On the night of December 21, 1954, a cult of worshipers gathered together in a room in Chicago.
Having carefully removed all metallic objects from their person, including bra straps and metal zippers, they sat together in a silent huddle. Many of them had quit their jobs and colleges, left their spouses and sold their houses in preparation for that night.
They wouldn’t need any of those where they were going – for indeed, they were awaiting the arrival of a flying saucer that would take their small group of true believers away before the prophesied end of the world the next morning.
As it turned out, the flying saucer never arrived – and the world continues to spin majestically over half a century later.
Having their superstition proven so utterly false, one would reasonably expect that the cult would have disbanded and died out immediately afterward.
But, as chronicled in the famous book ‘When Prophecy Fails’, written by a group of authors who had infiltrated the cult to observe them first hand, the cult actually grew in strength after the failure of their central prophecy.
One of those authors, Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, famously described this phenomenon as ‘cognitive dissonance’.
According to this theory, when faced with incontrovertible proof against a held belief, people tend to eliminate the dissonance by resorting to either denial or justification.
The cult members, upon realising that their alien saviors failed to show up, promptly decided that the Earth had been given a second chance as a reward for their night-long perseverance. Armed with this new theory, the formerly media-shy cult went on a recruiting drive and the cult expanded more than ever.
Cognitive dissonance would also explain the resurgent practice of ‘Baccha baazi’ in Afghanistan, where powerful warlords and other self-described Muslim men engage in pederasty with ‘bacchas’ or pre-pubescent dancing boys, attired in women’s clothing.
The men candidly admit to the practice on camera, denying that it was sodomy because they were not ‘in love’ with the boys, and providing the justification that they were able to judge the young boys’ looks beforehand, unlike the niqab covered women where it was more of a hit-and-miss.
In the dark alleys of Bangalore and Mysore in India, the hashish and heroin trade is known to be run by old Muslim men with prominent prayer marks on their forehead where it touches stone five times a day,
They too, justify their actions with an assortment of explanations about profits and business.
In these cases, one appears to have an inner moral conflict, as is clearly visible in the confused expression of the pious old Dhivehi woman with a fondness for traditional raaivaru and folk songs, when suddenly confronted with a religious ruling on TV from the leading sheikh of the day that music is forbidden.
The dissonance is then placated by subconsciously finding a convenient explanation that flies in the face of available statistics, just as a smoker finds a justification to smoke, or a motorist finds a justification to not wear helmets or seat belts.
The theory of cognitive dissonance is often used to explain the unintentional hypocrisy of individuals and social groups.
In the Maldives, however, it appears that hypocrisy has given way to something far more unpleasant – namely, self-deception.
The Ministry of Truth
As described in the dystopian society portrayed in George Orwell’s novel 1984, Maldivians seem to have embraced the practice of ‘doublethink’.
The novel describes doublethink as :
“To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it… to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again.”
Perhaps due to remarkable upheavals in their recent history, Maldivians appear to have mastered the art of effortlessly holding two utterly incompatible, conflicting ideas in their head.
The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.
A casual stroll down the Artificial Beach in Male or the neighboring islands during the night reveals dozens of young girls – proudly wearing the Islamic head scarf – in various stages of embrace, undress or coitus with their partners under the veil of darkness.
There’s the story of the outwardly devout graphics designer who declined an assignment to draw a female figurine, citing religious principles. Notably, the man was later found to be downloading explicit pornography on his office workstation.
During one energetic debate on Facebook, one of the most vocal defenders of the faith was a young man with a colorful vocabulary. In case his demeanor and menacing threats didn’t make his tough gangster credentials clear, he also spelled out, in bright red letters, on his profile image, ‘Blood, Sex and Booze’.
To be precise, the young Maldivian man, who swore by ‘blood, sex and booze’ on a public social network, was the first to step in to defend morality and religion against perceived threats.
These are hardly isolated cases.
There are plenty of Maldivians who proudly embrace the creed that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’ and that those that create conflict are not ‘true Muslims’, but in the same breath, applaud Bin Laden, the Taliban, and other random militants who place bombs in schools, markets and mosques in Pakistan as righteous ‘mujahideen’ whose actions are sanctioned by the religion.
Young girls and boys, often wasted on drugs and given to casual sexual relations, often vocally argue for the imposition of an un-codified ‘Shariah’ law system that, if implemented, could very well see them stoned to death or worse.
The national doublethink is no doubt helped by the country’s dramatic swing from a heady, westernised disco-era to a rigidly conservative religious society almost overnight.
The 2008 Maldivian constitution forbids any law or regulation that contradicts loosely defined ‘tenets of Islam’.
In May 2010, the Maldivian government invited salafi preacher Zakir Naik who, during a heavily promoted lecture televised on prime-time national television, proclaimed to a gathered audience of ten-thousand, that income made from tourism was ‘haraam’.
But as recently as last week, the President of the Republic, Mohamed Nasheed, reiterated that the tourism industry – fueled by alcohol and, as the Mullah prefers to put it, ‘fornication’ – is the mainstay of the country’s economy that must be safeguarded at all costs.
The easily inflammable pseudo-religious groups that assemble on the streets at a moment’s notice to protest against everything from news editors to co-education, gathered in in late 2009 to protest against the restricted sale of alcohol in ‘inhabited’ islands.
Nevertheless, their screeching rhetoric against the sale of alcohol in the capital was in stark contrast to their meek acceptance of the availability of alcohol on the adjacent airport just five minutes away.
It could also be contrasted with their monk-like silence on the widespread child abuse and pedophilia, reports of which have hit local media with alarming frequency throughout the past year.
The same government alternatively claims that tourism is haraam and absolutely vital. The same television channel that plays music throughout the day also airs religious programs that proclaim music is forbidden. The same school that teaches that bank interest is forbidden in Islam also teaches students modern banking, and how to calculate interest.
The effect of this national doublethink on the young Maldivian democracy is a cause for concern.
Citizens who have given up the intellectual tools of reasoning have also inadvertently given up their ability to choose, leaving the country vulnerable to either sliding back into a dictatorship, or morphing into a theocracy.
The first comment on a recent Minivan News article about alleged bestiality involving the rape of a goat on a rural island, incredibly enough, appeared to blame the incident on ‘LIBERAL DEMOCRACY’.
This is further evidence that the Maldives is steeped in a strong confirmation bias, where the population disregards evidences that are in plain contradiction to their viewpoints, but jumps at even unverified hearsay supporting their prejudices.
Fifth grade science teachers have reportedly taught their students that the Apollo moon landings were ‘fake’, thereby insulting the achievements of thousands of scientists and engineers, while simultaneously robbing young students of the wonders and amazement of science, leaving them vulnerable to a lifetime of conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, tiny moon rocks have been on display for years at the National Museum in the Maldives.
Openly biased reporting on the Middle East abound in the local media, as are outlandish conspiracies such as the easily discredited allegations that a team of Israeli doctors were ‘organ stealing Zionists’.
If this keeps up, Maldivians as a nation will be no better than the alien cult worshipers, who bend reality to suit their convenience and bask in an atmosphere of mutual-misinformation.
The vital essence of a successful democracy is the ability of its citizens to make critical judgments.
Once that ability is clouded by confirmation bias, dissonance and doublethink, the end-result closely resembles the confusion and noise that characterises Maldivian society today.
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