The Unwilling Suspension of Disbelief

News: Commentary
by Brien Farley  •  •  April 15, 2021   

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

"The willing suspension of disbelief" is a phrase coined in 1817 by English poet and author Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He created it to describe the mental technique theatergoers use to ignore the fact that what is playing out before them is not real but make-believe. Doing so allows them to more thoroughly enjoy the show. I know that when Tybalt stabs Mercutio from under Romeo's arm and kills him, and then Romeo kills Tybalt to avenge Mercutio's death, no actual blood has been shed, no one has actually died, and they may well all be going out together after the show for drinks and cigars. But I paid good money to watch all this mayhem, and it's fun to pretend, so I go with it — willingly.

We in the United States today, however, find ourselves audience to theater we did not choose to attend but for which we, nonetheless, are paying and, most importantly, which we are told we must believe is not make-believe but reality. This circumstance calls for an update to Coleridge's phrase: "the unwilling suspension of disbelief." This is the mental technique we are bullied into using, not just in theaters, but in every facet of life to feign our belief in all manner of absurdities which only a few short years ago were the stuff of slapstick comedy.

For instance, I do not believe that:

  • A disease with a 99% recovery rate warrants a global shutdown and universal vaccination
  • Wanton destruction of innocent people's property results in justice
  • Being born Caucasian makes a person a racist
  • Citing a blizzard of anomalies and sworn testimonies to question the legitimacy of an election makes one an extremist or an insurrectionist
  • Same-sex relationships, no matter how monogamous or permanent, can be seriously regarded as marriage
  • Men can be made into women and vice versa
  • Reasonable human activity can have a significant negative impact on the global climate

Despite my disbelief, however, I am no longer at liberty to express it without triggering an avalanche of negative consequences. Beyond getting beat up by woke compatriots, I am also likely to suffer at the hands of the many media outlets, corporations, universities, foundations and government agencies who promote and fund them. I will be shouted down, branded a hater and canceled.

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This sort of systemic ideological thuggery is commonplace throughout human history, but not hitherto in the United States. Despite its violent introduction into our culture, however, a shockingly (and depressingly) large number of American citizens seem to have no problem acquiescing to it. With little apparent skepticism, they swap their unwilling suspension of disbelief for willingness and proceed enthusiastically to support mask mandates, add pronouns to their email signatures and praise sociopathic social justice warriors on their LinkedIn pages. Do they believe it? It makes no difference. They've made the switch and are going with the flow, free and clear of all cognitive dissonance.

But history tells us this is a game they cannot win.

In his book, The Captive Mind, Polish author Czesław Miłosz draws from his 12 years living under both Nazi and Soviet boots to provide a terrifying account of the impact totalitarianism has on the human psyche. He describes what he calls "Ketman," a practice of sophisticated doublethink people under brutal authority employ that allows them to cooperate with that authority while secretly sustaining their freedom of conscience and individual sovereignty. It doesn't work.

They swap their unwilling suspension of disbelief for willingness and proceed enthusiastically to support mask mandates, add pronouns to their email signatures and praise sociopathic social justice warriors on their LinkedIn pages.

After reading The Captive Mind, Milosz' fellow Polish author Witold Gombrowicz wrote, "The fact that a fellow whom I knew as X suddenly becomes Y, changes his personality like a jacket and begins to act speak, think and feel contrary to himself fills me full of fear and embarrassment. What a terrible shamelessness! What a ridiculous demise!"

Theodore Dalrymple

In this game, human dignity is shattered inside and out. Ultimately, the struggle to sustain the suspension of disbelief proves too exhausting, the propaganda too ubiquitous and relentless to resist. George Orwell's O'Brien collapses mentally and not only declares but genuinely feels true love for "Big Brother."

In a quote making the rounds more frequently these days, English author, physician and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple explains the phenomenon quite succinctly:

In my study of communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, not to inform, but to humiliate; and therefore, the less it corresponded to reality the better. When people are forced to remain silent when they are being told the most obvious lies, or even worse when they are forced to repeat the lies themselves, they lose once and for all their sense of probity. To assent to obvious lies is in some small way is to become evil oneself. One's standing to resist anything is thus eroded and even destroyed. A society of emasculated liars is easy to control.

And what of the eternal soul in all this? Christ being Truth incarnate, what becomes of us when we reject Him and embrace lies out of expediency no matter how humanly justified? Matthew 6:21 reads, "For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also."

God will give us what we most want. If what we most want is social acceptance, professional success, physical comfort, or even just to not be arrested, tortured and killed, we will do anything to get it. And we may, but these things are fleeting. Against the backdrop of eternity, they are nothing at all.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

For sincere, present-day American Christians then, the question is not "How do I keep them thinking I believe this nonsense," but "Am I prepared to lose everything — even my life — for refusing to deny The Truth, Our Lord Jesus Christ?"

Do not suspend your disbelief in the lies of our era. Embrace it. Keep yourself in a state of grace. Learn to do without. Pray for the courage of martyrs. And never forget, our Lord's words in Matthew 5:10, "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven."

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