“Some things have to be believed to be seen.” – Ralph Hodgson
I’ve often thought that once people identify with a political party, there is often an accompanying tendency to edit the world so that it conforms with their ideology. I suspect that exposure to more information about objective reality and politics quite often doesn’t affect partisan bias because people tend to only assimilate those “facts” that confirm what they already believe. Perhaps this is why many people become defensive, aggressive, incoherent and dogmatic when challenged with evidence that contradicts their fundamental world-view.
President Lyndon Johnson once said: It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them.
It’s certainly the same with criticism, especially those which challenge our cherished beliefs. I believe that critical thinking is a difficult and sometimes painful process. It requires facing often challenging and contradictory narratives about the fundamental nature of the world and ourselves, and evaluating them. It also requires work: practice, time and effort. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Critical thinking is the foundation for intelligence and for accommodating dissonant narratives within our own paradigm, and importantly, for understanding them.
“Knowledge” isn’t simply something arising from a closed fact-finding mission to confirm what we already hold as a theory of the world, but rather, it’s about understanding the diverse views of others who are part of our world, after all, and who contribute to its rich, meaningful pluralism. That doesn’t mean, of course, that each account or theory of the world has equal merit and worth, but without a genuinely critical and open exploration of other views, we cannot know the worth of our own views, let alone anyone elses’. Knowledge isn’t something we have, either, it’s something we have to do. Learning is a process that is ongoing, and knowledge is always subject to challenges, revision and expansion.
Never has there been a greater need for critical thinking, yet it seems there has never been a time when that has been more difficult, because of the constant bombardment from the media of fragmented, discordant, conflicting, non-linear narratives, purposefully misdirecting lies, semantic shifts, glittering generalities, Orwellian double-speak and other strategies being deployed to keep us in a state of fearful, confused, manipulable stupification and, to be terribly Marxist about this … in a state of false consciousness.
This Adam Curtis video (below) was originally shown as part of Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe show. It’s about strategies adopted by political leaders, here and abroad, to keep the population confused, uncertain what to believe or what to do – and therefore powerless.
Cognitive dissonance warfare is one weapon of choice. It isn’t just UKIP and the Tories that use this method, I’ve seen the SNP, Green party, the Labour party and the fringe groups claiming to be “on the left” use the same strategy, quite often.
We are subjected to an overwhelming barrage of partial accounts, contradictory accounts, screaming headlines, vicious lies, smears and ferocious mudslinging – negative campaigning in the media. It’s like being trapped in a hall of mirrors with Beelzebub, a few of hells’ myrmidons and your best friends, all in fancy dress.
So how do we escape the hall of mirrors?
Well, I’ve already discussed critical thinking. A good approach is to look for integrity, consistency and coherence in narratives, as well as evidence to support and refute the claims being made. And it’s important to examine scope – what those narratives accommodate – how comprehensive they are, how much they connect up, how much they make sense. It’s also worth understanding a little more about cognitive dissonance.
Leon Festinger: Let’s see what happens when you are stood up by the aliens.
Leon Festinger is the social psychologist that proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which basically states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational, and often, maladaptive behaviour.
According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, an uncomfortable discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance (agreement).
How we do so seems to be very much our own business, with avoidance, biased perception and denial commonly used as a defence to eliminate our discomforts – but as I pointed out earlier, the only real and lasting solution is critical thinking.
Leon Festinger once infiltrated a flying saucer doomsday cult in the late 1950s. The members of this cult had given up their entire lives – left everything and everyone behind – because they believed that the world was about to end and that their faith would ensure that they would be the sole survivors of a global flood. Up until the fateful day, the cult shunned publicity and didn’t entertain journalists.
Festinger posed as a member of the group and was present when the foretold space ship failed to show up. He was particularly interested in what would happen next. How would the disappointed cult react to the failure of their prophecy?
In science, when a theory is challenged by evidence that contradicts it, adjustments or ad hoc hypotheses are sometimes formulated to preserve the theory, attempting to explain away anomalies. However, ad hoc hypotheses are often a key characteristic of pseudoscience, as they are used to ensure a theory is never falsified, no matter how much evidence accrues to falsify that theory. Ultimately, it’s a get out clause for failed theories.
In science, whilst we accommodate gaps in our knowledge, the use of many ad hoc hypotheses is frowned upon. (Einstein’s proposition of hidden variables is a good example of this method of accommodating anomaly: he used an ad hoc hypothesis to explain quantum mechanics and maintain the integrity of relativity theory: explaining quantum entanglement without action at a distance).
Ad hoc hypotheses are a widely used strategy in managing cognitive dissonance. So, after the failure of their prophecy and the non-materialisation of the rescue space ship, the cult suddenly wanted publicity. They wanted media attention. This was apparently so the world would know how their faith had helped save the entire planet from flood.
