A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance has become one of my famous phrases of late, because it very aptly describes the kind of arguments I'm getting from conservatives in defending Bush and their own conservative viewpoint. Simply put, cognitive dissonance is willful ignorance. The wiki article puts it a bit more eloquently: "In simple terms, it can be the filtering of information that conflicts with what one already believes, in an effort to ignore that information and reinforce one's beliefs."

Am I calling conservatives liars? Not exactly. Conservatives honestly believe they've got it all figured out, and the fact that reality refuses to conform to their belief just means they're being sabotaged by us damned liberals. They're closing their eyes, plugging their ears and yelling "lalalalalala! I can't hear you!" so they don't have to acknowledge any facts that refute their beliefs.

A classic case of cognitive dissonance involves my mother. Shortly after I left home, a schism occurred in my family wherein my father was forced to choose between the family of his birth and his wife. From what my brother related to me, my mother was on the phone with my aunt (father's sister) when my younger cousin A apparently wandered by. My aunt asked if she wanted to chat with her and the response was "Ew! I don't want to talk to her!" Apparently, my mother was deeply offended by this and sent a letter demanding an apology. This then infuriated my aunt (who was never fond of my mother to begin with) and began a fight that split the family. My mother claims she never sent the letter, while my aunt claims she ripped up the letter and threw it away. Somebody was lying here, and I told my brother that the letter sounded very much like something our mother would do.

"Are you saying she's lying?" he demanded.

"No," I answered honestly. "I think she believes what she's saying. That doesn't mean she didn't send it."

"That's screwed up."

It is. But the reason I believe it is because I learned how to manipulate people from one of the masters: my mother. The best way to get away with a lie is to believe it when you're telling it. This is cognitive dissonance at its finest: to say something with utmost conviction when you know for a fact that the opposite is true.

This is purely anecdotal evidence is meant to establish my claim that I know cognitive dissonance when I see it. The New York Times reports that 81% of people polled believe that the nation is on the wrong track; only 4% believed the nation is better off than it was five years ago. Who are those 4%? Why do 18% of the American public still believe Dubya Bush is going to be remembered as the greatest President in American history? Why do conservatives believe we actually have a prayer of winning in Iraq, when we can't even figure out what constitutes victory? The answer is cognitive dissonance. They don't want to believe that Dubya is a bad President or that we committed a crime by invading Iraq, and therefore they don't. Any information that might support these notions is filtered out as liberal lies and propaganda.

So where else might cognitive dissonance operate in our society? Religion, maybe? The lottery? Politics, certainly. We don't want to hear about things that disagree with us, and that's true with every person. It's just that over the past ten years, conservatives have elevated cognitive dissonance to an art form.

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