F Scott Fitzgerald wrote that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time". Or, as James Joyce put it, "two thinks at a time".
Like a superpower, this ability is regularly ascribed to the Irish: sometimes to demonstrate how charmingly whimsical we are; sometimes to bolster the idea of our uniqueness. Both are true. Go back far enough to when we all spoke Irish, the language was laden with contradictory ideas, words for states of being that we don’t have now. The various nationalities who arrived here over the centuries also contributed. Their differences were absorbed, making us all Irish and non-Irish at the same time. We lived with colonialism, simultaneously supporting and undermining it. We say: somebody should do something, but then don’t do anything. We give out about our politicians, yet re-elect them. Even the word Irish can be a compliment or an insult. We can love and loathe ourselves.
This contradictory nature, infuriating at times, isn’t all bad. Without it, we wouldn’t have produced the aforementioned Mr Joyce and countless other artists. It has given us an imaginative edge.
Yet I’m starting to wonder if this is changing. Due to various cultural forces – I’m looking at you, internet – we may be getting sucked into a binary view of the world, one that is ravaging the cultural and political discourse of so many countries. One stupid action or statement or out-of-context quote and your life can be ruined. The other side are stupid or brainwashed or corrupt liars. It’s a process of angry simplification, where the complexity of human thought and feeling can be reduced to a tweet.
For example: recently, there have been a number of anti-lockdown protests. Depending who you talk to, they were attended by ordinary people who, no more than the rest of us, are frustrated with various aspects of how the Government has handled the pandemic. Or they were attended by a number of far-right groups, there to exploit those frustrations and further their aim of a white, catholic Ireland, free of abortion, feminism and any trace of tolerance. Or it was attended by people wearing QAnon badges who believe the pandemic is a demonic plot or other conspiracy theorists who believe RTÉ presenters are injecting themselves with a chemical extracted from dead babies.
Based on everything I’ve read, all of the above is true. Rioting aside, should those people, even the extremists, be allowed to protest? Yes. Will lockdown protests help us get through the pandemic? Of course not. Was it irresponsible to do so in the middle of a pandemic? Yes. Rioting aside, might we have been a bit more forgiving if the protest had been about something else? Possibly. There are some shades of grey here; even if some of those protesters want to live in a – very un-Irish – black-and-white world.
Resisting binary discourse
But it is important that the rest of us – which is most of us – continue to recognise that reality is defined by nuance and contradiction; to resist the binary discourse.
This isn’t easy, of course: often, to concede one point is interpreted as conceding all points. It’s searingly difficult, perhaps even impossible, to extend some tolerance to those who are intolerant.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that we make the effort to understand what is patent nonsense or befriend your local racist.
But it might be useful, even vital, to try to understand why some people end up as racists or conspiracy theorists, and why others are so frustrated that they are prepared to be seen in public with them.
The Irish ability to entertain contradictory ideas isn’t a feat of intelligence, but imagination: to glean some empathy for and understanding of the lives of others. This superpower defines us. Now, more than ever, we need it, lest we stop being Irish at all.