Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, has allowed us to move from the fun of confrontation to the fatality of contradiction.
Two stories in the news this week appear both highly dramatic and profoundly comic, highlighting the age-old phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, that people and even civilizations lose confidence in themselves when deep contradictions in their moral systems become obvious and persistent.
The first story has made all the headlines in the US. Sarah Huckabee Sanders — the voice of the White House, whose job is to keep the media at bay while calmly explaining the truth behind the president’s incomprehensible policies — was 86ed from the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia, just because of who she is.
The second story concerns the initiative taken by some banks and other businesses to discourage the sale of guns as a means of attenuating the effect of the widespread belief that the Second Amendment implies not only the right, but the duty to buy, sell and possess lethal weapons.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An unresolvable conflict based on reasoning from widely accepted principles that were poorly formulated from the start, requiring armies of lawyers to make sense of what will, in the end, be perceived as nonsense
These incidents, as well as others, reflect contradictory interpretations of a pair of notions that everyone believes to be at the core of US culture: freedom and the idea of “rights.” If people are free, they have rights that the government cannot violate. As a simple idea, it works. But if everyone exercises rights related to pursuing their own happiness (or interests), conflicts and contradictions are bound to occur. To guarantee social tranquility, legislators draft the laws that define the limits on the practice of one’s rights. What we’re seeing today is the direct confrontation of two notions of “rights” or freedom of action.
The owner of the Red Hen restaurant asked Sanders to leave the restaurant. Most would agree that she had the right to ask. Sanders had the right to refuse, but she appeared to have waived that right. Instead she tweeted, claiming that she “was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave.” Was she asked or told? That could define the difference between the rights of both women. But this is where the deep contradictions in the background create the kind of confusion that leads to the decomposition of what most cultures call “the social order.”
The story then becomes comic when an ethicist cites a law that Sanders may have violated in exercising her right of expression. It becomes tragi-comic when the president of the United States specifically attacks a business — with effects on all businesses with a similar name — with an implicit message to boycott it.
In the second story, fanatical defenders of the the “right” enshrined by the Second Amendment attack the freedom of companies to apply what many interpret as a moral standard. This leads to high comedy when we read the complaint by Michael Hammond, legal counsel for Gun Owners of America: “If you can’t make guns, if you can’t sell guns, the Second Amendment doesn’t mean much.”
The simpler truth is that with its talk of “a well-regulated militia” and reference to the muskets that existed at that time, the Second Amendment literally “doesn’t mean much.” But the acrimonious debate around it highlights the depth of contradiction that now exists in US culture.
In the US, laws have tended increasingly to favor the rights of enterprises over people. This story raises another contradictory question: Do enterprises have the right to exercise their freedom to take a moral position?
The exaggerated belief in “rights” stems from the historical origins of the US, the first nation to be defined by a constitution before it could be defined by social traditions.
The United States believes in law and order. So do many cultures, but the US appears to be unique in the conviction of many Americans that the law in all cases supersedes culture and may even invalidate it.
By culture we mean the set of inherited assumptions and expectations about human behavior that attributes meaning to relationships and human interaction. A system that replaces social rules by the letter of the law functions according to the binary notion of “right and wrong.” Its implicit but ultimately dangerous corollary is that all that isn’t right is wrong. This incites people to believe that if the law appears to support their opinion, vehemently expressing that opinion, even to the point of attacking other people, is tantamount to enforcing the law.
This is where contradictions do their damage. US culture has always been confrontational. That explains the army of lawyers up to now necessary to keep things on an even keel. Now, as tension builds between those who are convinced that their rights supersede others’ rights, we have entered the age of obvious contradiction. Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would be defeated by its own contradictions. The political culture based on ill-defined notions of freedom and rights has entered what appears to be its fatal phase of contradiction.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.