The hypothesis was that aliens had spared planet earth for their sake – and now their new role was to spread the word and make us all listen. This fascinated Festinger. He observed that the real motivation behind the apparently inexplicable response was the need to not face an uncomfortable truth and to re-assert emotional comfort and equilibrium – to smooth over the apparently unacceptable and whopping inconsistencies between prophecy and events.
Theory and reality.
Explanations of events such as the one offered by the doomsday cult are clearly not founded on a rational process: it’s largely an emotional defence mechanism that is rationalised post hoc. Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions), or engage in behavior that is apparently opposed to our stated beliefs.
What is particularly interesting is the lengths to which people will go to reduce the inner tension without accepting that they might, in fact, be wrong. They will accept almost any form of relief, other than admitting being at fault, or mistaken. If a person believes, for example, that they are not racist, but then they discriminate against someone on the basis of race, they are then faced with the discomfort of acknowledging that they are racist after all. In an attempt to escape this discomfort, they may seek to rationalise (explain away) their behaviour on some other grounds, which may be spurious, but which allows them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.
Many UKIP supporters, for example, often say something like: “I’m not racist though, my brother-in-law/ friend/ uncle’s wife is actually Indian/Chinese/African” and so forth.
Another example is the “allthesame” myth. When you present people with evidence that refutes what was originally a Tory propaganda soundbite, rather than acknowledging verifiable evidence, some people choose to start a hate campaign aimed at trying to attribute all kinds of bizarre “motives” to the person simply telling a truth. Truth and populist perspectives are often poles apart.
And such tactics serve only to fragment opposition to the Right even further. Dividing people by using blame and prejudice further weakens our opposition to oppression. The oppressed can be very oppressive, it has to be said.
Festinger quickly realised that our intolerance for cognitive dissonance could explain many mysteries and irrationalities of human behavior.
Politicians have utilised this intolerance to their advantage – most particularly the Right, who deploy rhetoric heavily steeped in propaganda and behavioural manipulation techniques. (See Cameron’s behaviourist Nudge Unit, I’ve previously discussed the implications of such manipulation on an unconsenting public and the ramifications for democracy.)
Marshall McLuhan once said: There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.
Objective truth does not change according to our inclination to want something else. Facing that may be difficult at times, but the alternative is simply the idle creation of pseudo-enclaves of fleeting comfort – illusions that distract and disempower us. And make us apathetic.
It’s worth noting that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes arise in societies where populations are politically disengaged and apathetic. If we want to change unpalatable truths – part of the way things are – the only way to do so is to have the courage, first, to face those truths head-on.
We can’t lie those truths away. There are no short-cuts or real, tenable escapes from that. We have to work our way through the confusion, avoiding the appeal and brief comfort of avoidance strategies, defence mechanisms and flat denial – short-cuts down what is invariably a cul-de-sac – difficult though that often is.
Look at where we are: we have Tory small minds attempting to justify the Tory notion of a small state. But small states and competitive individualism foster adversarial relationships, and reduce us all. Small states and individualism disconnect us from others, sever any sense of social responsibility, mutuality, cooperation and obligation we have towards others.
It divides, isolates and fragments us. Neoliberal small states make us all smaller individuals, less coherent, less connected. Less comprehending. We lose touch with social reality when we disengage with others. We become less rational agents. More dissonant. How can we hold rational, reasoned and democratic debates to oppose what is little more than Tory superstition and prejudice?
But we must.
Iain Duncan Smith’s “magical elitism” thinking – he’s just knows he’s right – is another indication that we don’t have a democratic government that is willing to engage in dialogue: we have an authoritarian one that is interested only in imposing its own incoherent neoliberal monologue on the masses.
The Queen’s Honours list shows us just what we have become as a society this past 4 years, and how little worth we place on intelligence, honour, basic coherence, decency and genuine achievement. The Maurice Mills MBE is a farce – he blamed Hurricane Katrina on gay people – it’s like open, raucous, insane, cackling laughter from a decrepit, senile, evil elite that has lived far too long. One that is completely detached from our society and its needs. That’s the reality.
Cognitive dissonance theory is an example of the political misuse of psychology which is being used as a means of thought micro-management to ensure that we don’t move and progress. Personal and social development – growth – by their very nature demand that we have the courage to seek to extend ourselves beyond what we know and where we are. It’s very uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are limited, especially when some of that is our own doing, but it’s also essential we do acknowledge it in order to at least try and transcend those limits, extend their context step by step and make progress.
There are no alien space ships to save us from ourselves or from our government. It’s down to us to seek and evaluate the truth, and there really are no shortcuts to positive change and progress. But we can take responsibilty to ensure that what we hold to be true and the decisions we make are fully and bravely informed.