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Cognitive Dissonance on the March

A coffee house called the Second Cup I occasionally frequent has decided to go environmentally friendly, prohibiting smoking even in the outdoor courtyard parallel to a busy thoroughfare. The rationale, of course, is that secondary smoke is injurious to its clients’ health and that health comes before any other consideration. The point, naturally, is to solicit customer approval—although it is always possible that the proprietors actually believe what they are advocating. Oddly enough, however, they seem entirely oblivious to the endless stream of traffic wafting clouds of tailpipe exhaust over the premises—even one passing city bus would surely account for at least six months’ worth of secondary cigarette smoke. The next stage of the “clean campaign” would logically demand a municipal bylaw cordoning off the street to all vehicular traffic. I somehow suspect that a request of this nature will not be forthcoming anytime soon. Logic is not a strong point among the covey of our self-elected benefactors. On the contrary, the disjunct between reality and belief—the living in a state of denial—is the mainstay of the welfare mentality.

In the same way, cigarette packs are festooned with the most macabre images of lung pigmentation, hacking smokers, gagging fetuses, and rueful-looking pregnant women holding their bellies. But pro-life groups featuring signs and placards with graphic images of aborted babies have been banned on university campuses and elsewhere as gruesomely offensive to public sensibility. Clearly, something doesn’t compute here. One thinks, too, of our shiny new cars engineered and advertised for blur velocity, capable of reaching 200 miles per hour, relentlessly ticketed in 55 miles-per-hour zones. Global warmists confronted with the fact of colder weather are certain that falling temperatures are a function of an overheating world. Academics rail against the capitalist system that pays their generous salaries, which they have no intention of surrendering. Police are prone to arresting and charging victims of robbery or assault who act to defend themselves. Multicultural conflict is regarded as a benevolent form of cultural diversity; aspects of custom and usage once derided as retrograde are now, when adopted by Muslims, hailed as legitimate, even empowering. And so on.

Indeed, the entire culture seems permeated by the spirit of contradiction. But there is more to it than mere inconsistency or incongruity. As often as not, the tendency toward intellectual discrepancy entails real-world consequences that are frankly disastrous. In The March of Folly, Barbara Tuchman reports a historian’s statement about Philip II of Spain: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.” Tuchman understands such self-defeating absurdity as a function of human governance in general and gives four reasons that serve to explain “the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests”: tyranny, excessive ambition, incompetence or decadence, and folly or perversity. Not discounting the first three, the latter motivating force of administrative misgovernment seems particularly associated with the statist or corporative mindset, resulting in counter-productive policies that inevitably trump the welfare and advantage our political leaders ostensibly seek.

As Ron Radosh notes, commenting on the marked socialist turn of the French government, “Rather than seek to increase productivity and to reform the antiquated social policies that lead to educated youth facing a future without a job market, their answer is the traditional one favored by the sectarian Left — getting it from the hides of the wealthy. They do not comprehend that some businesses will fail, that others will be forced to hire fewer workers and fire some already hired.” Still, they are not to be deflected from their partisan imbecility. Roger Kimball recounts a conversation between Bill Buckley and a well-meaning leftist who was opposed to raising taxes and who argued that the government would pay for its programs and entitlements out of its own pocket. It never occurred to Buckley’s interlocutor that the money had to come from somewhere other than the Mint, ultimately from increasingly exploited taxpayers, high-cost borrowing, and once-productive enterprises being ground into insolvency. The same muddle-headedness is evident in the American president’s insistence that business is beholden to government for its success. If this is not a kind of cognitive dissonance, nothing is.

Examples abound, some of greater gravity than others, but all manifesting the same spirit of cognitive disengagement from reality. Consider the long-standing ideological movement in Israel, following the Oslo Accords, for political appeasement and territorial withdrawal. As Jerusalem Post columnist Martin Sherman remarks, every time this policy “has been implemented, it has resulted in unequivocal fiasco,” resulting in “the loss of life and limb for thousands.” Nevertheless, “the inevitable cognitive discomfort two-staters must experience when confronted with the stark contrast between their deeply held beliefs and the cold facts of reality” does not impinge on their ability to wreak ever more havoc as they pursue a discredited and calamitous line of action. Similarly, Islam is viewed by many as a “peaceful religion”; yet the historical record and contemporary reality show that Samuel Huntington was on the money when he wrote in The Clash of Civilizations that “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards”—a fact we ignore at our peril.

As noted on the previous page, an equally shocking instance of cognitive blindness involves the current incarnation of Philip II, namely, Barack Hussein Obama, who is demonstrably enacting policies that have brought his country to the verge of economic collapse. His effort to impose a European-style dirigiste model of governance along with a state-dominated economic apparatus upon a historically free-market republican nation is predicated on both willful ignorance and the conviction of personal infallibility. Europe is gradually unravelling, the eurozone is coming apart, cradle-to-grave entitlements are bankrupting one country after another, renewable energy projects are fiscally unsustainable and largely unworkable, and the corporatist paradigm of administrative control is proving inimical to entrepreneurial initiative and individual freedom. The European model of welfare state dependency is an undoubted catastrophe.

No matter. Convinced of his superior insight into domestic and international affairs, Obama will persist in his folly and will not rest satisfied until he has brought America unexceptionally to the sinking condition of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and France. And, mirabile dictu, he has perhaps half the American electorate with him. As former New York Post op-ed columnist Arnold Ahlert fears, there may soon be more people “riding the wagon” than pulling the wagon. “Europe’s ‘wagon’ has already stopped moving. We can learn from their experience–or be part of it.” Given the prevalence of and temptation to epistemic dissociation, the latter option is a distinct possibility.

Cognitive dissonance was defined by Leon Festinger, the coiner of the phrase, as the discomfort caused by holding irreconcilable beliefs, although the term has been popularly extended to signify as well the discontinuity between fact and opinion in which people wilfully invest. In When Prophecy Fails, Festinger pointed out that one of the ways to diminish the sense of cognitive dissonance is to obfuscate or “reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship.” This is plainly what is now happening. Moreover, the harbingers of confusion and mystification enjoy wide public support. Festinger noted that if the attempt to disregard the obvious is to be successful, it must “meet with support from either the physical or the social environment.” In the various cases under consideration, since the physical environment actually disconfirms habitual assumptions, it is the social milieu that reinforces the deception and the self-deception. “If more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct.” In effect, it becomes “less painful to tolerate the dissonance than to discard the belief.”

This is why public support is a primary factor in the maintenance of harmful delusions, that is, why the public must be bribed or systematically misinformed—and, almost as if by intention, poorly educated. It must be admitted, too, that the material purveyors of social and political nonsense are often in the same state of derpy-eyed disorientation. They do not see reality but its refractive distortion. Cognitive dissonance, understood as the rift between a mental construct and an actual state of affairs, is a fact of human nature and has always had its part to play in social, political, military, and economic ruination. But in the contemporary world of instant communication, enhanced media dissemination, and pervasive credulity, it has assumed planetary proportions. The capacity for disinformation and misreading is now global. It is as if the mind has been critically uncoupled from the way things really are.

Forget about having a second cup. Cognitive dissonance will see to it that the first cup is served empty.