Gregg Ten Elshof’s I Told Me So is one best books I’ve read this year. In it he meditates on the fascinating phenomenon of self-deception, and lists a variety of ways we manage our beliefs to avoid the unpleasant consequences of truth. As we go through life we are offered a deal: believe the sober truth about yourself or believe things that give you a fair amount of satisfaction. It’s an easy one to take. As a college professor, Ten Elshof thinks he is a better-than-average one… along with 94% of his colleagues.
The deal of self-deception becomes more attractive to us when certain vices are elevated in our hierarchy of values, and in many cases these are determined by our culture. If someone thought you were racist seventy years ago, chances are you wouldn’t be so bothered by it. You might have been able to admit it, but you would not have felt overwhelmingly compelled to hide it. Today, however, no one is racist. To admit to racism is to admit to perhaps the greatest moral taboo of our day. The higher a vice is ranked in moral failure, the higher the temptation will be to be self-deceived about that vice. Second to racism, is phoniness. It is interesting that our culture places so much value on authenticity and honesty, and yet almost no one today is willing to admit they might have racist tendencies. Ironically, according to Ten Elshof, authenticity is precisely the value keeps us from admitting we could be self-deceived. As the value of authenticity becomes supreme, so does the vice of self-deception.
So how does someone take the deal? When the truth collides with our self interest, we have ample reason to take the deal. Consider signing a doctrinal statement. Suppose a poor graduate student who is need of some extra income gets a call from a church that is interested in hiring him as an administrative assistant. During the course of the phone interview the pastor asks him about his theology. The grad student says a few things about the Trinity and the Incarnation, but he knows that this pastor wants to hear the word “inerrancy.” When it comes time to talk about his beliefs about the Bible the grad student is surprised to hear himself say, “I used to have doubts about inerrancy, but since coming to seminary I have been able to overcome it.” Really? When did that happen? It’s funny how those epistemic barriers to faith suddenly disappeared that morning!
We have all kinds of ways of deceiving ourselves. For instance, we like to manage our attention to certain facts and disregard others. When we study something like theology or apologetics we delight in attending to those arguments that only count in favor of our views. We even might say, “We are investigating the truth about ____” or “We are finding out why we believe what we believe,” but the truth is we are only attending to what confirms what we already we believe.
We procrastinate. There are tyrants that demand our attention, like a story about starving children in Haiti. We know we ought to give some money to the food relief program at church, but gosh darn it, we forgot the checkbook. “That’s it, I’ll write one when I get home,” we think! In the car we turn on the football game and forget about the sober pictures of small children with bloated bellies. When we get home we plop down on the couch with a bag of potato chips and forget about the unpleasant truth of someone eating pud pies to stay off hunger pains. The next week we come to church, without the checkbook again, we see the donation box and wonder why we didn’t remember to write a check.
We realign our sentiments. Ever been rejected by a member of the opposite sex you found attractive? Have you ever thought, “She wasn’t good for me, anyway,” or “He’s probably a jerk underneath.” When we can’t get what we want, we adjust our value on whatever it is we didn’t get, and sometimes make it out to be something undesirable. “Why would anyone want to own a BMW? You look like such a tool driving around in it.” So says the grad student who envies the rich kid who drives an M3–the ultimate driving machine. “My pickup truck is awesome. It towed all my stuff from Minneapolis to California.” Yep it sure did. It did what any old pickup truck should do.
Here’s the kicker, though: the mechanisms that produce self-deception aren’t all bad. If we were not able to manage our attention to certain facts, delay our actions, or realign our values we would be deep trouble. We all know the chances of a cancer patient surviving are low, but they are even lower if the patient doesn’t believe she can survive. She is better off to think she can make it even though the odds are stacked against her. Delaying action when it is our duty to act is procrastination, but delaying action when we have the impulse to buy something saves us money. If we could not delay gratification, our lives would go very badly. And of course, a BWM M3 is a better car than a Toyota Pickup truck, but its good to learn how to be content if all you can afford is a Pickup!
Avoiding self-deception, then, is not about relinquishing these second-order capacities, but learning how they become vicious. Cultivating discernment in how our self-interest influences are thinking goes a long way in helping us spot the self-deceptive strategies we buy into. Forming a community that tolerates a diversity of opinion and respects disagreement will make an even a bigger difference (communities committed to like-mindedness are prone to groupthink). These may take a long time to establish, but we can begin by becoming wary of a misplaced value on the virtue of authenticity… amazingly enough.
Ten Elshof’s book is a fun and easy read through an uncomfortable topic. It displays a remarkable amount of wit in helping the reader feel comfortable in approach a serious topic. Being a fan of Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, I found many related ideas in Ten Elshof’s musings that gave specific examples of how we misrepresent the truth to manage how we feel. It explains in delicious detail how we ‘bullshit’ ourselves, and it is not only creative and original, it is above all wise.