F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
In psychology, the mental discomfort experienced by an individual holding two opposing ideas at the same time is called cognitive dissonance. The mind is stressed and attempts to relieve the discomfort. This may involve effort to justify the idea that best fits one’s intrinsic biases, at least in the moment, while rejecting the other regardless of its value.
The current publicity about the residential schools presents two powerful and opposing ideas.
First is the stature of the founding fathers. John A. MacDonald and his colleagues did something extraordinary. They founded a country. And not just any country—our country. If anything deserves a statue, that would be it.
John A et al. were good men who did at least one great thing but, not being saints, they also did at least one bad thing. And that would include establishing the residential schools to educate Native children and then failing to monitor them properly. Generations of children suffered and too many died. And trauma to children can last generations.
So, two opposing ideas. Were they good guys, or were they bad guys? Do we celebrate Canada Day, or do we hang our heads in shame?
Due to the recent tragic discoveries of unmarked graves, emotions are running high and the bad guys idea best fits the intrinsic biases inflamed by the moment. The good guys idea is nudged from the Canadian mind.
Holding the founding fathers accountable is essential. The truth must be told. But the truth is also that they founded a country whose freedom, security and prosperity attracts people from across the globe. Everyone who feels fortunate to live in this country owes a debt of gratitude to the men who founded it.
They were no more nor less than a representative group of men of their time and place. They weren’t Nazis. If we took a representative group of modern Canadians and sent them back to the 19th century, equipped with the values and knowledge of that time, not of ours, we could expect them to make the same decisions. Why would they not? Canadians have not evolved into a morally superior species in the last 154 years. We are just the same old homo sapiens with a great deal more knowledge and greatly advanced values.
Can the Canadian mind hold two opposing ideas at the same time? Are we a people of first-rate intelligence? I hope the answer is yes. After all, both ideas are the truth. Omitting either would be a lie. A lie of omission. The appropriate term at this point in our history is “reconciliation” not “retribution.” If we can reconcile our peoples, we can reconcile our truths and tell a complete and honest history.