THE COSTS OF CONSISTENCY
Every virtue can be practiced to a fault. Frugality can become avarice. Courage can become recklessness. Devoutness become sanctimony. Wariness, paranoia. Enthusiasm, fixation. And consistency can turn into inflexibility, and worse, dogmatism—the fuel of zealotry.
Every means can become and end. A person can begin to wash his hands for sanitary purposes and end by doing little else but wash his hands. A person can begin a regimen to lose weight and end in anorexia. The Greeks long ago extolled moderation; and Jesus explained to the pious Pharisees that Sunday was for man and not the reverse.
Zealotry—which begins as obsessive consistency, changes to conviction, escalates to dogmatism and often becomes a crusading doctrine—has perhaps helped to build cathedrals but it has wrecked great havoc and will wreck more havoc hereafter.
Once a person’s obsession with consistency evolves to dogmatism and dogmatism becomes doctrine and doctrine is coupled with political conviction or religious faith or both and all doubts and questions thereto are evicted from the mind—then is born a fanatic, the scourge of humankind.
The leaders of the Inquisition were so dead certain that their doctrine was God’s doctrine that they accused, interrogated and tortured a suspect; and upon finding a scintilla of heresy, with clear conscience and God’s blessing, they damned his soul and often incinerated his body. The inquisitional atrocities of the Middle Ages have come to the Middle East where sectarian conflict flames in the frame of Crusades versus Islam.
Men who studied the heavens and determined that the Earth was not the center of the universe risked their lives in proclaiming what was obvious to them but what was blasphemous to the Church Fathers, blasphemous because it struck at the heart of the consistent doctrine that the Earth was the center of the universe, that man was the central figure on Earth, that heaven was above and hell below, and that the Church only could assure that one could enter the former and avoid the latter.
In my lifetime, I have seen the incomprehensible spectacle of privileged people following to mass suicide a religious fanatic that preached gibberish and poisoning at his bidding their children as well as themselves. Today, we have political fanatics, men who take consistency, conviction, doctrine and dogma so to heart and mind that they believe everyone is wrong and they are right; and they intend to assert and impose their consistently right-thinking, not with gentle persuasion, but with guns. And some, in exhibition of their consistency, elect terror and bombs to blow up buildings housing the work-a-day people and their children and watch, as dust settles on the carnage, with satisfaction that they have righted wrongs.
Preachers and politicians are notorious for being consistent and having concrete convictions. No one can stand in pulpit or on stump and keep attention of the masses for long unless he stabs the air, has fire in his eyes, certainty in the voice and promises salvation or the millennium or both.
One sect of Baptists carries consistency to the absurd. Members of the sect maintain that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally and is inerrant. That is, Jonah survived being swallowed by a whale, Moses parted the sea and Christ walked on water and raised the dead.
A Baptist or anyone else who can read Leviticus and then read Matthew’s Gospel and conclude that Moses’ God is the same as Jesus’ Father must love consistency more than commonsense. But the fear of undermining holy dogma upon which faith rests causes many to put aside reason and commonsense, lest a doubt here may cause a collapse there. Such consistency breeds hypocrisy, deception and disingenuousness.
No one who has read “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson can hear the word consistency and not recall what Emerson had to say on the subject. Emerson said that imitation of others is suicide and that one should trust himself. In fact, he wrote, “Whosoever would be a man must be a nonconformist… . Nothing is at last sacred but your own mind.” But he advised that being a non-conformist carries the risk of not only the rage of the decorous and prudent of the cultivated classes but the rage of the unintelligent brute forces that lie at the bottom of society.
“The other terror,” he said, “that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loth to disappoint them.”
Who has not continued on a course of action, even when doubt of its saneness had crept into the actor’s mind, rather than face the public’s scorn for being inconsistent, or worse, erratic or neurotic or even psychotic? Most men move with the regularity and consistency of the stars and planets and their satellites, their consistency disturbed only occasionally by some aberrant comet-like radical that cares not whether he is consistent and conformable with the minds of the mass of men.
Emerson said the last word on consistency: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul had simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”
It is not likely that one may so change his mind overnight that he thinks the opposite of what he thought yesterday. But it is even more unlikely that, if one did experience such a change of view so soon, he would admit as much to those who heard him the day before. Consistency oft prevents one being true to himself, causing one to carry a much heavier psychological load than he would otherwise.