Grimm vs Andersen; fairytales and the ‘invented people’
The word ‘fairytale’ has a full spectrum of connotations. It can denote the magical, otherworldy – something we tell our children to impart morals, wisdom and hopeful messages about the world. At the other end of the scale, however, it is precisely that unreality which makes it a pejorative label. In the adult world, that fantasy becomes an instrument of delusion, a byword for the lies we tell ourselves in order to preserve our carefully constructed and fortified worldview. In the realm of politics, the rabbit-hole leads not to enchantment but to cognitive dissonance.
We recently witnessed, in quick succession, Newt Gingrich declare the Palestinians an ‘invented people’, followed by Mahmoud Abbas claiming that the Jews have no historical attachment to Jerusalem. Both these statements were uttered for broad public consumption, presumably in the belief that they were credible positions which would gain traction in the eyes of an accepting audience. And such is the power of fairytales, and the conviction of their authors; given that their creators have sufficiently suspended their disbelief in order to dream up their stories, it must follow that we, the recipients, will make room for the picture of the world they paint. As with so much in politics and religion, however, when fanciful concepts are taken out of abstraction and applied to concrete, flesh-and-blood situations, they mutate from ideas into weapons. Believing that trees can talk while engrossed in The Lord of the Rings is one thing; believing that entire nations of people deserve to be forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in order to accommodate an airbrushed vision of the past is another.
There is, of course, a pathology inherent in the extraordinary creativity that springs from cognitive dissonance. It is no accident that political psychology produces some of the most revealing (and concerning) insights into how people respond to political developments, and why. A survey of Israelis’ responses to an internal enquiry into the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres, conducted in the immediate aftermath of the events, examined the degree to which hawkish and dovish individuals believed that their political views may be altered by the findings of the report, and compared this with how much their views actually did change.
The results were compelling: hawkish individuals, being of a more dogmatic bent, and in spite of their misgivings about the Commission enquiry, were more convinced than the doves of the objectivity and reliability of the Commission and declared readier to change their opinions in line with its Report. This seemingly paradoxical finding can be explained … Since the Commission was appointed by a hawkish government, it was easier for the hawks to relate to it as an authoritative source.
However, in reality, the hawks experienced very little alteration in their beliefs, and largely disagreed with the report’s criticism of Israel as being indirectly responsible for the massacre. The survey author’s assessment is that due to their more dogmatic nature, hawks will, when presented with “incongruent new information”, find some way of distorting it, rejecting it or changing their beliefs about the authority from which the information was issued.
This is a phenomenon which can be found in every nook, cranny and vista of the Israel-Palestine debate, from left to right, generation to generation, and religious to secular. And yet, while we hear the metallic clang of clashing stories competing for the same space in accepted public discourse, we face the very real problem of the quiet truth being drowned out. Furthermore, in such a dense forest of stories, genuine facts can be hard to fathom. Lost amongst the orchestral manoeuvres of propaganda, the truth is a master of accidental disguise, shapeshifting in response to time, discoveries and perspectives. That shadow of a monstrous claw can turn out to be just a gnarled, withered branch, distorted by the light.
So how are we to face off against the compendium of fairytales? How do we identify the truth, and more importantly, champion it when in the company of such determined ingenuity? And what do we do when the truth we discover is an inconvenient one? The answers are not obvious, nor are they uniform. But we can equip ourselves to handle the questions as best we can; firstly, by striving to see and experience the situations we comment on first hand, whenever possible; secondly, by ensuring that the statements we make are intended to support the truth and not a pre-determined narrative; and thirdly, by guarding against emotive and dramatic outbursts, maintaining maturity and authority. Gender-exclusivity aside, Rudyard Kipling had the right idea in the first and last lines of ‘If’, when he advised that
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…
…you’ll be a Man, my son!
Once upon a time, an accumulation of circumstances put Jews and Palestinians on the same piece of land, prompting a seemingly endless battle. This is a story in need of a full stop.