Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance and the current situation

Tom Holliday posted the following over on Facebook:

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE is an important concept about which too few people are aware. “Cognitive dissonance is a condition of conflict or even anxiety resulting from holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying.” I’ve been thinking about this idea since the term was used on a thread by my new FB friend, Lydie, who used the term in referring to the concept as it is illustrated in the book “1984”.

Why is this concept important? Because it is the best explanation for the cultural wars that have now been plaguing the people of this country for years. It is the best explanation for why progressives find it almost impossible to find a common ground for discussion with conservatives and especially right wing conservatives. It is the explanation for the existence of the Tea Party. If fact one way of thinking about the difference between the Democratic and Republican parties is in the different ways these two parties deal with cognitive dissonance. The Democratic Party, by and large, appeals to people who have at some point learned to deal with cognitive dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs and actions. The fact that the Tea Party found its home in the Republican Party is evidence that Republican Party reaches out to people who deal with cognitive dissonance through justifying, blaming and denying. When a people who are prepared to change their attitudes to deal with cognitive dissonance come into contact with people who deal with cognitive dissonance by justifying, blaming and denying, sparks fly and sometimes fires and explosions occur. Here three examples of changes in our culture that have occurred in the last forty years and that have been cause for cognitive dissonance: 1. A boy who grew up in a family where his mother taught him that when a man lets a woman tell him what to do he is “hen pecked and not a real man” marries a woman who has learned that she shouldn’t settle for being a second class citizen. 2. People who grew up in a church culture where they were taught that the Bible is literally true are confronted at school with science concepts that seem to say that much of what they learned in Sunday School was simply wrong. 3. People who are steeped in a religion that focuses on being saved from their sins and who are taught all their lives that homosexuality is an abomination before God, people who grew up in a culture where being called a fag was a fighting offense are faced with a society that, within the course of a few generations moves from condemning homosexuality to embracing homosexuality as being simply a fact of nature for those who are homosexual.

Having said all of this, and being a person who has learned primarily to deal with cognitive dissonance by rethinking and changing my attitudes I must add the following caveat. I am not arguing that some cultural changes should not be resisted. The people of Germany, for example, should have resisted more forcefully the efforts of the Nazis to demonize people just because they were Jews. They should have blamed the Nazis for being the criminals they were and denied the validity of what the Nazis were teaching. For me the acceptance of torture and denial of access to legal representation for people accused of terrorism, by many in my country, is a source of cognitive dissonance, which I believe should be confronted. In my opinion the validity of this new direction for the United States should be vehemently denied and challenged. And, of course, therein lies the problem. Some Christians believe the same way about homosexuality. I see a difference. But making the case for that difference requires time and a willingness on the part of those who see it differently to be taught why they are wrong. I’m not willing to be taught why I am wrong on the issues of torture and the right to counsel and a fair trial. I would consider an effort to “educate” me to be brainwashing. How then can I make a case to someone who disagrees with me about full inclusion of the GLBT community that they should allow me to educate them about why they are wrong? Cognitive dissonance is a complex issue. But knowing the term and being aware of the concept may at least be a way of understanding why we find ourselves at loggerheads with others in our society and why thinking of them as bad people may just be too simplistic. Are there opportunists, politicians and religious leaders, who use the cognitive dissonances of society to their advantage? Definitely! And we see many of them on the stage of the Republican debates. I suspect Newt Gingrich is a prime example of that. But, as much as I hate to say it, Michele Bachmann may simpy believe much of what she says. I suspect she is a victim of cognitive dissonance. Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, understands the opportunities it provides all too well.

Well done, Tom!
UPDATE: The initial quotation in Tom's original post is from the essay on Cognitive Dissonance from Wikipedia.

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