A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:
One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’
Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.
He suggests the same trait might also explain how we can be genuinely shocked at official confirmation of abuses of power, even when such abuse is common knowledge. Related to this is our excessive deference to authority, with which we have a weird relationship (again, by no means peculiar to Ireland).
Speaking of which:
In Ireland, there was a refinement on Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ramblings about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. The Irish added another category: unknown knowns, things that were understood to be the case and yet remained unreal. At its most extreme this worked as a kind of collective psychosis, analogous to the idea of dissociation in psychiatry, where, in response to trauma, the mind distances itself from experiences that it does not wish to process. This process was at work in relation to corruption. . . . With this habit of mind so well ingrained it was possible to vote for a fraudster while believing that this was not an act of collusion but merely, for example, an expression of sympathy . . .
Often, voting has less to do with performance or policy than with a lifelong affiliation to a particular party. This derives in part from habit and a natural aversion to change and the unknown, a case of “better the devil you know”. But in some cases the familial and emotional allegiance to the idea of a political tribe is so deep-rooted that alternatives are effectively unthinkable.
On the plus side: the Irish capacity for doublethink, O’Toole proposes, may have had social and cultural benefits too, fostering a more fluid interpretation of reality which would have obvious implications for creative activity, with its affinity for pluralities and ease with irresolution.
This embrace of contradiction and superposition also manifests in the vernacular Hiberno-English tongue, with its ubiquitous irony and paradoxical phrases, stacked negatives and litotes (no harm; not bad; devil at all; not the worst), and prominent conditionals inherited from Irish (I’d be the same; Would you be well?).
Is it a good thing? Well, it is and it isn’t.