimes, through reflexivity, contradictions will emerge, like for my embarrassed student singing in front of her mirror.

The topic is an important one as it invites us to reflect on the notion of ​​a unified self. Experiments in philosophy have shown that the idea of “stable personalities” is questionable. “There is no hardcore personality, stable, unified, invariant from one situation to another”, writes French philosopher Ruwen Ogien (2011: 40). Seemingly trivial factors can guide our behavior in a moral way or in another, such as the smell of warm croissants in a supermarket that is likely to trigger empathy about a beggar and the desire to give him money. How, then, to account for the coherence of thought? “How can we reconcile the innumerable contradictions we are unable to resolve with our longing for a unitary coherence which also seems essential part of our true nature?” asks philosopher Paul Roubiczek (1952). But also, how do the actors themselves live with and justify their contradictory thoughts and behaviors?

An avenue for reflection is opened up by the work of Roger Bastide. In 1955, the French anthropologist discovers the “compartmentalization principle” (principe de coupure). In the syncretic Afro-Brazilian rituals that he studies, he highlights the existence of a mechanism allowing “the simultaneity of contradictory behaviors without inner conflict”. The Candomblé adept, Bastide says, “does not lie. He is both a Catholic and fetishist. The two things are not opposed but separate”. According to him, the “compartmentalization principle” overcomes the idea of ​​a split between two or more opposing forces that would fight within the individual. It renders possible the coexistence of contradictions. Similarly, Bruno Latour has shown that scientific practices are of full of these mixed entities, at once constructed and true, discovered and handmade (Latour 1996, 21-22). Obviously, to better understand the workings of such principle, words and behaviors have to be put in context. During the sacrifices described by Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer say that a cucumber is an ox, without confusing the two in their daily lives. In short, by generalizing it to other situations but also by specifying its mechanisms, the principle of compartmentalization may help us to better understand the complexity of human inconsistencies and their justifications: how one can be an “environmentalist smoker”, a “humanist trader” or a “neoliberal revolutionary”, one of those hybrids of the contemporary world.

Bastide, Roger. 1955. « Le principe de coupure et le comportement afro-brésilien ». Anais do 31e Congresso Internacional de Americanistas, Anhembi, 493-503.

Latour, Bruno, 1996. Petite Réflexion sur le culte moderne des Dieux faitiches. Le Plessis Robinson : Synthélabo Groupe, coll. « Les Empêcheurs de Tourner en Rond ».

Ogien, Ruwen. 2011. L’Influence de l’odeur des croissants chauds sur la bonté humaine et autres questions de philosophie morale expérimentale. Paris, Grasset («Essais »).

Roubiczek, Paul. 1952. Thinking in opposites, an investigation of the nature of man as revealed by the nature of thinking. London : Routledge and Kegan Paul.


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